Mark Williams retired in December after handling more than 700 murder cases as Milwaukee County’s top homicide prosecutor. He’s done with death.
What were the first homicide cases like when you began your career?
There wasn’t DNA evidence, and there weren’t recorded confessions. So we relied essentially on the policeman’s word a lot in the confessions that they had gotten for us. And then we had to rely on less-reliable types of scientific evidence.
How did you deal with exposure to violence and death?
It’s probably not very healthy, but what I did was shut it out. I compartmentalized as best I could. I moved from one case to another, and I tried to forget the last case as quickly as I could.
So would you say you became desensitized after a while?
There were days when I was preparing trials, where I was eating lunch and looking at autopsy pictures. Obviously, that’s not what a normal person would be able to do. But after a while, I became very desensitized to it, very hardened inside, and looked upon it almost clinically as a job where you have to do what you have to do and try to put out of your mind, as best you can, the tragedy that’s behind everything.
What’s one of your most interesting cases?
One was the “redrum” case, where three women believed they were witches, and they were going to sacrifice a man. They had lured him into their bathroom and then started chopping him with a hatchet. They were chanting “redrum” [“murder” spelled backwards] as they were chopping him. Luckily he was able to get out.
What has spending your career putting bad guys away taught you about human nature?
I’ve become very cynical. I only see the bad parts of the human condition. It tells me that men are capable of doing almost any type of evil. It has taught me that the victims’ families of these homicides suffer greatly, more than anyone could ever understand. It’s just devastating, and it’s something that they live with for the rest of their lives. And it taught me to basically get out of there, to try to look for a better side of life.
What will you miss?
I’ll miss the camaraderie of the detectives. They are the most dedicated, wonderful people in the world, and they are so underappreciated. They’re out there day and night trying to solve these homicides and trying to seek justice for the victims’ families.
What won’t you miss?
I won’t miss the death. I won’t miss the tears. I won’t miss looking at autopsy pictures over lunch. I won’t miss the politics of some of the things that go on in the community.
What changes would you make to the criminal justice system?
It’s such a profound philosophical dilemma. First, I would change the juvenile justice system. I think there’s a lot of leniency. It’s my philosophy that if someone does something wrong in the beginning, that there be some type of repercussions for what they do, and that certainly will deter them from doing it again. There should be societal changes, which is certainly beyond anyone’s means. I prosecuted a number of children of fathers that I convicted of murder. I prosecuted the children in different murders 20 years later. It’s a cycle. It’s just the root problem of poverty, no jobs, no hope. There’s so much amorality in so many of the people I see, especially the young people that come in for homicide charges.
You were planning on entering the Peace Corps before going to law school. Do you think you would have had a greater impact had you joined?
I think it would have given me a better perspective on life. They were going to send me to Kuwait, so I don’t know how that would have turned out. Yeah, I regret not having done that. But my father died, and I couldn’t do it.
Your wife, Sandy Williams, is an Ozaukee County circuit judge. What’s it like being a prosecutor married to a judge?
We do not talk a lot about what we do. We’ve had enough of it at work. We have two children, so we work on a lot of different family things. But we don’t bounce a lot off each other. And the one thing we don’t do is watch criminal TV shows of trials and lawyers. We get enough of that.
I want to do something to cleanse my soul. I want to do volunteer work. I plan on perhaps working in a different number of charitable agencies, giving my time and giving back to society in a positive way other than having to deal with death.
Condensed and edited from a longer interview.