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Invisible No More
For six years, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has operated largely under the radar, becoming a national example, some say, of a new kind of prosecutor, one who focuses on reducing crime and improving the community. But have a series of high-profile cases tarnished the image?

Photos by Adam Ryan Morris

Aug. 24 was a picture-perfect Milwaukee Friday. The sun was out, temps were in the mid-80s, and the rain stayed away. But for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a shadow would soon be cast.

Across the concrete plaza that stretches from the County Safety Building housing Chisholm’s office to the Milwaukee County Courthouse, a Circuit Court jury of 12 men and women were hearing the political corruption case against former Milwaukee County Board member Johnny Thomas. After deliberating for less than 90 minutes, they returned their verdict.

Not guilty.

An hour later, Chisholm was remarkably calm, even matter-of-fact.

“I just got my butt handed to me,” he said, a wry half-smile playing about his lips.

The sangfroid of the moment was pure John Chisholm. No grousing about the jurors. No railing at the defense lawyer. Indeed, just after getting the verdict, he had telephoned Thomas’ attorney, Craig Mastantuono, with congratulations. And no second-guessing his decision to bring the shocking bribery charges against Thomas in the first place.

It fits the low-key, stoic style that Chisholm has brought to the job since he was first elected Milwaukee County DA in 2006. Although re-elected in November without opposition, Chisholm has been the least-visible of Milwaukee’s top elected officials. Now, he’s turned into the still, quiet eye in the center of a series of gathering storms. He’ll need that cool, calm, even wooden demeanor like never before.

There was the Thomas case and its deflating outcome. But that’s little more than a footnote. In September, Chisholm went before reporters with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and took the rare step of asking an outside prosecutor to take a second look at the July 2011 death of Derek Williams, a burglary suspect. Williams died in the back of a squad car from an apparent sickle cell crisis, gasping for breath.

 

Hear more about this story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Feb. 18 at 10 a.m.
Then, only a few weeks later, Chisholm and the police chief once again stood in the glare of TV lights – this time announcing the misconduct arrests of four police officers accused of illegal strip searches and rectal probes of criminal suspects. On that Oct. 9 day, the district attorney’s face was stony, his eyes so deeply set in his skull, he looked almost cadaverous. His voice was stony, too, as he summarized, with little trace of emotion and an almost bone-dry precision, the decisions his office had made in choosing how to frame the case.

“We took complaints from dozens and dozens of people and followed up on each and every one of those,” the DA said. “The charges that are reflected in the complaint today are the strongest evidentiary charges that we want to present right now.”

But one investigation has shone the brightest media spotlight on Chisholm. For more than two years, prosecutors under Chisholm’s command have been combing through Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive in a wide-ranging secret John Doe investigation. The probe has already produced criminal charges against six people, convictions of five, and incarcerations for two, with more expected.

Yet, in cases where the spotlight shines brightest, reality has sometimes been deeply distorted. Like so much else in these times of intense political polarization, the Walker investigation has spawned images of two fundamentally different universes.

On the left, Walker’s critics gleefully predict the governor’s downfall any day now. On the right, his champions point out that he’s not been charged with any crimes. Walker has stated publicly that he’s been told the investigation is not targeting him – a claim his opponents are unwilling to believe. For all the bravado of the governor’s critics, his allies are just as confident he will not merely survive, but thrive.

Conservative Republicans who back the governor, from talk-radio hosts to self-styled media watchdogs, have positioned the entire criminal probe as nothing more than naked politics. Chisholm, they note darkly, is a Democrat; the investigation, they insist, is nothing more than a partisan witch hunt, with Chisholm carrying water, in the words of Conservative Digest publisher Bob Dohnal, “to help his buddy Tom Barrett.”

Dohnal made the confident assertion last spring, not long before Milwaukee’s mayor lost to Walker a second time. That June recall election capped the long, fruitless campaign to oust the governor. But there are two problems with perceptions like Dohnal’s.

The first and most obvious is that the vote came and went without charges against the governor, despite the dire predictions of Walker’s supporters.

But that’s no surprise to the people who have known and worked with Chisholm over the last two decades. Because, more fundamentally, the other problem with the right’s Machiavellian caricature is that none of Chisholm’s large network of supporters see anything like him in it.

