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Kym Worthy: The Toughest Woman In Detroit

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Assignment_detroit.jpg Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy stalks the conscience of Detroit. A fixture on local television news, she is obsessively deconstructed, idolized, criticized and, above all, feared. When she set her sights on Kwame Kilpatrick, the physically imposing, impossibly charming former Detroit mayor with strong family ties to the city's old political guard, no one could have foreseen just how relentless she could be. Kilpatrick's many troubles came to a head when the Detroit Free Press published sexually explicit excerpts from thousands of text messages he had exchanged with his female chief of staff, Christine Beatty. The public airing of the messages was connected to a whistle-blower trial, in which two officers claimed they were fired after an internal probe of the affair between Kilpatrick and Beatty. The city settled for $8.4 million, with the married Kilpatrick denying the liaison in court. Every new detail Worthy and her staff uncovered chipped away at Kilpatrick's political armor and angered his supporters. Why won't she let up on him? some asked. Is she just trying to further her career? The perception of Worthy, 53, began to shift once the prosecutor started appearing in the press and on television, promising citizens that no man was bigger than the law. Meanwhile Kilpatrick, 39, who was later charged with assaulting two investigators on his sister's doorstep as they tried to serve an associate with a subpoena, was showing signs that he thought he actually was. Even Kilpatrick's supporters were impressed by Worthy's refusal to flinch. The prosecutor would settle for nothing less than a guilty conviction in the perjury case against Kilpatrick, and she was willing to resist pressure from the most powerful men in Motor City, many of whom tried to persuade her to give the mayor a break. Fast-forward to fall 2009, about a year to the day the ex-mayor was sentenced. The prosecutor has been popularly reelected. And Kilpatrick, who now lives with his wife and three children in a rented mansion in Texas, is back in Detroit for a new showdown with Worthy's assistant prosecutors, who question his claim that he is having trouble making payments on the $1 million in restitution he agreed to pay Wayne County, which includes Detroit. Six feet four and massive, the former college football player walks in the courtroom on the day of his hearing wearing a gray suit. His expression impassive, he stops at the doorway for a dramatic moment to look around. Then he gives a group of loyalists a thumbs-up, sending a gaggle of photographers into a frenzy. Kym Worthy is nowhere in sight. "I had almost forgotten it was happening," she says coolly a few days later. "I had met with the lawyers and talked strategy, but actually I forgot to watch it on television until someone came into my office." The case against Kilpatrick, she explains, is only one of nearly 80,000 on going cases her office is juggling. "Contrary to what many people think here, I am not obsessed with him. I have other things to do." That is an understatement. With an unemployment rate of 27 percent, a figure nearly three times higher than the national average, the city has become a law-and-order nightmare. Once a bustling town of 1.8 million residents, where jobs and sprawling new homes were plentiful, Detroit's beauty faded long ago, the lives of its holdout citizens fractured by crime, joblessness, illiteracy, violence and inertia. Vandals have stripped once lovely bungalows of aluminum siding. Homes have been abandoned or set afire in insurance scams. Yards that once held barbecues are littered with garbage. Grocery stores have been shuttered and the factories have fallen silent. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear tumble-weeds rolling along Fort Street in downtown Detroit. Most White residents have fled to the suburbs, leaving the city 82 percent Black with a population of 800,000 and declining: Detroit continues to lose some 10,000 residents every year. That is not to say the city does not retain some of its brilliance; the riverfront is spectacular. Manicured mansion--once owned by automobile executive--still exist in some neighborhoods. The museums, the Detroit Athletic Club and a few restaurants are as swank and hip as anything in Manhattan's West Village or Upper East Side. But decades of disinvestment and the implosion of the auto industry have left Detroit a shell of its former self, with the homicide rate, though slightly down from a year ago, estimated to be one of the highest in the nation. From her twelfth-floor office, Worthy is staring down an unsolved murder rate of 70 percent and a backlog of hundreds of rape cases for which DNA evidence was