A Fair Herring
Meet Mike Herring — Richmond’s next commonwealth’s attorney
Mike Herring is moving. He’s taking his name off the door at Bricker & Herring, saying goodbye to niceties like original artwork, and closing the books on his part of the law practice. He hasn’t packed yet, because he’s eyeball-deep as defense attorney in an upcoming murder trial, and the last thing he wants to think about is making the crossover from one side of the courtroom to the other. His moment of truth is on the horizon. But munching a BLT sandwich at his soon-to-be-former law firm’s conference table, he doesn’t look worried.
After winning the Democratic primary for Richmond commonwealth’s attorney last June, it was preordained that Michael Herring would become the next person to hold the job. Never mind that he is a seasoned, top-level prosecutor, as he proved while an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in the early ’90s. The deal-clincher was the lack of an opponent in the election. Republicans haven’t run a candidate for that office in more than a decade. And qualified candidates didn’t exactly line up to take over an office that inevitably absorbed the taint of controversy that has enveloped city government for the past 15 years. So when the election rolled around in November, the only name on the ballot for commonwealth’s attorney was Mike Herring’s.
In contrast to the way city officials — elected or otherwise — behave these days, Herring has promised a lot: no public displays of political wrangling, no tolerance for breaches of ethics, and fair and equal application of the law. Community involvement will be required of all of his prosecutors. Turnover, which has been a hallmark of the office in the last decade, will no longer be a problem, he says. The promises faintly echo those made a dozen years ago by his predecessor David Hicks. But Herring says there are differences: “The office will be a lot less political, which should make people feel better about the work that they do.”
There are other similarities. Both Hicks and Herring graduated from the University of Virginia, as well as its law school. Both were scooped up by Main Street Richmond law firms that hire the best talent on the market. That both added racial balance to overwhelmingly white staffs was a bonus. Despite the hefty paychecks, both became dissatisfied with trying cases on paper and yearned for the excitement of the courtroom. And both rode into office on the backs of predominantly white corporate leaders and conservative African-Americans. But the similarities end there.
Hicks, the son of a murder victim, made it out of his New Jersey ’hood. His background, coupled with a degree from one of the nation’s top law schools, afford him a near-unique perspective of the criminal justice system. Herring, on the other hand, was brought up in a middle-class Richmond family of overachievers headed by a determined single mom, a Richmond city schoolteacher. Hicks wasn’t a politician, but as commonwealth’s attorney, he learned to deal in city government, where agendas are often hidden or self-serving or both. Herring says he isn’t a politician and has no intention of becoming one.
When Herring takes over, he will come face to face with the perception that he is a Main Street golden boy or, for lack of a more succinct term, a product of the opposite end of the scale from the socioeconomic demographic that comprises most of Virginia’s prison populations. “He’s going to have to develop some street cred,” says Hicks. “He’s going to have to walk the walk.”
Unfortunately, no one can tell Herring just how to walk the walk, because the Office of the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney isn’t what it used to be. When Hicks took the reins, the C.A. was the only elected official who could directly address the issue of crime. That all changed with the city’s switch to a strong-mayor form of government. Now, Herring will have less power than his predecessors. The new C.A., Hicks says, “won’t set policy as a prosecutor the way I did or the way Aubrey [Davis] did or Joe [Morrissey] did. The mayor will. The reality is that the person in the office come Jan. 1 will have a totally different job than every C.A. in the city of Richmond who came before him.”
Nonetheless, supporters as well as some courtroom opponents see Herring as the silver bullet that can keep the office on task to reduce crime through forceful prosecution. “Mike is 100 percent committed to the welfare of this city,” says Lewis F. Powell III, son of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice and a friend and former mentor at Hunton & Williams, where Herring worked after law school. According to Powell, Herring’s relatively sheltered upbringing won’t hinder him. With experience in both prosecution and defense, and having grown up in the city, he says, Herring is ideally positioned to do the job. “I think Mike feels in a very personal way what violent crime does to the fabric of this community, and he’s determined to do what he can to put a stop to it.” And that’s no knock on Hicks, Powell says. In fact, Powell supported Hicks’ runs as well. “Despite the efforts of many good people, we have pockets of crime that are still troublesome.”
Christopher J. Collins, who recently made national news and legal talk shows as attorney for the suspect in the disappearance and death of Virginia Commonwealth University student Taylor Behl, is more than satisfied with Herring leading the city’s prosecutorial efforts. And not because defense wins will be easy: “I think a chief prosecutor needs to have three things,” says Collins. “Integrity, excellent trial skills, and good management skills. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. We’ve never had a commonwealth’s attorney who has all three. Mike does.”
Despite having far more experience than his opposition, assistant prosecutor Michelle Welch, whose campaign highlighted animal protection, and another assistant prosecutor whose campaign never really got off the ground, Herring almost didn’t make it to the ballot. Last December, well into his campaign, Herring was having second thoughts.
Life was good at the Herring house. In private practice since he left the C.A.’s office in 1996, Herring was enjoying time with wife Aster, a teacher at The Collegiate Schools, and their three small children. His practice was humming. He controlled his schedule, and finances were not a concern. In contrast, an elected official’s time is not his own. And goodness knows, public servants don’t make the kind of money corporate lawyers or private practitioners make. Worse, Hicks — Herring’s fraternity brother, former boss, and longtime friend — wasn’t supporting him in the run.
