Conversations: EPISODE 6
A Powerful Conversation About Victims’ Rights with Attorney Angela Povilaitis
This episode is incredibly special as Danielle McGuire and I speak with attorney Angela Povilaitis, who is a nationally recognized voice for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Currently, Angela is an attorney with the State of Michigan whose work focuses on sexual assault, domestic violence, and other crime victim rights issues.
Prior to that, she was a senior attorney in the State Attorney General’s Criminal Division, and lead prosecutor on multi-victim domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault cases.
And for 12 years, she served as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County, working on cases of child abuse, child and adult sexual assault, child homicide, and other felony cases.
Povilaitis gained worldwide attention in 2018 as lead prosecutor in the case against former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, who was convicted in January 2018 of sexually assaulting numerous young girls.
Attorney Povilaitis was instrumental in arranging for more than 200 of Nassar’s victims to give impact statements to the court during his sentencing hearing, while the world watched live on television. This was perhaps one of the defining moments of the #MeToo movement.
In this episode of Conversations, Povilatis talks about her journey to becoming a prosecutor, what led her to focus on sexual and domestic violence cases, and what it means to be victim centered, offender focused, and trauma informed.
She also talks about three distinct cases that I’d like to provide some background about to give you context.
The first case: The People vs. Father James Rapp
Rapp was a Catholic priest accused of sexually assaulting young boys at Lumen Christian High School in Jackson, MI, in the 1980s. In 2015, Povilaitis filed 19 sexual assault charges against Rapp, who eventually pleaded no contest. The night before Rapp’s sentencing in April 2016, Povilaitis organized a dinner and meeting for about 10 victims. The next morning, several gave impact statements during the sentencing.
The second case: The People vs. Calvin Kelly
The defendant was an interstate truck driver serial rapist who preyed upon vulnerable women, including those struggling with drug addiction and poverty. Led by Povilaitis and her cold case sexual assault team, the Michigan Attorney General’s office linked Kelly to 11 reported rapes in 4 states spanning over 20 years. Povilaitis issued charges in 2014 and after many adjournments, delays, and appeals, a two-week jury trial began in September 2017 where 3 victims testified. Kelly was acquitted despite overwhelming evidence. Shortly after his acquittal, Kelly was charged with three rapes in Tennessee. At the time of this podcast, he remains in jail awaiting trial.
The third case and most widely known: The People vs. Larry Nassar
Nassar is one of the most prolific sexual abusers in US history, having abused well over 500 victims. His criminal case began with a report from one victim in August 2016 and quickly grew to hundreds of athletes from over a dozen different sports, ranging from gold-medal-winning Olympians and National Team members to club-level gymnasts.
But before the world knew his name, a case was built and led by Povilaitis and her team from the MSU Police department and Attorney General’s office.
As the lead prosecutor on his state sexual abuse charges, Povilaitis issued charges, presented evidence, questioned witnesses, and drafted a historic plea agreement where more than 200 victims gave impact statements while the world watched and learned the horrors of sexual abuse and trauma.
If this wasn’t enough exceptionalism for this episode, there’s more.
I took the backseat and welcomed Danielle McGuire to host this episode.
Danielle is an award-winning author and historian of racial and sexual violence. Her first book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance–a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (published by Knopf) won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lillian Smith Award and is used widely in colleges around the country.
Danielle is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and has appeared on National Public Radio, BookTV (CSPAN), CNN, MSNBC.com, and dozens of local radio stations throughout the United States and around the world.
This is truly a dynamic duo.
So without further ado, here is the far-reaching conversation between Angela Povilaitis and Danielle McGuire.
Danielle: Okay. So Angie and I know each other, I think, first through youth sports. We’re both soccer moms and we share a very competitive spirit. So I think it’s only fitting that we start this conversation with a little sport talk. So I was doing a little bit of research on you, and I read that while you were in high school in Baldwin, Michigan you earned 13 varsity letters. Most people don’t even earn one. So I was like what? 13 varsity letters. That’s impressive.
Angela: Absolutely. I’m impressed with your research skills there because that was a deep dive. So Baldwin, for the folks that don’t know, is a smaller community in northern Michigan. It’s about equal distance between Traverse City and Grand Rapids, about an hour from each of those larger towns, about 30 minutes from Lake Michigan. So it is a class D school. I think they changed it in the Michigan High School Athletic Association, but I was an athletic kid. I’m about 5’9”. So I was about 5’9” at 12 and got recruited to play basketball on our basketball team to be the center. I had a nickname at the time of Totem Pole, which was a little traumatizing, but I loved it. I loved everything about basketball. I was thinking back to some of the great Pistons years here and was a huge Pistons fan and would record the games on a VHS to watch all summer and practice in my backyard. So it’s a tiny town. There were 45 people in my graduating class. So I did get to play four years of varsity on our basketball team. We did have a JV team, but it was kind of fun to be there as a freshman. Then I played four years of volleyball and then four years of track. So I think that brings us to 12. Then my senior year I got to play softball with my sister who is a freshman, so that was really special. She was a very good pitcher and I decided to kind of do two sports that season.