What they see instead is a relentlessly earnest and nonpartisan public official, regardless of his party label. Not a conniving prosecutor willing to indict the proverbial ham sandwich, but a sober student of history who wants to see law enforcement pay as much attention to prevention as to prosecution.

Chisholm shrugs off the attacks of Walker’s cheerleaders as the work of “propagandists.” “I don’t make decisions on whether a person’s a Democrat or a Republican or an independent,” he says. “I make decisions on whether I can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Now, as the DA’s visibility rises, his viability, credibility and long-term survival will depend upon whether the independence he’s been praised for holds up in the media glare.

John Chisholm embodies unexpected contrasts.

The Milwaukee County prosecutor is at once a quiet man and a restless one, and he appears to have been so his whole life. A child of relative privilege, he detoured from what could have been a lucrative medical career into the least-glamorous branch of military service: the Army. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Chisholm has the long, lean frame of a basketball player. He played on two championship high school hoops teams, but in sports, his greatest love was football, playing tackle at Marquette University High School. (“I had about 40 more pounds on me back then.”) Later, after attaining a black belt in taekwondo, he was known to work out even when injured; yet a law school classmate recalls him foremost as “a gentle giant.”

Mentored by Milwaukee County’s longest-serving DA, E. Michael McCann, Chisholm counts among his friends and professional allies defense lawyers and social workers as well as prosecutors. As a politician, his admirers see him as a role model for effective, responsible and responsive public service who could teach state lawmakers how to get beyond caustic partisan warfare. Yet he shows no inclination to seek higher office.

“I think most politicians aren’t actually interested in actually solving problems – they don’t want to get their hands dirty,” says Gary Mueller, who operates pro-bono advertising firm Serve Marketing and enlisted Chisholm a few years ago to help with a series of anti-violence campaigns. “He looks at the root cause of problems and tries to get ahead of them.”

Mimi Carter of the National Institute of Corrections works with the Milwaukee County DA’s office, which uses a grant from her agency to study “evidence-based decision-making” in the criminal justice system.

“John is a person who is vision-driven, collaborative and progressive,” Carter says. “He works exceptionally well with his justice system partners and stakeholders to understand the needs of the Milwaukee County community and strategize how best to achieve them. He is not afraid to explore innovative approaches if they offer the promise of more effective outcomes.”

Leaning forward at a conference table in his office, Chisholm describes the approach.

“We have an obligation to be more than just case processors,” he says. “We’re not just an assembly line that takes problems that occur out in the community, then funnels people into a system, and then just keeps moving them along like a conveyor belt.”

Too often, he says, the conveyor belt leads to jail or prison, back to freedom, and then right back to a cell again.

“The role of a prosecutor is evolving,” he continues. “More and more prosecutors are beginning to understand that their role now is one of being directly engaged with the community and helping the community solve problems. To do that means you have to step outside the traditional boundaries of the courthouse and understand that the reasons people come into our system are multifaceted – and they generally have to be addressed in a comprehensive way.”

Chisholm has taken such an expansive view of the role his office can play in reducing crime that he’s reached out to groups well outside the criminal justice system.

“I don’t think he views his job solely as prosecuting people and putting them in jail,” says Dan Bader, president of the Helen Bader Foundation. “I think he views his job as, ‘How do I help people live a productive life, given the tools that I have?’”

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske says Chisholm is a collaborative leader who has become a national role model in his field. “He’s the epitome of good government,” says Geske, now at Marquette University. “He’s very present throughout the community, but he doesn’t try to grab headlines or promote himself.”

For Chisholm, the numbers act as proof that the approach is working – reduced domestic violence homicides, a homicide conviction rate of about 98 percent and reduced incarceration. “We’ve got 3,000 fewer people in the Wisconsin prison system from Milwaukee than we had five or six years ago,” he says. “That’s a success story because the violent crime rate hasn’t exploded.”

Yet those success stories don’t get as much attention.

“There’s a narrative of progress that needs to be talked about in this city that people are reluctant to talk about sometimes,” Chisholm says. “I don’t understand that.”


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