Michael N. Herring has been Richmond's top prosecutor for 10 years. And on the first day of his first year on the job in 2006, he and his team were confronted with the gruesome home invasion murders of the Harvey family in South Richmond.
In subsequent years, the commonwealth's attorney's office worked with Richmond police on a strategy that saw a dramatic decline in homicides and violent crime that had plagued the city. More recently, in 2012 and 2013, Herring investigated the economic disclosure forms of Gov. Bob McDonnell following a federal investigation into his ties to a wealthy businessman.
Herring's past year in office has also been eventful. Through public forums, he began what he terms "the all-important but long overdue" conversation about felony avoidance and the intersection of the criminal justice system, poverty and education.
"This will undoubtedly lead to significant change in the way — and who — we prosecute," Herring said.
In collaboration with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Herring's office secured a pardon for Michael McAlister, a 59-year-old Richmond man who served 29 years in prison for a 1986 kidnapping and attempted rape that DNA evidence proved he did not commit.
"Having done something similar for Thomas Haynesworth roughly four years ago, the McAlister case felt a bit surreal," Herring said. "Frankly, I was embarrassed to be facing a wrongfully convicted person again."
Herring's office also has spent much of the past year reviewing roughly 100 cases of a former Richmond narcotics officer whose alleged misconduct in obtaining search warrants resulted in convictions being tossed out in federal court.
"His misconduct forced us to reconcile the notion of factual guilt with constitutional guarantee of due process and the prohibition on unlawful searches and seizures," Herring said.
Despite many good cases resulting in deserving convictions, "all of the work is potentially compromised because of the probability that he cut corners," Herring added. "What a shame all around."
IN HIS WORDS
A small moment in life with a big impact
An impactful moment in my life (professional) occurred during my first term in office. A young prosecutor on my staff got what appeared to be a fantastic sentence from a jury — 30 years on possession with intent to distribute heroin or cocaine. Clearly, the jury wanted to send a message about drug dealing, and they did. Unfortunately, the sentence was disproportionate. Although I felt strongly that I should join in the defense motion to reduce the jury recommendation, I did not, for fear of seeming weak on drug crime. I have always regretted that I did not stand for what I thought was right, notwithstanding the appearance. That will never happen again.
An impactful realization (personal) occurred to me about three years ago as I tried to navigate difficult discussions with my children about race. I learned that they are almost race-neutral — that their thought process on interacting with people isn't burdened by consideration of race. They are lucky. I concluded that even very complicated things can improve over time.
Something you'd like to do
I would really like to learn to just relax and be at peace. My mind is constantly racing, which can be exhausting.
My mother was the role model of a lifetime. She was kind, smart and tough. Former Judge Robert W. Duling was my professional role model. He was from a line of Dulings who played prominent roles in the city's law enforcement history (some periods of which were very difficult for African-Americans). He had an overarching sense of fairness and equality, and was singularly committed to doing the right thing — justice — from the bench.
I have recently been quite impressed by the movie "Interstellar." I think it inspires hope. I am drawn to historical fiction, particularly about the Civil War. I really enjoyed "Cloudsplitter" and "The Killer Angels." "Cutting for Stone," although not about the Civil War, was also wonderful (perhaps because my wife is Eritrean).
Something that might surprise others
I am a very, very private person. I do my best to "switch on" for work (and politics, which I frankly don't like).
Alternate profession or course of study
I would certainly consider teaching. My mother was a wonderful teacher who constructively impacted lots of lives. My children's teachers have some of that same impact, albeit under different circumstances.
I think my wife and I are equally proud of the children we have raised. They are smart, hard working, healthy and honest. We are very fortunate.
Favorite thing about Richmond region
My favorite thing about the region, the city more specifically, is our willingness to listen. Even when we are unable to agree, we appreciate the value of thoughtful and informed discussion. Bellicosity is finally out of style.
MICHAEL N. HERRING
Position: Richmond commonwealth's attorney
Born/hometown: Aug. 5, 1965; Richmond
College: University of Virginia (bachelor's degree in economics, law degree)
Family: wife Aster Kidane, son Destana, daughters Selam and Zehma