I was a good student. I was student body president. I was involved in a lot of different activities, but sports were incredibly important to my childhood and growing up. I think an integral part of my competitive spirit transitioned well to my later career as a prosecutor and a trial attorney. So many lessons I learned being part of a team, having a goal, working towards it, handling defeat, being resilient. All of those came from the basketball courts of Baldwin, Michigan.
Danielle: Wow. That’s incredible. I read also that you actually were inducted into the Baldwin High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
Angela: Yeah. Yeah, that was a couple of years ago. The other thing I’m proud of in a humble brag kind of way was I was All Area Dream Team for two years in a row in our local paper. The transition of that, right, is I was a big fish in a little pond. I was not good enough to play Division I or Division II. I think I had a slight interest in maybe pursuing basketball, but I mean would have had to make it on a Division team. I really wanted to go to what I thought was the best school in the state and arguably one of the best schools in the country at the University of Michigan. So basketball was going to have to stop after my senior year.
Danielle: So when you went to college, you didn’t do any intramural sports or anything like that?
Angela: Oh I did play intramural. Yeah. Just not at that level.
Danielle: What’d you do?
Angela: Oh goodness. Basketball, volleyball, and broomball which was a little bit of insight into my future as a hockey mom. That was fun too.
Danielle: Did you say broomball?
Angela: Yeah, broomball.
Danielle: I don’t know what that is.
Angela: You’re from Wisconsin. You didn’t play broomball in Wisconsin?
Danielle: I didn’t.
Angela: So it’s like hockey but on a basketball court. I don’t know if it’s a real broom. I can’t remember it’s been so long.
Danielle: It’s not like curling?
Angela: No. It’s more like…It’s broomball.
Angela: You have a ball and you have a team and you have a stick that—I think it might be a broom actually—where you hit the ball and try to pass it. It’s like hockey on a basketball court.
Danielle: Right. Oh, that’s great. I think that’s really wonderful. No, I didn’t play broomball in Wisconsin. The only kind of broom I used was when my mom made me sweep. I hope broomball isn’t just a women’s league.
Angela: Oh, no. It was coed too.
Danielle: I was going to say it’s pretty gendered otherwise.
Angela: We could bring it back Danielle.
Danielle: Oh, I think now’s the time.
Angela: Right, right.
Danielle: What else do we have to do? Another article I read about you said that—It was actually something that your mom said. Your mom was a librarian, right? She said in a more recent interview that by fourth grade you knew what you wanted to do, what college you were going to, and that you wanted to be a lawyer. Is that something that you think is true? By fourth grade you knew that?
Angela: I don’t remember it being exactly that age, but definitely about high school I had an interest in the law. I really can’t kind of think back and find where that started, but I know up until the late elementary school years I really wanted to be an astronaut. I remember Space Camp was my favorite movie. I just recently introduced that to my boys, and it did not have the same effect, unfortunately. I think I was about 11. I remember being in I think fifth grade when the Challenger explosion happened. That was a pretty dynamic event in my life because I was really interested in NASA and the space program and the space shuttle. Unfortunately, I was not a great student related to science and math. So it became a point where that really wasn’t an option that I saw, at least, and kind of shut that down my own self.
But yeah. I watched L.A. Law. A Time to Kill was a movie that I watched later on. To Kill a Mockingbird was my favorite book ever. Atticus Finch and his fight for the underdog and justice. So yeah. There weren’t many lawyers in Baldwin. My mom’s cousin is the trial court judge. He was always a man that I respected, and others respected and carried himself with a lot of dignity and seemed to be compassionate. Yeah. It seemed like something attainable and a career that could be helpful and meaningful. So I had a vision going into college that I wanted to be pre-law and that law school is a goal, but I had no kind of idea of exactly what that looked like at a high school or 18.
Danielle: Right. So when you said you watched L.A. Law, were there other shows on TV or other movies that made you want to be a prosecutor or a defense attorney? What was it about those movies that spoke to you?
