Kent County's Bill Forsyth talks about long career, including 30 years as prosecutor

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Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth stands by some of the many photographs, degrees, and framed honors in his office; over his right shoulder is a photo of the Lapeer County Courthouse, where he began his prosecuting career.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Bill Forsyth, whose name is almost synonymous with “Kent County Prosecutor,” has a substantial number of colorful and fascinating memories — a career-full of them.

When he retires at the end of the year, after his successor is chosen in the general election, he will have spent 30 years as the elected prosecutor of Kent County, after ten years in that office and just two as a Lapeer County assistant prosecutor (as part of a team of three).

A native of Standish, a small town in Arenac County, Forsyth says his father encouraged him to get an advanced degree in part because the father’s decision to join the army prevented him from finishing at Michigan State. “My dad ran a hardware store, so I’d worked for him in the store for years before going to college,” Forsyth says. “I’m convinced he paid me 25 cents an hour to try to convince me that I didn’t want to go ino the hardware business.”

After getting his undergraduate degree at Albion College and his J.D. from University of Detroit Mercy Law School, and without previously having aspirations to practice in the courtroom, Forsyth became an assistant prosecutor in Lapeer County.

He is very happy he did so, saying, “Once I took the job I found that I really liked being a trial lawyer. I had played competitive athletics, so I liked being in a courtroom. I particularly liked the idea that I could advocate for one side all the time. As a prosecuting attorney you can consistently take the position where you’re trying to help the victim.”

Another factor is that the small size of the office meant learning in-depth about the law and getting a lot of experience. When he came to Kent County at the age of 26, he already had 20 trials under his belt, including cases in district and juvenile courts.

It is when he talks about the period after he started here, initially as an assistant prosecutor working under David Sawyer, that the stories begin to roll.

Perhaps the most chilling of the tales is about a juvenile offender who was tried as an adult — and now must be resentenced after recent Supreme Court decisions.

Federico [sometimes spelled Frederico] Cruz was 16 and living in Sparta in 1996, when, he spotted a young man walking down the railroad tracks. Cruz joined the victim and walked him into the woods, where he stabbed/bludgeoned/suffocated him to death.

“He cuts off the victim’s head and takes it back to his house,” Forsyth narrates. “Then he puts the head on a table and sets up a tripod, and films himself as he proceeds to skin the head with a knife, narrating as he goes along. He takes the head down and then sets it back up and does it some more, and then he brought the tape to Grand Rapids to show his friends.”

After the severed head was found near his house, Cruz was caught and tried.

But, Forsyth continues, “The judge didn’t want the jury to see that horrible video, so we put a sheet over the video portion and they listened to the audio. But we had to give the jury a transcript of what Cruz was doing  corresponding to the noise.” So Forsyth found himself in the unenviable position of watching over and over to recreate Cruz’s actions. “I bet I watched that video 50 times,” he says.

Another memorable case also involved a juvenile tried as an adult who is now eligible for resentencing. Jon Seisling killed his mother and both of his sisters with a knife and baseball bat.

In both cases the young offenders’ attorneys used the insanity defense, but  both juries disagreed, thanks to Forsyth carefully clarifying the difference between the common use of “insane” and the legal use of the term.

“I called a Dr. Clark, who used to be the head of the forensic center in Ann Arbor, the best expert on insanity pleas I’ve ever seen,” Forsyth says. “At one point I asked him, if he was saying that they’re not mentally ill, how he explained what they did here. And I’ll always remember him saying, ‘Some people are just evil.’”

Though he cannot say for sure at this time, one of the ways in which Forsyth may while away his retirement is in helping the Prosecutor’s Office review all of the Kent County juvenile-as-adult cases which need to be resentenced. Whether this potential project comes to fruition will be up to the new prosecutor.

Forsyth, an emotional man, says that the majority of the cases he found most memorable were difficult in an emotional way, not as a result of proving the facts.

When he hires attorneys, he says, “I caution people that this is a difficult job and you can’t internalize it. You can’t allow yourself to get wrapped up in these cases.”

He goes on to say that perhaps the hardest for him have been two high-profile cases involving police killings, Joe Taylor, who died in 1986, and, more recently, Bobby Kozminski.

“The Joe Taylor trial was the first one I had after I was elected prosecutor,” Forsyth says. “I work with the Police Department regularly, and it’s different when you have actual relationships with someone who’s been killed. They’re somebody’s son, somebody’s brother or husband...  Those trials were,?I?have to say, emotionally painful.”

There is one trial that stands out not for its actual content but because of opposing counsel. Albert Krieger, famous for being the attorney of mafioso John Gotti, came to town while Forsyth was still an assistant to represent a defendant accused only of possession of cocaine and possession of a billy club.

“[The defendant] on his face was nothing, and faced a couple of ‘nothing’ charges. So what was the deal with hiring a lawyer who wouldn’t come out of his office for less than $250,000 a case?” Forsyth says.

“Krieger was by far the best I’ve ever seen,” Forsyth says. “He had such a presence, and he came across to the jury so well. He knew more about cocaine than the lab tech.”

Interestingly, although Forsyth won a conviction on the cocaine charge and Judge Benson sentenced the defendant to two to four years in prison, a Court of Appeals judge, Jerome Bronson, issued what Forsyth calls a “tortured decision” letting the defendant out of jail. Bronson later killed himself after being charged with accepting bribes.

Forsyth also was part of the pioneering process to allow DNA evidence when it was still fairly new. Two trials, one a murder retrial after a verdict was overturned due at least in part to the use of hypnosis on witnesses, were tried at the same time so that experts on the new technology. “It was precedent’setting,” he says. “And he was convicted the second time too.”

The one thing Forsyth, a former president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, regrets most is that the office had wrongfully convicted a young man of rape, based on testimony from the child victim. During a recent murder trial investigation, the victim, in her thirties, admitted that her mother’s live-in boyfriend (now the murder suspect) had asked her to deflect attention from him by accusing a young neighbor.

“I was hoping to get out of here without knowing that we convicted a guy who was innocent, but we did, and I deeply regret it. I could never do this job if Michigan had the death penalty,” he says.

He does, however, sign the praises of investigative subpoenas in solving cold case files and in getting at the truth to avoid such wrongful conviction. He is also enthusiastic about Truth in Sentencing, considering it to be much fairer to victims.

Forsyth admits he is less enthusiastic about the administrative aspects of his job, and especially about handling the burden that budget cuts put on staff. His 2015 Annual Report makes clear the large discrepancies between the numbers in Kent County’s office versus others around the state, as well as how successful his office is in spite of that. “The county’s fortunate because the seniority level per attorney and their skills allow them to do what they do. If this was a group of inexperienced attorneys, I couldn’t possibly manage with this size of staff.”

In fact, he says the people around him are what has made the job so worthwhile. “I’ve been real blessed with the staff that works in this office — not only the people I’ve hired but working all along with so many wonderful and well-known people.

“Currently, they’re all hard-working and honest, and I’ve been really pleased to work with some very talented people.”

Though he says he will probably seek work projects, Forsyth looks forward in his retirement not only to spending time with his wife, a school social worker, and his two children and grandchildren — a fourth one is on the way in Boston — but also to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“Actually some people I know are going next week. I contemplated going with them, but I didn’t want to miss the last prosecutor’s conference in Mackinac I’m eligible to go to,” he says, smiling.

 

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