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'Workhorse' attorney returns to private practice after nearly two years as special prosecutor

Originally published by Mlive.com on November 10, 2014


FLINT, MI -- After nearly two years of representing the people of Michigan, attorney Barney Whitesman is back to arguing for the other side.

Whitesman decided to take a 22-month sabbatical from private practice as a criminal and family lawyer to accept a temporary position as an assistant prosecutor trying criminal cases in Genesee County Circuit Court.

"I just wanted to do this. I just needed to do this," Whitesman said, adding that he loved working as an appointed criminal defense attorney in the early stages of his career and wanted to gain perspective of what it's like to argue for the other side.

Whitesman jumped at the opportunity when he heard of the open position, which was available as part of a state-funded grant that hires special assistant attorneys general who work under the direction of county prosecutors in high-crime cities.

The grant is part of the Secure Cities Partnership, an initiative of Gov. Rick Snyder's that uses state funding to tackle crime in Flint, Detroit, Pontiac and Saginaw by putting more state troopers on the streets, opening space in Flint City Lockup and hiring special prosecutors such as Whitesman. Of the 35 prosecutors in Genesee County, five are paid for with the grant, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said.

Despite his love for arguing in criminal cases, family court clients "just kind of took over my practice," over the years, he said, and this was an opportunity to break from the day-to-day work and hone criminal trial skills.

And, that's exactly what he did, litigating 25 jury trials to completion in 22 months.

"That's a lot. I mean, that's a lot. But, it's been exhilarating," Whitesman said. "I think it's impossible not to become a better lawyer doing this many jury trials in this short period of time. But from a different standpoint, you don't really know what it's like to be a guardian of the public and have that responsibility until you are. When you represent a criminal defendant, you only worry about that one person. You don't worry about society. You don't worry about the victim. You worry about him or her only. That is how we are trained. In this position, it's much more difficult."

Leyton said Whitesman is the first attorney he's ever known to take on that many cases in that short a time period.

"He's very aggressive, and he has a lot of energy. He has tried more cases than any other prosecutor in this office," Leyton said, describing Whitesman as a 'workhorse' who's known to start work as early as 3 and 4 a.m. "I'm kind of like the general manager of a (sports) team, and when I was able to get Barney, it was like getting a high-level, free-agent signing."

Whitesman said working over 3,000 hours a year was not exhausting for him, but gratifying.

The most memorable trial in his two years with the prosecutor's office is a triple homicide for which James Paul Simpkins is now serving life in prison.

Simpkins killed his brother and two others at a party in Flint and attempted to kill Jacinta Mills, shattering her pelvis with gunshots and strangling her until he thought she was dead. But, she survived and after waking up from being strangled until she was unconscious, crawled out of a window and went to a neighbor's house for help.

After the trial, she invited Whitesman to her baby shower, he said.

Cases like that make the long hours worth it, Whitesman said.

"There is nothing about this job that wasn't cool. It's like being at the top of a rollercoaster all the time," he said, adding that it's "just time" to go back to private practice. "I really can't extend it any longer. I'm worried that if I don't go back now, I won't have a practice."

Leyton said he does not have any replacements for Whitesman lined up yet, but did say he's not looking forward to the search.

"It's not going to be easy to replace him," he said. "I don't know anyone that can keep up with his energy level."


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