Angela: So I like to argue. I mean if you were interviewing my parents, I’m sure they would tell you that I really wanted to have the last word. I always wanted to be right. So my mouth got me in trouble a little bit growing up more than anything did. Becoming a prosecutor really wasn’t something that I even considered until law school actually. I can remember being home for the summer, I think, between my senior year of college and starting law school because I went right away. I was watching A Time to Kill, the Matthew McConaughey movie about a brutal sexual assault in the south and the subsequent trial. There’s this scene where he’s giving the closing argument and it’s incredibly impassioned and moving. My mom asked me, she said, “Is this the kind of lawyer you want to be?” I said oh god no. There’s no way I’d want to get up in front of people and argue and have all of the attention on me. I mean at that point I was, I think, interested in environmental law or regulatory law or research and writing.
So when I started law school, that wasn’t even on my radar. It wasn’t until I had an amazing criminal law professor—Peter Henning at Wayne State Law—that I had a few internships that I did especially at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office that really opened my eyes to what being a prosecutor meant, what it entailed. How you could be the voice for victims, how you could meet people at arguably one of the lowest points in their lives and help them feel supported and believed and really be the voice for so many in our society. When you go in the courtroom as a prosecutor, I would say, “Angela Povilaitis on behalf of the people of the state of Michigan.” That’s really powerful and something I took seriously, to be that voice for everybody but especially for the victim.
Danielle: That’s really incredible. You mentioned Peter Henning. What was it about him and his class that really changed things for you? I mean I’ve had mentors and professors in my life who completely changed the course of my life, my path. What was it about him or his classes that did that for you?
Angela: Well, so he was just incredibly engaging. He was a former federal prosecutor. So I think having that real world experience to not just cite case law or research. To have kind of been in the trenches himself really was impactful when we were talking about case law related to criminal procedure and practice. It just touches so many places within lives. I truly believe—After watching A Time to Kill I thought I’d be more interested in possibly being a defense attorney, right. That you can do a lot of good social justice wise. From that perspective—and I absolutely agree that you can—but I think our system needs really good, honest, fair prosecutors. We’re the entry point into the system and you make that decision. I always took that decision incredibly seriously that I decide to charge a case. If I charge a case, the impact that’s going to have on the victim, on the offender. If I decide to deny a case because I don’t think we can prove it beyond our reasonable doubt then the impact that will have on the offender, the victim, the community.
So I think what—I speak now to law students occasionally. One of the things I do think at this particular moment, there’s a lot of interest in social justice understandably so. I encourage them don’t shut the door on prosecution because you think it’s all law and order and people who are out only to win or improve their own political profile. You can have a lot of impact on everyone involved if you’re fair and honest and follow the law. Nobody wants to send somebody to prison unless they’ve really hurt someone and are not rehabilitatable. There are a lot of bigger issues related to the goals of sentencing beyond just punishment. There’s accountability and the victims need to know that the system works for them. That’s one of the issues that I’m most concerned about now.
Danielle: I want to actually come back to that in a little bit, but first I want to ask you about your very first case and what that was like and if you remember it.
Angela: So I can tell you a couple of stories. So when I was in law school, I tried to expose myself to a lot of different areas. Because I really wanted to use those three years and not only learn in the classroom, but kind of figure out what was going to be the best fit for me as a career. So I spent a summer working for the free legal aid clinic at Wayne State University Law School where we provided legal aid in family court for domestic violence victims and divorce cases, which was really impactful. It was all run by students with a couple of attorney supervisors. I worked for the Wayne County Corporation Counsel when former Governor Granholm was the corporation counsel. So that was the late 90s. I was interested in kind of government legal work, and that was interesting. It was all civil based. So a lot of lawsuits against the county or mental health hearings, those kinds of things. I worked at a law firm that represented a lot of labor law issues, democratic political issues, Sachs Waldman O’Hara. I think it’s gone through some other name iteration by now. That was interesting. I worked for a personal injury lawyer, and he did not treat his staff well. Not that he needed to, but I remember getting briefs back with cartoon swear words and just not a great mentor. Pretty abrupt and didn’t really want to mentor people or expose them to arguments or some of the other more exciting places. So that was somewhat of a negative experience, but the firm and other people at the firm were great to work with. I had an internship. It’s so interesting how the word works out when you look back on it.
Danielle: Yeah. I didn’t know any of this.
Angela: Yeah. I had a law clerk for credit, an internship at the federal courthouse. So many of the attorneys in the civil division I worked in said, “You need to go work for a judge and kind of see the inside, how the courthouse works from that perspective.” So I applied. I had an internship for credit. It turned out—I was only there for a couple of weeks because there was a conflict. So the firm I was working at for pay had a number of cases and this judge had a great reputation and was very above board. I think most judges are. He said, “You’re going to have to pick. You’re going to have to pick between this position for credit or this position for pay.” I really needed to have a job that paid. So here I was a couple of weeks into my third year of law school. I had to find another internship that I could easily transition from the court to something else.