When Herring came to Hicks to talk about running for the office, Hicks stonewalled. “It wasn’t personal,” says Hicks, who endorsed another candidate instead.
Herring stops short of saying he felt betrayed: “I was disappointed.”
Hicks approached Welch, one of his assistants, to run. Hicks went so far as to appear with her in campaign television commercials. The buzz around the courthouse was that Hicks’ support of Welch was driven by a desire to keep Herring from getting the job, a charge Hicks vehemently denies. “My support of Michelle is because Mike and I weren’t of the same mind on all issues. If I didn’t want Mike to run, I’d have run my own damn self.”
Instead, Hicks says, he backed Welch because of her commitment to community issues. She promised to deal with neglected homes and buildings that quickly become drug turf, and to aggressively enforce laws against graffiti. “To [improve] the community, you have to do what Giuliani did in New York,” Hicks says. “There is no prosecutor who isn’t going to emphasize murder and rape. You have to put quality-of-life issues first.”
But in the Democratic primary, Herring took 55.8 percent of the vote against Welch.
Still, Hicks is satisfied with the results. On the stump, Hicks says, Herring learned a lot about community issues from Welch. Although there was no sea change in his campaign rhetoric, Herring added emphasis on the potential for imbalance in the justice system and the perceived lack of compassion toward the underprivileged people who wind up in court. At one point before the election, for instance, Herring noted that felons often fall back into crime when they can’t get credit or a job. Some say, though, that Herring has always — not just on the campaign trail — been able to see beyond the paper a felony charge is written on. “He is very good at conveying that we’re all here for justice,” says deputy C.A. and chief murder prosecutor Learned D. Barry, a former judge who has faced off against Herring in court.
Herring says he will be handling cases himself; not just the high-profile cases, not just cases prepared by his assistants for him to try before an audience. “I’m not worried about my win-loss record,” he says.
Defense attorneys would be well advised to be ready to take Herring on; colleagues say he is a formidable trial lawyer. Barry, who was trying murder cases when Herring was still in Underoos, is awed by Herring’s litigation abilities. “He’s smooth,” Barry says. “You forget about the axe murderer you’re trying to put away, and start thinking what a nice lawyer this man is.”
When Mike Herring walks into a room, it’s impossible not to notice. He’s not loud. He is average height, average weight, with no distinguishing marks or characteristics. Clothes and comportment are what set him apart in any crowd. If he only buys off the sale rack, as he insists, he has a designer’s eye and a mannequin’s physique, because everything he wears, whether it’s a knit shirt and chinos or a suit and braces, fits as if it were made for him alone, from the finest fabrics. The half-dozen or so hours spent at the Y each week don’t hurt the fit, either.
“That’s my mamma,” he says. “She taught me to always shop clearance.”
Clothes aren’t the only thing Juanita Herring gets credit for. “There was an expectation in my home that we were going to complete college,” he says, “and unless there were some unforeseen limitation, that we would go to graduate school.” Of Juanita’s three children, one is a psychologist in Chicago, one is an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and the third is Richmond commonwealth’s attorney. “He’s my babycakes,” she says.
By the time “Babycakes” was in middle school, his older brother and sister were off cultivating their own successes. And Juanita was taking no chances that her third would fall astray. Every summer, little Mike trudged off to whatever summer school where Juanita was teaching. It wasn’t like he needed the extra push; he was a straight-A student. Although he says he was just “passing time,” Herring learned an important lesson those summers. “I began to see that there were people who were in very challenging circumstances.”
The lesson stuck. Herring has some very firm ideas about his office and the administration of justice, especially to juveniles. “One expectation I have for myself is to change the views on juvenile crime,” he says. Too many young offenders go from street crime to incarceration in a juvenile facility, often the equivalent of criminal college. Herring wants to bring more sentencing alternatives to bear. Rather than place a first-timer in jail with kids on the career criminal track, Herring will emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration when called for.
“I would like greater attention paid to what sort of programming or treatment would prevent those kids from following the same path,” he says. “I learned as a defense attorney to try to identify why a crime was committed. There could be circumstances under which the juvenile has no control.” Those circumstances, he adds, could include physical, sexual or emotional abuse, in homes with little to no supervision, where weapons or drugs might be in greater supply than food.
Those who know Herring say he won’t be a pushover in other areas. “He’s right to try to steer these kids before they’re lost,” says Powell. “But from my sense of who Mike is, on adult offenders he’s going to be as tough as the law permits him to be.”
As for Herring, he says he won’t pressure his attorneys to win so much as to be even-handed. “There will be no ‘winning at any cost,’ ” he says. “The focus will be fair trials, and I insist my lawyers be the same way.”
Herring learned a lot from the two commonwealth’s attorneys he served under. From Joe Morrissey, he learned to keep his mouth shut and his profile low. (“People knew more about Joe’s antics than what the office was doing for the city,” he says.) And from David Hicks, he learned that seasoned attorneys chafe under micromanagement, which Hicks came to be known for among staff.
“My expectation is that they carry their caseloads and use their discretion as professional lawyers,” Herring says. “I’m going to require that they exercise their judgment and not just implement my vision.”