After 37 years as Milwaukee’s district attorney, E.Michael McCann keeps going ... and going ...
Published in 2005 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on October 12, 2005
Updated on December 1, 2016
E. Michael McCann is sitting in a law library on the top floor of Milwaukee’s Safety Building. He says he
likes doing his interviews up here. His office? Too cluttered.
McCann’s preferred surroundings are less than plush. There are no stained-oak furnishings, no whirring coffee machines, no conference tables that cost as much as a BMW. Instead there are several bookshelves, each stacked with well-worn law volumes. Metal chairs, straight from the Eisenhower era, surround an ordinary wooden table that sometimes serves as central command for staff meetings. A microwave sits in the corner and, as McCann talks, several clerks enter the room to heat their lunches.
It is the life of a big-city district attorney, a life that McCann knows better than anyone in America. McCann has served 37 years as the district attorney in Milwaukee County, the longest active stretch in the country.
If that number alone isn’t impressive, consider this: At 68, McCann has been district attorney for almost a quarter of the county’s 171-year history.
“When I came here as an assistant district attorney, Bill McCauley had been the D.A. for 18 years,” says McCann, leaning forward in his chair. “Back then, I remember that struck me as an incredibly long time to serve as the district attorney.” He laughs. “Of course now that doesn’t seem too long.”
Today, McCann can’t imagine a career better spent. His tenure has spanned a gap that has seen the rise of DNA evidence, the improvement of victims’ rights counseling and the newly resurgent field of immigration law. While he is most often identified as being the lead prosecutor in the Jeffrey Dahmer case, he is also well known for being an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, penning the seminal “Opposing Capital Punishment: A Prosecutor’s Perspective” in the Marquette Law Review in 1996.
McCann takes pride in bringing a large amount of compassion — which he draws through his Catholic faith — to a job that is often portrayed as heartless and cruel.
“Being the district attorney in any community is a very powerful job,” says Michael Malmstadt, a county judge who served as an assistant D.A. under McCann for 18 years. “People have no idea how powerful that office is. But the thing about McCann is he loves the job, not the power. He’s graceful and he doesn’t bring the ‘I’m going to crush this individual’ approach to justice.”
Yes, there have been opportunities to step down, to refrain from running for election every two years. Michael McCann could have gone to a private firm, put his feet up, watched his bank account grow. But he says it became apparent long ago that he preferred being a public servant.
“Being a district attorney is intensely human work,” says McCann. “You can’t go a day without making five or 10 decisions that directly impact human lives. You can’t go down the hall without people grabbing your sleeve about this case or that case.
“This work is not about documents or forms or corporations. It’s all about human beings.”
McCann’s story begins in 1936. Born to Irish Catholic parents in the south side of Chicago, McCann lived in Buffalo, Kansas City and finally, in 1947, Milwaukee, where his father got a job in the linen supply business.
After graduating from Marquette High School, McCann attended the Jesuit-run University of Detroit. Law degrees from both Georgetown and Harvard followed.
“When I left for Harvard, my mother went and got some holy water and sprinkled me with it,” McCann says. “She said, ‘Mike, don’t lose your faith there at Harvard.’ My faith was deeply imbued with me.”
McCann passed the bar exams in both Wisconsin and Illinois and then interviewed with firms in Milwaukee and Chicago. He eventually settled on a job in his hometown before setting off to Europe for a post-law-school trip.
But when he was away, something unexpected happened. While attending church, McCann’s mother ran into District Attorney Bill McCauley, and he offered McCann the chance to interview for an assistant’s spot when he returned.
“Bill was the first person to mention justice,” McCann says. “When you go to large law schools, they never talk about ‘justice.’ They talk about ‘law.’ I remember going outside [after the interview] onto Ninth Street and thinking, ‘Hey, what happened to me in law school?’”
McCann was sold. He delayed the opportunity with the private firm and worked for McCauley. Within 15 months, he was prosecuting a first-degree murder case.
When McCauley died in 1964, McCann went to work for the private firm. But before long, McCann found himself back in the hazy hallways of the Safety Building.
“That firm had a lot of very good people and they were a great company to work for,” McCann says. “But I missed the trial work. I didn’t like sitting in a library. I missed the color and the action.”
In 1968, at the age of 31, McCann was elected district attorney, defeating Gerald Boyle for the Democratic nomination and Republican David J. Cannon in the general election. He quickly went to work on several initiatives. One of his biggest innovations came in the early ’70s as his office spearheaded a movement to improve the rights of victims.
“The way victims were treated back then was simply abusive,” McCann says. “It was like they were a chunk of meat on the end of a stick. They were jerked around by subpoenas, many of which were written in archaic language that looked like the King’s Mandate. We knew something had to be done.”
Armed with a Notre Dame Law Review article written by an assistant district attorney, McCann approached the now-defunct Law Enforcement Assistance Agency in Washington to ask for funding. McCann’s original request was for $75,000 but the official at the LEAA simply laughed at the request.