A law school friend said, “Hey, have you ever considered going to the prosecutor’s office?” I said I really hadn’t at that point. She said, “Well, you should come take a look at it. They’re hiring.” Specifically hiring in the child and family abuse bureau, we called it CFAB. It was run by one of my most important mentors in my life of Nancy Deal, who really was the first person I think arguably on the frontlines of Michigan discussing how important it was to have specially trained prosecutors prosecuting child abuse, sexual assault, child sexual assault, domestic violence. She started this unit in Wayne County in I think the 70s or 80s. So I went in for the interview. I got the internship. As they say, the rest is history. I loved it. I loved going into the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice every day. I’d read the newspaper. I’m a big news junkie. I would read the paper and a case that was on the front page would be down the hall. I could go and watch that trial.
My first day I remember getting assigned to a prosecutor named Jerry Dorsey who is still a prosecutor in Wayne County and is also a mentor of mine. He had me kind of tag along. It was a child murder case where a young child had been murdered and sexually assaulted. So I mean I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was so impactful to kind of see how he interacted with the surviving family members, how he presented himself to the court, how he handled this jury trial. I was hooked. These were horrific crimes, but to see that you could have a positive impact on these people’s lives and that you could support them. That you could be the one to try to obtain justice really was so impactful. So I was there for a couple of years and was lucky enough to get hired after I passed the bar.
Danielle: Wow. Angie, I had no idea that you did all of those things before you became the kind of prosecutor that I know you as. That’s an incredible story of kismet, coincidence.
Angela: Like serendipitous, right? I mean it’s like all of those things kind of—I don’t know if it would have been on my radar. I don’t know if I would have been able to—It was really what I was hoping for. Exposing myself to legal aid and to civil litigation and the court system was to try to find that right fit. It felt very much the right fit, even at 25 and right out of law school.
Danielle: Wow. That’s incredible. So you went on to work then at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. For listeners who might not know Wayne County, we’re talking mainly about Detroit. That’s the county that Detroit is in. So once you started at Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, what was your focus there? Did you stay in child abuse and those issues or did you move on to other things?
Angela: Yeah. So I graduated from law school in 2000, which was an election year. The long standing prosecutor there, John O’Hair, I think he’d been there over two or three decades had announced his retirement. So there was going to be a new prosecutor. The bar exam happens in July, but you don’t get your results until November. No one really hires lawyers unless you’re at one of the fancier firms until you get those results. So for those four or five months or so, I was lucky enough because I had kind of stuck around and was doing a good job as an intern. I landed this contract position where I was prosecuting personal protection order violations. So we had an intern doing that. It intersected, obviously, with domestic violence. There would often be misdemeanor domestic violence cases that would accompany these protection orders. So interact with victims and you’d have to present testimony. You had a lower burden of proof, but you still had a docket to run and prepare for them. So I got really lucky. I mean it prepared nothing, but it got my foot in the door.
So when I passed the bar in November, it would have been probably, I think, within the same week as the election. Mike Duggan—the current Detroit mayor—was elected prosecutor and there were a number of openings. Like usually there’s maybe four or five a year, and I think there were upwards of 20 to 30 openings that year because people were retiring and lots of changes. So I just happened to be—I had a number of kind of mentors and folks advocating for my hire who knew my work both at the corporation counsel and at the prosecutor’s office. So I got hired there. So unfortunately I didn’t get to stay in the protection [inaudible]. So I actually was assigned to our forfeiture unit, which handled narcotic forfeitures and drug forfeitures. Abandoned homes became a big issue where they were doing nuisance abatement proceedings to try to go after owners who were not keeping up with their property. Then I found a little niche. So within our unit we did all of the public nuisance cases. So at the time in the early 2000s we had a number of smutty theaters and massage parlors.
Danielle: In Detroit?
Angela: Well, not just in Detroit. Wayne County in general. So those were cases, for some reason, kind of got dumped on my lap. I ran with those. It was a lot of interactions with undercover officers who had to go in and be solicited or who had to uncover evidence of bad stuff happening in theaters. Then we would file the civil actions to try to padlock them or take them over. So I did that for about three years, but I really wanted to be in court. So every time I got to go to court in forfeiture—It was rare, but it was exciting. So at some point Mike Duggan left to go to the Detroit Medical Center and there was an opening. Kim Worthy was appointed to that position. I know she was planning to run anyway. When Prosecutor Worthy came in I got kind of exiled for the forfeiture unit or let out actually. I really wanted to be a regular prosecutor. So she sent me I think it was in the domestic violence unit was where I got to go the first time. So I was doing domestic violence cases. So I can still remember my first domestic violence trial.