never processed. The problem, she notes, is figuring out a way to do it all with reduced funding. State budget restraints have cut back her stable of attorneys to 145 currently, from 190 prosecutors when she arrived in 2004. "My laser focus is to get this office properly resourced so we can deal with crime," she says, noting that she is crafting a letter to President Obama to ask for funds. In the meantime she counsels her assistant prosecutors to walk to court slowly and read the files quickly, because they may get handed a jury trial and have to go try it in minutes. "This is not the way we should be trying cases," she acknowledges, "but we are so short-staffed, there is no time for real preparation. This is real life." CRIME AND PUNISHMENT The middle daughter of three children born to a career army colonel who was a 1953 graduate of West Point, Worthy grew up living all over the country. She says her best memories are of the family's years in Alexandria, Virginia, when her father worked at the Pentagon and she was riveted by the Watergate case that was unfolding at the time. At 17 she attended the University of Michigan and later received her law degree from the University of Notre Dame School of Law. In Worthy's first year of college, her mother, then 45, died after what was supposed to have been a simple procedure. Her father accepted that complications occurred and nothing could have been done, but Worthy has always believed otherwise. "My father and I will never see eye to eye on this," she says, "so we have agreed to forever disagree."
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By 1989 she was a hotshot prosecutor known for specializing in high-profile murder cases. She famously won the conviction of Toni Cato Riggs for the murder of her Gulf War--veteran husband. Five years later Worthy was elected to a judgeship, serving on the bench for nine years. She returned to the Wayne County Prosecutor's office in 2004, becoming the first woman and the first African-American to lead the office. But it hasn't been easy. Detroit residents are among the most poverty-stricken in the nation. And the city is close to going bankrupt. When I first meet Worthy, who has agreed to allow ESSENCE to shadow her for the day, she is sitting in her office with her head down, slogging through mountains of paperwork. Her office is simple, almost austere; the only decorations are dozens of pictures of her 12-year-old daughter, Anastasia--ice skating, at school, performing in The Nutcracker ballet--as well as her daughter's certificates and drawings on the walls. Boxes of case files fill the floors outside the offices, mostly because there is no space to store the pileup of records. At Worthy's bimonthly meeting with her department chiefs, the discussion paints a clear picture of what she is facing. Desperate times have only intensified thievery and fraud: Entrepreneurial criminals climb right up telephone poles and strip the copper from the lines to sell for money and drugs. Mortgage fraud is common, embezzlement is up, and so are carjackings and house invasions. At the state's crime labs, backlogs are delaying numerous investigations, and cases requiring DNA testing, such as rape cases, can be delayed for up to six months. "Everybody knows that if you want to commit a crime, just cross 8 Mile Road into Detroit and commit it, because the odds are very much in your favor that you won't get caught," Worthy says. A cinnamon-toned woman with a round baby face, Worthy has an unemotional delivery that gives one the distinct sense that she is always wearing a prosecutor's mask. She is deliberate, calm, almost dismissive in her manner--until you realize that her tone might be calculated to make the overwhelming mandate she has been given seem manageable. "We need dedicated resources for this," Worthy says, referring both to the ongoing criminal activity and the backlog of cold cases, especially the unsolved homicides. "We are already doing a lot on our own time, asking seasoned, retired homicide detectives to volunteer their time to study these cases. But it's piecemeal." She's also frustrated by the city's inability to process forensic evidence adequately since the Detroit Crime Lab was shut down due to budget constraints. "We have to address this," Worthy emphasizes. "The huge possibility exists that before evidence can be analyzed a defendant can kill again. Police agencies need to allocate stimulus money not just toward putting more cops on the street but also toward the forensic labs that back them up." For her part, instead of just prosecuting crimes, Worthy and her staff are focused on ways to stop criminal activity, especially among juveniles, before it happens. "She participates in the community by volunteering at schools," says former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer. "She tries to remind parents