Deb Sines, '82, Washington Post Metro Cover Story
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
Killers Fear This Woman
With Steely Focus, Prosecutor Takes On Infamous Defendants
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009
In 14 years as a prosecutor, Deborah Sines has dealt with many frightening characters. But even for this gruff, hard-charging lawyer, the voice mail that winter morning was a jolt: "Let me tell you something, we will kidnap your son today. And if you think about going to . . . trial, we will kill you."
Sines was preparing to pick a jury in the trial against two men accused of killing witnesses. Moments after she heard the recording, the phone rang in her office. "We are watching," the caller said, threatening to "get" her.
She has stared down killers in D.C. Superior Court and is not easily frightened. Yet this was the first time that Sines's job led to a threat against her family. Federal marshals, wearing earpieces and carrying guns, began shadowing her and her adult son at work and at home. She used private elevators to get in and out of court. She stopped taking Metro and changed her routine.
And she went to trial, presenting witnesses over a period of weeks, giving an impassioned argument to the jury and winning convictions in the case. Police, meanwhile, said they traced the threats to two men -- one of whom allegedly had ties to the defendants. Both now are awaiting trial themselves.
"If someone is trying to frighten you, they're trying to distract you from the case. You have to still do your damn job," she said.
Sines, 57, who recently became deputy chief of the homicide division at the U.S. attorney's office, takes on the cases that make people cringe, such as the trial, set for July, of Banita Jacks, the Southeast Washington woman accused of killing her four children and leaving their decomposing bodies for months in two bedrooms.
"If you believe in this city, you're on a mission, and part of that mission is to make it safer," Sines said. "That's what it is. That's why you do it. And unfortunately, for a lot of people, you can't fix them. They're broken. All you can do is make sure they don't do it again to someone else and cause someone else's mother or father to grieve."
Being a homicide prosecutor in the District demands time and energy. The prosecutor usually gets the case early and stays with it -- attending autopsies, visiting crime scenes, teaming with police to find and interview witnesses, analyzing forensic evidence, working 14-hour days to prepare for trial and then going to trial itself. Start to finish, it can take a year or two, even more.
As deputy chief of homicide, Sines oversees 11 lawyers who stop by her office throughout the day, giving updates on investigations. Detectives also come and go. Even before the threats, they were protective of Sines. They urged Sines, divorced since 2002, to remove family pictures from her walls because she uses the office to interview witnesses.
Her office bookshelves are lined with murder mystery novels and thick forensic pathology books. On a recent day, a bunch of autopsy photos were on her desk, showing men with a variety of bullet wounds. She keeps several plaques on the walls, including one that says: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process, he does not become a monster."
In a corner, she keeps 26 pairs of pumps, neatly stacked in boxes, and a change of clothes. Her biggest fashion statement is not her Brooks Brothers suits but the Chuck Taylor Converse high-tops she wears to and from court and inside her office. She has six pairs, different colors to match whichever suit she's wearing.
Sines became a prosecutor in 1986 after working a few years as a defense lawyer. She started at the Justice Department and moved in 1996 to the U.S. attorney's office. In a typical year, she takes on three or four trials, sometimes the office's highest-profile cases.
She won convictions against three men in the April 2003 triple homicide at Colonel Brooks' Tavern in Northeast Washington. She also prosecuted two men convicted of killing Jahkema "Princess" Hansen, 14, who was slain in January 2004 to keep her from testifying in a murder case.
And last Thanksgiving, as she was preparing to wash her collard greens for Thanksgiving dinner with her family, she got a call to rush down to Superior Court for the arraignment of one of three suspects accused of killing Michael and Virginia Spevak in their Chevy Chase home.
"She's a fighter," said Darryl Richmond, a homicide detective, who described Sines as "fearless."
That was apparent in the late 1990s, when a woman whose brother Sines had just prosecuted for a carjacking slapped her across the face and called her a "white devil." The trouble broke out in a hallway just outside the courtroom. Sines responded with a quick jab to the woman's jaw. Neither side pressed charges in the altercation.
Sines has a booming raspy voice that can take strangers by surprise. Her voice can take on many dimensions -- tough-talking New York accent, dating to time she spent there; easygoing Southern drawl; or street vernacular. "Yo, man, you aiight?" she yelled into her phone one recent day, her way of asking an investigator whether he was okay. She often uses four- or 12-letter words to profanely punctuate her speech.
"I'm not subtle, and people find that abrasive," Sines said, shrugging. "I don't have to pretend anymore. I don't need to impress anybody anymore. I am too damn old for that."
To deal with the pressure, Sines likes to tend to her garden, rising at 6. At night, she often can be seen sitting at a downtown bar-restaurant sipping Grey Goose and pineapple juice with homicide detectives. She's often the only white woman at the table, dwarfed by the linebacker-size black men who refer to Sines as "family" and trade off-color jokes.
She also unwinds in her office by closing the door and singing along to songs blaring from her computer by Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow or John Mellencamp.
She is most in her element in court. Whether the killing took place in a drug dispute, robbery or domestic argument, Sines shows the same fire in speaking for the victim and against the accused.
"You're speaking for dead people, and you don't want them to be forgotten," she said.
Glenn Kirschner, chief of the homicide division, called Sines a "force of nature" when it comes to winning over a jury. "She can communicate effectively with everyone. . . . You have to be able to communicate with the scientist, clergyman, doctor, retail sales clerk and the fast-food employee and unemployed juror and high school dropouts."
In the hallways at Superior Court, lawyers talk about Sines's strong will and determination, but they say she can have an unforgiving memory. Several defense lawyers refused to comment on battling with Sines for fear it could hurt their clients in the long run.
Sines does not write out her opening statements or closing arguments to jurors and discourages other prosecutors from doing so. She rips from the heart -- as she did in the trial of Azariah Israel and Ronald Cheadle, the men accused of killing witnesses.
"He was never given a chance to defend himself," Sines said, referring to one victim in the case, Pierre Johnson, 21, who was shot four times. She approached the jury and pointed to the defendants, just a few feet away.
"These men don't fight with their fists," she told the jury. "They're cowards. They creep up on you and they use guns to reach out and touch their victims."
Within days, the jury gave Sines another win. And on Friday, Judge Frederick H. Weisberg sentenced Cheadle to a 105-year prison term and Israel to a 53-year term. The sentencing took place amid especially tight security, with at least 11 marshals on hand.
Authorities said Wayne W. Pannell recruited Darryl Tipps, who had nothing to do with the murder case, to make the threatening calls in February by giving him $20 worth of cocaine, a beer and food.
The threats have softened her a little, Sines said recently, making her more sympathetic to witnesses who are afraid to testify. Many live in the same neighborhoods as the people accused of murders.
"It's easy to say, 'You have to tell the truth,' but you realize that truth has severe consequences," she said.