Danielle: So how did you prepare for that?
Angela: Well, I mean exhaustively. I mean it was probably a two year felony case, but it was a very typical case where for any number of reasons by the time we get up to trial, the victim was not interested or able to participate. She wanted us to drop the case. It was her husband. There was some prior histories there that acquitted the charge. So I would really struggle with balancing real life and work. Even for these trials where I would stay up the night before and the weeks before and make sure every area was covered and prepared and general outlines for the witnesses. How I would prepare the voir dire, the jury selection, the closing argument, all of that stuff right. I read every manual I could find on prosecuting these cases and ultimately it was a conviction. Those are bittersweet too sometimes because you put all this work into, and it never felt like a personal win. It felt like the right decision, but we know that they left the courtroom together and he’s now on probation and hopefully getting the services he needs to control his anger and control his impulses and that she’s safe.
Danielle: Were there any cases at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office that did feel like a personal win for you?
Angela: Yeah. So it was interesting. So I got to do the domestic violence cases for a while and then I was assigned to a couple of different felony court rooms. And you handle all of the cases that come in that aren’t specially assigned. I knew I wanted to get back to the family abuse cases, the sexual assaults, the domestic violence. Those cases. So I had my first sexual assault case and I can remember that. It was a teenager—I think she was about 14—who had been sexually assaulted by her mom’s boyfriend and disclosed and mom didn’t believe her and was supporting the offender. It was a conviction. We were able to put it together and she was amazingly resilient, even lacking kind of the familial support. I think just knowing that we believed her, and she supported her and were with her. I mean I really wanted to do those cases. So my boss at the time—Actually the woman in charge of that unit is another mentor of mine, Laura Weingarten. She had kind of got me into the trial and was kind of recruiting me there, and I was happy to go.
A lot of prosecutors, especially in big city offices, I think they envision that the most glamorous or the most prestigious case is homicide cases. Right? Those are the ones that we always see on TV or make the headlines. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in those. I just really felt like the family violence cases or the sexual assault cases, the child abuse cases, were equally if not more important in my view than a homicide case. That’s not diminishing what happens to homicide victims or shooting cases, but I grew up in a small town. I grew up in modest means, but I had a safe home. I had parents who supported me, and I had a loving environment. I think kids need that kind of environment in order to thrive and do well at school and sports and everything else. I think they can do well even if they don’t have that environment, but it’s an extra hurdle.
So to be able to be the one to work on those cases and to try to do them as well as I could and to support those victims. The most amazing thing to me was that you could read a case file and it would bring you to tears, just the horror of what someone had experienced. Then you meet them, especially a child or a teenager, in person. Knowing that they had other people in their lives who were supporting them, or they had access to good counselling, how resilient they could be. It wasn’t easy, but there was always this spark of hope and resiliency. I think some of the fiercest courage I’ve ever seen have been those kids. Sometimes elementary age, sometimes teenagers who are standing outside the courtroom door about to walk in and share the most embarrassing or heart wrenching story with 12 or 14 strangers on a jury while their perpetrator is feet away and to be able to kind of walk through that with them—I’m going to start crying in this podcast.
Danielle: Me too.
Angela: I always cry, but that really was incredibly motivating. I felt a lot of pressure too, to be honest. I mean we don’t want to have an off day. You don’t want to pick a bad jury. You don’t want to do all that you can because there’s so much riding on the line. You asked me a question about a case. I got sidetracked.
Danielle: Well, before I do that I mean I’m glad you told me this. I wanna know how do you steel yourself for those moments? How do you be the strength that those kids need in that moment? How do you do that as a human being and someone who knows the history and knows the horrible story and you’re the one that has to stand up there and be strong?
Angela: Yeah. So I mean I don’t know that I have one answer. So when you’re taught to interact with children in the criminal justice system whether you’re the police or the prosecutor, a forensic interview, there’s a protocol. There’s a child forensic interviewing protocol that I think every state has implemented and we definitely have it here in Michigan. It’s a result of many of those cases you’d hear about in the 1980s where there were false allegations in daycare centers. Kids are somewhat impressionable. So you want to make sure you’re not leading them. That’s integral in the protocol. You want to make sure they’re competent. You want to make sure you’re hypothesis testing. That you’re not just taking the version and fitting it into a crime, right? One of the things that we learn during that protocol and that training is building a rapport with your victims. I would apply that protocol to my adult cases or my untested rape cases or pretty much any case. Because you bring a victim in with a police officer before you’re going to charge the case. A lot of folks would just dive right in with the details. I know even if I’m seeing a doctor or a counselor, you want there to be some conversation like we’re having. You want there to be some–
Danielle: You want there to be some human interaction.