of their responsibilities and encourages students to get an education. She goes far beyond her prosecutorial duties." And according to Detroiters, she is taking wrongdoers to task--regardless of who they are. "This has never happened before," says Shauna Vercher-Morrow, a lifelong Detroit resident who followed the Kilpatrick case closely. "In the politics of this city, there have never been consequences for certain actions." Which is why, by the time Kilpatrick was sent to jail for four months, after he pleaded guilty to two counts of obstructing justice by perjuring himself in the police whistle-blower trial, many in the city had transferred their hopes for Detroit from Kilpatrick to Worthy. "Change for us in Detroit means we finally are holding people accountable," explains Vercher-Morrow. "That is where Kym Worthy came in with her process of right is right and wrong is wrong. She's like, I don't care what your name is. Kym Worthy is really the first to say, I see something wrong and I am not afraid to do something about it." NO ROOM FOR COMPROMISE As we walk out the door of her office for lunch, Worthy, a single mother, is talking about her decision to adopt her daughter, Anastasia, in 1997, three years after her first child was born extremely premature and died 19 days later. "Anastasia wasn't a replacement baby," she says. "She was an enhancement." Worthy recalls that she had asked the adoption agency for three things: "I wanted the baby to be healthy, I wanted a girl, and I wanted her to be African-American." Then the agency called. They had found a newborn girl, but she had sickle-cell disease. Worthy didn't say yes right away. "I didn't want to see her until I knew I could do this," she explains. We are now sitting over lunch at a downtown restaurant. Archer, the former mayor, comes over to say hello. Moments later a judge stops by. "I know myself," she continues after greeting a few other colleagues. "I didn't want to make an emotional decision with Anastasia. I wanted to make an intelligent decision." With her trademark thoroughness, Worthy called Wanda Whitten-Shurney, M.D., a pediatrician who specializes in sickle-cell disease, to help her understand just what she might be dealing with. Whitten-Shurney remembers the meeting. "I told her that her daughter had a milder form of sickle cell," the doctor says, "but I also told her the symptoms are unpredictable. I explained that there would be frequent trips to the emergency room and there would be pain from time to time." The prosecutor wasn't deterred. Once she had the facts, she decided, I can do this. "It's quite a challenge for her to take on," observes Whitten-Shurney. "Kym recognized it and we never sugarcoated it. To this day she leaves the office when she needs to so that she's always there when Anastasia is sick. She has done everything a mother can do." Luckily for Worthy her daughter has remained fairly healthy, but the normally measured prosecutor admits that a medical crisis last April shook her to her core. Anastasia was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was suffering with severe pain and needed a blood transfusion because of her anemia. "It was horrific," Worthy says. "Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. I thought my daughter was going to die. She had more pain than she ever had in her life. She was talking crazy because of the morphine. She didn't know who she was." Worthy pauses for a moment, remembering. Then she sums it up simply: "God is good but this was bad." After three weeks in and out of the hospital, Anastasia was eventually stabilized. But that episode made Worthy, who sits on the Michigan chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, meditate on why she had initially stipulated the child should be healthy. "I was shortsighted," she reflects now, suggesting that a child like Anastasia needs a mother just like her: a parent who won't ever quit. "There is no point in adopting if you can't handle it," she says. Handling pressure has never been an issue for Worthy, which makes her beloved by Black radio listeners. " 'You don't mess with Kym Worthy; she's not the one.' That's how large numbers of African-American radio listeners feel about her," says Angelo B. Henderson, a Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist and popular Radio One Detroit talk-show host. "She's known for working endlessly long hours, wearing out clerks when she was a judge, and she wins! So when Prosecutor Worthy announces she has a case against you, the odds are against you." Worthy became a household name long before she crossed swords with Kilpatrick. In 1992 in Detroit, shortly after the Los Angeles riots and the Rodney King case, Malice Green, a Black steel worker, died after he allegedly refused to submit to questioning by police. Forensic reports say he died of blunt trauma to his head, and