McCann’s amount was much too small.
A few months later, McCann came back with a major program plan and was awarded $1.2 million over three years. Along with King’s County, N.Y., Milwaukee was the first county to start a victims’ rights units in the country.
Today, the department deals with victims and witnesses, helping accommodate them as best as possible. The counselors help with insurance claims and, if need be, confront impatient employers, who are not often eager to give victims/witnesses time off from their jobs. Each counselor must have a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Soon after the victim and witness unit was established, McCann went through a personal experience that brought along a new addition to the department. “I was prosecuting a sexual assault case where a father had molested his daughter,” McCann says. “I had never met the girl before and I asked the judge for time to prepare. He gave me 15 minutes. I met the girl in a semi-darkened hallway in the old courthouse and she refused to talk to me. The mother couldn’t get her to talk either.
“In the end, the girl took the stand and testified beautifully. The case was convicted, but I never forgot that. There had to be a better way than confronting children in the hallway. I had no training in social work or in interviewing children.”
In 1976, the office received a federal grant to start a sensitive crimes unit. Today, the victim and witness unit has 34 case workers and has branched out into more specialized units, including victims of domestic abuse, firearms and identity theft.
“As he saw the community changing, [McCann] saw the need for more specialized services,” says Valorie Moore, the director for the victim and witness unit. “He’s always one step ahead and he gives everyone the type of support they need to serve the community.”
While McCann has prosecuted a number of high-profile cases, none have drawn more publicity than the 1992 trial of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. McCann still remembers the night when he received a call from the medical examiner’s office: “We’re removing a number of bodies from a house on the west side.”
On the first day, Dahmer was a state story. On the second, a national story. When a Japanese camera crew approached him on the third day, McCann knew it had gone global.
As McCann’s former rival, defense attorney Gerald Boyle, mounted an insanity defense, McCann and his staff prepared to prove that Dahmer was of sound mind when he murdered (and then cannibalized some of his) 17 victims.
In the end, McCann’s team won, sending Dahmer to prison for life, where another inmate killed him in 1994.
“It was a very demanding trial and there was gavel-to-gavel coverage,” McCann says. “It was ghoulish, but by that time, I had seen so many ghoulish things it didn’t have an impact like it might have on other people.”
One thing about the trial: McCann wasn’t ready for the aggressiveness of the national media. A New York Times reporter allegedly secured Dahmer’s confession by bribing a janitor who subsequently copied it off an office desk. McCann had to face the wrath of the local media; they felt the D.A. was giving the national media preferential treatment.
“I never leak and deny,” insists McCann.
Despite McCann’s involvement with Dahmer, as well as with several high-profile murders where the victims were children or police officers, he has often spoken out against capital punishment. Wisconsin does not have the death penalty, but McCann has given speeches in states that do. His two biggest problems with capital punishment: 1) research has shown that a disproportionate number of African Americans are given the death penalty, and 2) innocent people end up being punished.
“Indeed, it is the very importance and preciousness beyond compare of human life that underpins the most powerful reason to oppose capital punishment — the knowledge that innocent people will inevitably be convicted and executed,” McCann writes in the Marquette Law Review.
McCann’s anti-death-penalty beliefs also stem from his Catholic faith. He tries to attend daily mass at Gesu, the University of Marquette church that is located just blocks away from the Safety Building. His daughter, Sarah, served as a Jesuit volunteer in urban Washington, D.C.
“A lot of social and justice issues are driven by faith,” says McCann. But he fears not enough young people are attending church today, and social issues will suffer. “I very much fear that a lot of that will be lost in the next generation. Will it carry over? I’m not sure it will.”
McCann remembers being taught compassion by his mother.
“There would be beggars coming to our door when I was a kid, remnants from the Depression,” McCann says. “With my mother it was never a question of whether they’d get something. It was just a question of what they’d get.”
The hot topic around the Safety Building these days is, of course, how much longer McCann will serve as district attorney. Even McCann, who runs for office every two years, and who has been unopposed since 1984 and unopposed by a Republican since 1976, isn’t sure.
“I have not made a decision, but I pray about it,” McCann says. “So far, I have my health and my wife [Barbara] has her health. Those are good considerations.”
McCann has two children — son Michael is a lawyer with Abbott Laboratories in suburban Chicago and Sarah is now a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. McCann would like to spend more time with them, especially since long and grueling hours often forced him away from home when they were young. It’s his biggest regret.
As the interview wraps up and the clerks finish their noontime microwaving, McCann sounds far from finished. Of particular interest to him these days is the immigration law that has come to the forefront since Sept. 11. McCann says he has a special compassion for those who are deported for minor offenses earlier in life.
But when the time comes for America’s longest-standing district attorney to step down, don’t expect him to ride off into the sunset.
“He’ll be around in one form or another,” says Malmstadt, the county judge. “When he leaves that office, he’s not going anywhere. He’ll always be an important part of the city’s legal scene.”