Angela: Yeah. So I would take that extra time and try to build a rapport. I’ll tell you, I loved it. Especially the teenagers. I’d be like tell me what your favorite music is, what’s your favorite movie. I would learn so much about kind of pop culture from that perspective or what was on their mind or who their friends were or who they wanted to be when they grew up. So I think it really started well before we even went to court in trying to build that rapport and that trust with the victim, with their family. That they knew that you were going to be somebody reliable and consistent in their life. So pulling back just a little bit, we have the pleasure of kind of being able to vertically prosecute cases, which is important. So from the minute the police bring a case, ideally through sentencing it would just be one prosecutor. Most cases there’s different court proceedings and different prosecutors. So the victims have to meet so many different people. So you build that resiliency, you build that rapport with them, and you build the trust. At least during that time—I mean I’ve cried in court before. I think it’s well documented sometimes.
One of my favorite movies is For the Love of the Game with Kevin Costner. He’s playing at Yankee Stadium and he’s got all this stuff going on. He’s got these folks heckling him and he’s trying to pitch a perfect game. He’s got this saying. It’s like clear the mechanism. He clears the mechanism; he clears all of the distraction out. That became kind of my go to, definitely during the Nassar case which I think we’re going to talk about. Probably throughout my career after I watched that movie, like I’ve got this job to do. I’ve got this victim to help. I’ve got this jury to kind of make sure they understand it and you just kind of clear the mechanism. Then sometimes you break down afterwards.
Danielle: So that’s a perfect segue in some ways to the case that I think the world kind of came to know you through. That brought national and even international attention to your work and your awesomeness. That is, of course, the Larry Nassar case which began long before the world saw you on national TV giving your closing statement. Just in terms of like clearing the mechanism. So that began in 2016, right?
Danielle: Okay. We’ll branch out from here, but it began with an IndyStar article, an investigative report in a newspaper and one victim. One survivor speaking out publicly. It ballooned into this enormous case with hundreds of victims and survivors speaking out. It apexed in many ways at the height of the Me Too movement. In lots of ways, all of your work leading up to this case prepared you for and enabled you to shepherd these survivors through what was undoubtedly one of the biggest, most important sexual assault cases in American history. So I guess—I’m not really sure where to start with this, but why don’t we sort of start at the end and then we can see where it goes. I’m thinking about in 2018 after Larry Nassar has pled guilty to like 10 cases that you brought from multiple counties. You’ve got hundreds of people standing before a judge ready and willing to give impact statements. Can you just tell us about A, how that happened, and B, how you managed all of that?
Angela: I think it’s important to note that there were multiple courts so there were multiple judges that folks were coming before. The interesting thing is from that case I was—as the first chair prosecutor on it—the face of it but it was a team effort. Robyn Liddell was my second chair with me from the attorney general’s office, an amazing prosecutor. Chris Allen, who was a pellet wiz kid and Becca Snyder and Angela Olsen and our victim advocates. Then, of course, our partners at the Michigan State University Police Department and Detective Munford. So it was absolutely a team effort.
Danielle: It was an amazing feat.
Angela: So it was absolutely a team effort. You’re right. As I look back on it, I’m still kind of trying to understand it all because we were in a bubble and didn’t fully appreciate what was happening. We knew it was getting attention and big and growing, but I still don’t think I have a full grasp of it personally. Because those are long hard days and weeks where you’re working 18/20 hours a week. We were trying to coordinate—We wanted to make sure anybody who came forward had that opportunity to speak. It was something that I felt really strongly about. When we even started discussing a plea agreement or a plea to the case that that was a non-negotiable part. That the defendant had to agree in our plea agreement. I think that gets overlooked that the reason the victims all were able to speak is because of the plea agreement that I drafted and that our office agreed to. Because without that plea agreement it would not have looked like that. It would not have happened like that.
This wasn’t the first case that I did that on. About a couple of years before Nassar I prosecuted a case involving a catholic priest who had abused dozens of young boys in Jackson County. The case came to us. He was about to get out of prison in Oklahoma, and we had, again, kind of serendipitously two victims 30 years after the fact walk into the police department unbeknownst to each other to file reports within a two week period. So that investigation—Many of the practices that I had been trained on really when I came to the attorney general’s office to start this cold and complex sexual assault project.