two White police officers were eventually convicted, with Worthy as one of the prosecutors. The case made Worthy, then a rising lawyer in her thirties, a hero among many Black Detroiters, who saw the assault on Green as racial. But it also made her a pariah among suburban Whites, who thought the police officers were wronged. Ironically the Kilpatrick case had the opposite effect: endearing her to many suburban White residents who reviled the mayor while drawing sharp criticism from the city's Black residents. Detractors say Worthy's policing turned into a personal vendetta against Kilpatrick. They contend that she is wasting taxpayer dollars continuing to pursue the ex-mayor when she should be working to bring charges against the hundreds of murderers roaming free in Detroit. "She has a reputation for being a very zealous, hardworking prosecutor," says Michael Alan Schwartz, who is Kilpatrick's attorney. "But she has gone to great lengths to pursue Mr. Kilpatrick, and she doesn't do this in some other cases. Maybe there is some personal quality to this." Like Schwartz, Anthony Adams, Kilpatrick's former deputy, believes Worthy never liked Kilpatrick. He recalled seeing the tension between the two of them long before. "I think she felt the mayor was arrogant and didn't properly respect his office," Adams says. "You have to have a certain type of demeanor to deal with some women and he didn't have that." Worthy has heard all the theories about her true motivation: She is vindictive and cutthroat and can't stand Black men. One Kilpatrick loyalist even speculated she had a crush on the mayor. "I didn't know him one way or another," she says. "I thought he was smart and intelligent but didn't have strong character." Out on the streets of Detroit, citizens remain divided about her pursuit of the ex-mayor; according to Worthy's office, the case against him has cost the city $421,165 to date. "The people who believe she didn't have to prosecute Kilpatrick hate her," says Adams. "The people who believe she had to prosecute Kilpatrick love her. With Kym, there is no middle ground." FIGHTING FOR DETROIT It is now almost 7 P.M. Worthy is due to speak at Citizen's Academy, a free eight-week class held at a community college. Her office runs the program to educate Wayne County residents about the work of the prosecutor's office. Worthy hopes the class will encourage and empower them to serve as witnesses in important cases, many of which have stalled because eyewitnesses to crimes refuse to give evidence for fear of being targeted as snitches. The classroom, a large lecture room, holds about 70 people who are sipping coffee and eating cookies, pens and notepads already in hand. Before Worthy can reach the podium, a 62-year-old ex-automobile worker named Oria McClain, Jr., steps into her path. "I am so proud of you," he says, vigorously shaking her hand. After Worthy engages those gathered in a down-to-earth chat about how her office differs from the television series CSI, Dorice Delgoda, another attendee and a lifelong Detroit resident, stands up and claps heartily. Delgoda later describes Worthy as a breath of fresh air in a city sorely in need of a leader with her guts. "Detroit has a lot of problems," says Delgoda, 58. "But this woman is dynamic. She does the deed every day. She makes you proud. She will go toe-to-toe with any man. She's about the business of doing her business. That's why people love her." Since her dogged prosecution of Kilpatrick catapulted her to notice across the country, Worthy has been asked to run for lieutenant governor, governor, mayor and state attorney general. So far she has refused all offers, prompting Detroit's movers and shakers to muse on what she really wants. "I could see her doing anything," says one state official who requested anonymity. "I could see her running for attorney general or governor or having her own television show or even something bigger in the White House, like in Homeland Security." Worthy balks at all the talk. She insists she is not interested in any of that right now--there's still too much to fix at the prosecutor's office. And besides, she points out, her decisions have stirred so much controversy; they are hardly the actions of a politically ambitious woman. Still, her admirers and detractors agree on one thing: Worthy clearly believes she is on the side of right. "Only when we are honest about our issues can we truly solve them," she says. "I am tired of elected officials being so concerned about our image that they don't tell the truth about crime. I mean our closure rate is 30 percent! It's maddening. I tell my staff to perform all their duties with competence and integrity and to stay true to our mission at all times, because this office is a great big fishbowl. People are watching us very closely."
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