'On the Record' with UDM law professor


By Gar Willoughby
Legal News

A 1975 graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, Professor Richard Krisciunas knows a thing or two about trial practice.

Professor Krisciunas began his legal career as a trial lawyer in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. He worked several high visibility trials involving serial rapists, robbers and murderers and subsequently was assigned to Squad 7, the Detroit Police Department’s felony murder section.

From 1982 to 2000, Krisciunas was responsible for overseeing thousands of felony prosecutions per year as a Wayne County Trial Division supervisor. He also assisted in training new trial attorneys. Later, he served as the chief of the Trial Division under Prosecutor Mike Duggan.

Professor Krisciunas has taught Trial Practice as an adjunct professor since 1982. He has been a frequent lecturer for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) and the Wayne County Criminal Advocacy Program.

He joined the law school full-time as Director of Externships in 2004 and teaches the classroom component of the Criminal Trial Clinic and goes to the 35th District Court in Plymouth with his students as they represent indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors. He enjoys advising students and getting his students “on the record.”

He is happily married to his wife, Kathy, who was a law librarian at U of D while he was a student.

“The best thing that ever happened to me,” Krisciunas said of his marriage.

His current areas of interest include extolling the benefits of externships to law students, mentoring new lawyers as chairman of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association Mentoring Committee, theatre, golf, and Notre Dame football.

Recently, Krisciunas spoke with The Detroit Legal News about his philosophy on life and experiences as a trial attorney and professor.

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?

I didn’t know that I wanted to be a lawyer until after I completed a summer externship with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office after my second year in law school. Up to that time, I was just trying to survive law school.

How did it feel and did you do anything special when you won your first trial?

I was surprised that I had convinced a jury. I never wanted to be a litigator. I always wanted to work in the appellate section. I actually won my first nine jury trials as a prosecutor and I remember thinking that maybe I could be good at this.

Who were your role models?

I was very lucky to have spent a summer as a law student watching some very good trial prosecutors; Thomas Khalil, Michael Mueller, Robert Morgan, and Robert Ziolkowski. After I joined the staff, my role models were Timothy Kenny (Chief Judge of Wayne County Circuit Court Criminal Division) and Robert Agacinski (head of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission).

How did you meet your wife?

I worked in the University of Detroit Law School library and when I saw her walk out of her office on her first day as a librarian, I couldn’t breathe because she was so beautiful. I spent a year getting the courage to ask her out because she had a boyfriend. We went out a few times and she told me she couldn’t see me anymore. I graduated and started working when I got a call from another librarian, Bill Moy, who said she had broken up with her boyfriend. I called her up the same day and asked her out and eventually she agreed to marry me. We’ve been married for 33 years. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. She’s the best thing that every happened to me.

What was one of your most embarrassing moments as an attorney?

While I was cross-examining a defendant in a breaking and entering case, the defendant whispered to me that my fly was down. The zipper on my pants had broken. The judge called a recess and said, “All rise for the jury, except the prosecutor.” The judge’s secretary sewed up the zipper while I was sequestered in another room. I finished the trial and the jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict in five minutes.

What was one of your most rewarding experiences as an attorney?

I can’t narrow it down to one. I never worked a day in my life. Being able to go to work every day and work with my friends for 28 years at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. Every day I was able to work with some outstanding people; judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police officers.  As a prosecutor, ensuring that justice was done so that victims would know that the person who hurt them would pay a price and that those defendants who were falsely accused would remain free. As a defense attorney after I retired, bringing out the truth when a witness or police officer lied or exaggerated. I had nine not guilty verdicts as a defense attorney. Every one of those was extremely satisfying.

Do you have a favorite lawyer television show or movie? And if so, why is it your favorite?

Not really. I hate most of the legal shows because they are so unrealistic. I catch myself saying, “Object! Object!” There’s no way that would ever happen in real life.

Favorite decade and why?

Every day is a great day.

How can attorneys best balance a successful law career with a meaningful personal life?

By prioritizing the thing that matters most. Family. I was lucky to have a job that allowed me to attend every one of my daughter’s school functions and dance recitals. I coached her soccer team from first grade through high school. My Dad was always too busy to spend time with me as I was growing up. I simply decided that if I ever had children, I wouldn’t miss out on the joy of fatherhood.

If you could change one specific rule about the criminal justice system, what would it be?

I’d require all police interrogations to be videotaped. Memories of police officers and defendants are never perfect. I had a case where two different people confessed to the same two homicides. If the interrogations had been videotaped, you could have seen why an innocent man confessed to a murder. I had a case as a defender where the interrogation was videotaped. At the preliminary exam the interrogating officer testified that my client never requested an attorney. The video showed that he did.

After practicing law for more than 30 years, what irritates you most about some lawyers?

What bothers me most are the lawyers who hate their job and let it show in their representation of their clients. There are some lawyers who look for the easy way out. They convince their client to take a plea when the government couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt if the case went to trial.

The vast majority of lawyers who take court appointed criminal cases work their butts off for their clients for minimal compensation. But there are some who do the bare minimum. When I was a prosecutor doing plea bargaining, I was always disappointed with those lawyers who bad-mouthed their clients and said, “Give me the standard plea offer. Save me a good offer for my retained clients.”

Why do you enjoy teaching and mentoring law students?

I think I understand what my students are going through and I enjoy passing on my experience so they will have an easier time in school. My father was a professor in Lithuania. Teaching is in my blood. I love watching students grow in knowledge and confidence. They start my Trial Practice class and stutter and make mistakes and read their opening statement. By the end of class, they stand before the jury without any notes and speak with confidence and passion. I love seeing their growth.

It’s the same in watching my clinic students who go to the 35th District Court to defend indigents charged with misdemeanors. In the beginning, they trip over their request to practice under MCR 8.120. They forget their arguments. By the end of the semester, they are fighting for their clients and arguing with the judge about an appropriate sentencing sanction. I get goose bumps when one of my students tells me that they passed the bar and found a job.

Can you describe your best day of golf?

In 2009, I played golf in Ireland and Scotland. I played the Old Course in St. Andrews and missed an eagle putt on the fifth hole. I shot a 12 on the 17th hole and landed in the famous Road Hole bunker. The course was beautiful. I ate a beef pastie at the turn. The weather was terrific. I finished the round with a 15-foot putt, picked up the ball, kissed it, and threw it to a group of tourists who were watching.

What is your favorite theatrical performance and why?

I like the musical “Les Miserables.” I just saw it for the fifth time with my daughter. Javert is the police officer who tries to hunt down Jean Valjean. He thinks Valjean is a criminal and can never be rehabilitated. In the end, Valjean saves Javert’s life and Javert realizes that the foundation of his lifelong beliefs has crumbled. It reminds me of police officers who make their minds up and assume a defendant is guilty before getting all the facts.

When speaking with attorneys and law students, what do you consider the single most important piece of advice you can offer?

When looking for a job, find something you love doing and find someone who will pay you for doing it. I worked at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for 28 years and loved every day. I had great friends who worked with me and we laughed about something every day. Now that I’m at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, I feel the same way.