Another mentor of mine, as you know, is Debi Cain and she’s my current boss, but she and her staff really had this vision of a statewide project where you could take a prosecutor and a police officer and really mold them and train them into the best trained entity that maybe could respond to these cases with more time and resources than local prosecutors. We did. We learned about what it meant to be victim centered, to really focus on victims’ needs first and foremost as opposed to what you needed as a prosecutor or to be offender focused. So much of our sexual assault cultural myths revolve around victim blaming as opposed to how did an offender find a vulnerable victim or how did they manipulate a vulnerability to get away with it. Then the trauma piece. To be a little bit more informed about what trauma looks like for victims, how it’s different, and the impact going forward.
So in that priest case, we started out with those two victims. We started getting records and material and the public kind of became aware of it. More victims came forward. These are men now our husband’s ages or older—40s and 50s—who have gone on some to have very successful careers, others who have really struggled with what happened to them as teenagers and as preteenagers. So I had a lot of interaction with those men and their families and some of their wives. We knew how important it was one that they not only have an opportunity to participate in the criminal justice system, not only to have their offender—They wanted to make sure they weren’t going to do it to someone else. That they were going to be there incarcerated and held responsible. Also that they had an opportunity somewhere to talk about the impact the crime had on them.
So that victim impact statement in the priest case was one of the most powerful days of my career ever but absolutely at that point. We brought in men from all over the country from Alaska and Texas and Utah. Men who for 30 or 40 years—One of the victims from Utah had filed a lawsuit against the diocese and it went all the way to the Utah Supreme Court, and his case was dismissed. He never had an opportunity to confront his monster. So that afternoon in that courtroom, I think we had 10 come in, again, because it was part of the plea agreement. So we were able to work out essentially a contract between the prosecutor and the defense attorney where we agreed to this range of years and you agree to let all the victims in the court [inaudible] and agrees to go along with it. It was so powerful. I mean it was not only an opportunity for them to kind of talk about what those 30 years have looked like. Sometimes it was a one time incident. What I really realized is that it doesn’t diminish it. Sometimes a one time horrific incident can be as impactful as serial abuse that happens for a decade. So it was so important.
So that really became kind of the framework that I used going into Nassar. We had the training; we had the team. We knew that we—I wanted to bring 500 cases, right. If there was a victim that came forward and we believed them and they wanted to go forward, let’s bring it on for the next 10 years or so. At some point the way our sentencing works, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to prolong the inevitable, especially when you have an offender who’s willing to come to court and admit what he did. So we tried to find a way that those victims would have the ability if they wanted. Not everyone was in a spot where that was going to be good for them and it becomes part of what victim centered is. So that sentence agreement was a big deal. I think when we entered the sentence agreement, we knew of about 125 victims. I think when we started the sentencing hearing, we thought we might have 88 of those 125 come forward. Then as it kind of grew, by the end we had I think over 200 victims give impact statements in one way or the other. Obviously, we’re two ways out and there’s well over 500 victims who have reported or filed lawsuits. It was remarkable to kind of see the transformation from, I think, victim to survivor to kind of advocate that’s happened with that victim pool.
One of the things is stress about that case is I’m so grateful for everything that’s come from it. All the good that’s come with awareness, with the victim’s advocacy towards legislative and societal change, but you know as my friend and someone who we’ve talked about this often, most of my cases didn’t have that kind of interest or attention. Many of my cases in Detroit and around the state involved victims who will never maybe have a victim impact statement for some reason or another or won’t have interest or national awards or books or movies. I think it’s just equally as important to make sure those voices and those stories are understood, and a lot of times they are coming from various underrepresented or marginalized populations. So that’s been my other goal.
Danielle: Absolutely. The work that you’ve done around the state on behalf of those victims in particular has been really crucial and important. You’re absolutely right. They don’t get the attention they need. It’s a huge and gaping hole in both the Me Too movement and in our culture where we value one person’s story over the other. Yet, their stories are very similar and sometimes as heartbreaking no matter what. I know just because we’ve talked a little bit about it, but can you tell us a little bit about what it was like in those days leading up to the impact statements? Like how did you—Expecting 88 people to talk and ending up with more than 200 in a matter of days probably was chaotic and crazy and far away from the television screen and everything. What was that like? How did you organize that? How did you keep the survivors together emotionally? How did you keep it together emotionally? How did you make that work? Because it looked seamless on TV.
