7 questions with Angela Povilaitis
Q: Aside from the well-publicized cases you've prosecuted like the Larry Nasser case, is there a particular case that stays in your mind, either as a triumph of justice or as an instance when you wish more could have been done?
A: There is one prior case that I think of every day, and that continues to motivate my work on behalf of all victims. I prosecuted a serial rapist case in Kalamazoo County. The defendant was a truck driver. It was the first case we were able to put together in the attorney general's office cold-case sexual assault project. We linked the defendant to 11 rapes spanning four states and 25 years, mostly through DNA evidence from sexual assault evidence collection kits (commonly known as rape kits).
It took over five years of investigation, and journeys up and down the Court of Appeals to bring the case to trial. Unfortunately, the jury was only allowed to hear from three of his victims, all of whom were women from underprivileged and marginalized communities. They came from around the country to testify about the rapes eight, nine and 10 years earlier. Despite throwing everything into that case and having it go in at trial as good as it possibly could, the jury acquitted the defendant in September 2017. It was not only a devastating result for me professionally and personally, but — more importantly — it absolutely devastated the victims in the case.
Shortly over a month after the verdict, our main victim died of an accidental overdose. The investigator and I had gotten to know her and her family very well, and walked with her through the justice system for over four years. I think of her every single day. She and her experience motivate me to continue to raise awareness about sexual assault and to fight in any way I can for all victims.
Q: What, in your opinion, causes someone to become a sexual abuser or predator? How do we prevent that?
A: This question is way outside my area of expertise. I think we need to understand that predators need opportunities to abuse and will try to continue to get away with it. In both child and adult sexual abuse cases, most perpetrators are known to the victim. There's a myth that these are strangers jumping out of the bushes attacking other strangers. Those cases do happen, but the majority of cases aren't those. They involve a coach or teacher or family member, or in adult cases, often an acquaintance or non-stranger of the victim. Those perpetrators are able to hide among us and often appear to be "good guys."
In addition to Larry Nassar, I've prosecuted cases against clergy members, police officers, foster parents and many, many step-parents or relatives.
We need to educate children that anyone can be an abuser and that it's OK and safe to disclose, that they will be believed and won't be blamed if they do disclose. We need to continue to empower both women and men — statistics show that 1 in 6 men will be victims of sexual abuse in their lifetimes — to come forward. We need to expose abuse and shed light on it regardless of where it happens in our society or who the perpetrator is.
Q: Why did you decide to study law in the first place and why did you choose Wayne Law?
A: My parents would tell you that I always liked to argue or have the last word growing up. I grew up in the small town of Baldwin in northern Michigan, and was the first in my family to go to college. We had one judge (51st Circuit Judge Mark Wickens, Wayne Law class of 1979), who is married to my mom's cousin, and one prosecutor in our town, and I knew that lawyers could make a difference and help people. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I was a political science major and loved politics.
The summer before my senior year, I was an intern for former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (now distinguished legislator in residence and chair of the Levin Center at Wayne Law) in Washington, D.C., and really thought about whether law school or working in politics was the right next step for me. Clearly, law school won, and I think it was the right choice. I knew a legal education would open up many doors and opportunities.
I applied to and was accepted at a number of law schools, but chose Wayne State. I knew I wanted to stay in Michigan after graduation and attending a school in Detroit after growing up in such a small town was exciting to me. I thought it had an excellent reputation, excellent bar passage rate and top-notch professors and programs.
Q: What advice can you offer beginning law students who hope to follow in your footsteps?
A: I strongly encourage every law student who has even the slightest interest to explore prosecution as a career. Society needs to continue to have fair prosecutors who will not only fight for victims but will fight for justice and do what is right. I would also encourage students to pursue opportunities to prosecute sexual assault, abuse and intimate-partner or family violence cases. I truly believe they are the most important and most challenging cases in our justice system.
With good and committed sex crimes prosecutors, victims can feel believed, supported and can begin their healing.
I encourage all students to seek out clinics, internships and other employment opportunities that are diverse and expose them to different areas of the law. Look for mentors within the law school. I still call on Peter Henning, my criminal law and professional responsibility professor, for advice. I'd also recommend getting involved in activities like the Student Trial Advocacy Program or Moot Court where you can practice arguing and thinking on your feet.
Q: Who are some of your role models and why?
A: My biggest role model was my mom. She's incredibly smart and hard-working and selfless, giving back so much to her community. Both of my parents, but especially my mom, instilled in me and my sister the belief that we could do and be anything if we worked hard.
Professionally, I have had the opportunity to work with and for so many trailblazing and fierce women prosecutors and advocates who have also worked on sexual assault and abuse cases, including Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy; Debi Cain, executive director of the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board; and Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Lora Weingarden (Wayne Law class of 1985).These women have all devoted their careers to working with and for victims, fighting for justice and are tireless in their work.
My former boss, Donna Pendergast, a 1987 Wayne Law graduate, is also a trailblazing role model, as she is arguably the best homicide prosecutor in the country and set an example to work tirelessly on behalf of victims.
Personally, many of the victims I've worked with are also my role models, particularly Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar survivor to come forward and be publicly identified, and who became the leader of the survivors; and Kyle Stephens, another survivor whose road to justice was not an easy one, yet she walked it with grace and courage and determination. I worked with many men in a priest case a few years ago — many who risked so much by reporting their abuse decades later. They also inspire me to always fight and do what is right.
I would also consider U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg a role model. I am inspired by how she has devoted her career to furthering the advancement of women and gender-equality issues. She and so many women lawyers who came before me have paved the way for our success and opportunity. I hope my generation of women lawyers will continue to mentor, encourage, support and cheer on the next generation of women lawyer leaders.
Q: If not law, what career might interest you?
A: As I look back, I think the one area that I might have been interested in pursuing is journalism, especially investigative journalism. I think there are many similarities between prosecution and investigative journalism. Both fields attempt to pursue, find and expose the truth, regardless of who or what is affected by that truth. Both careers attempt to make society safer by shedding light on dark areas and holding people who abuse power or positions of authority accountable.
It is so important for society to have good and fair prosecutors and also to have tenacious and thorough investigative journalists. Without both, I know the Nassar case would not have become what it did.
Q: What was your first job?
A: My first job, besides babysitting, was scooping ice cream at Jones Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in Baldwin. They make the best ice cream in the country.