Angela: Oh I’m glad. Again, it comes back to that team. So it wasn’t just me. It was our constant kind of communication with our victim advocates and co-counsels. Honestly, the civil attorneys too that were involved were a huge assistance in trying to coordinate this. As I look back on that time, the thing that I remember—again because we started out talking about youth sports—we had a hockey tournament the weekend before. So it was Martin Luther King Day weekend. We were in Lansing of all places and I just couldn’t escape the case. So I was in court all day on Friday and then I had to meet my family at the ice rink. I didn’t really pay attention to where our first game was. I walk in. I put it in my GPS or whatever and I drive over in the snow. I’m like you have got to be kidding me. I mean I pull up to this place and it’s called the Summit. It’s where our ice rink is, but it happens to be a multisport facility where right next to the ice rink is John Geddert’s Twistars Gymnastics Facility, which for those who don’t know many of the Nassar victims had trained there and were part of that. Geddert was and is, I think, still part of a larger investigation. So I walk in and I’m like oh—I’ve never seen it. I’d never been there before. I’d seen pictures. I’d talk to so many victims about it. It was a Friday night and there were little girls practicing gymnastics. I sat there and I tried not to cry because I couldn’t believe that it was still open. That kids were still there knowing that that was one of the places that Nassar had abused victims. Then I think one of our next games was at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing. So I was decked out in Michigan State gear. Those games were early, like 6:00/7:00 in the morning. Then the next one was at a suburban ice rink within half a block of Nassar’s medical center. So I could not escape the case that weekend.
What I remember though is between these tournament games is we go back to our hotel and I would log on to work because we were in constant contact. So we had a master sheet, like an Excel sheet—Actually, not Excel because I don’t know how to use Excel. It was like a Word document, super old school. The victims name, whether they wanted to be publicly identified or not. I was getting emails all weekend. We were trying to coordinate travel too and often paid for airline and hotels from all over the country. We’re trying to figure out Skype. We had a victim in South Korea and one in Boston and I think one in Europe. We were getting videos. One thing I learned from the Rapp case is these men were coming in to speak. The defendant, the priest Father Rapp, looked very different than what he looked like when he was abusing them. So I found some pictures. I’d gotten a yearbook and I found the pictures of what he—You know because he was a wrestling coach. He was very strong. By the time we convicted him 30 years later, he was pretty weak and feeble. During that sentencing hearing what we learned is the importance of photographs and to kind of center everyone around what the abuse looked like. So I had asked those men for pictures of themselves at the time that they were abused to show what a 14 year old looked like or those kinds of things and they gave me that.
So we used that idea in Nassar too. So when I was corresponding with victims I would ask them, “Hey can you send me a picture of yourself at the time of the abuse?” A lot of the pictures we got were in their gymnastic leotard or—We had, I think, 14 different sports represented. So soccer players and swimmers and rowers. So we were trying to coordinate that. We had a PowerPoint going on where we would keep it in order. We would have a master list. I mean there was so much fluidity and we had to try to pivot quickly. Most importantly because there was so much media there, we wanted to make sure we had a whole kind of what we thought was like a failsafe process to confirm whether someone wanted to be publicly identified. The last thing we wanted was for someone to inadvertently be live streamed or tweeted out who wasn’t. I think we made one mistake. We were able to fix it and have good relationships with some of our media folks who were pretty quick to delete tweets and stuff. In general, we confirmed that. I tried to introduce everyone. I tried to keep it smooth and moving. We were trying to estimate how many we could get to each day knowing that the number was growing, that the interest was growing.
With all of this, it’s important to remember Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to come forward, we wanted her to go last. We wanted her to have the final word because she really started this and had sacrificed so much. So it’s pretty remarkable to me. We initially thought we’d be there for three days and then we were there for six or seven in Ingham and then another three or four in Eaton. She just kind of kept coming back to court every day. Then the logistics. I mean we didn’t have enough seats in the courtroom. We had an overflow room. We had moms who were nursing that needed quiet space. We had therapy dogs on staff to be able to kind of hopefully be available to people. We had counselors on staff. We tried to think of all of the different variables. I have to say, many of these ideas came from our victim advocates who just were really thinking outside the box. Like how can we support these victims during what’s going to be a really challenging time and make it as seamless as possible, and we pulled it off.
Danielle: Yeah, you really did. How did they support each other when they were all together? Because I imagine that some of them didn’t know each other. They were decades apart in terms of when the crime happened. Did you see them come together as a group of survivors?
Angela: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Again, we tried to separate them before because we didn’t want there to be an opening for a defense attack that they were somehow colluding or getting their stories straight. Again, I go back to the Rapp case. So one of the things that we did in that case that I also did in Nassar was the night before the hearing we brought everyone together. We had this informal kind of meeting. In Jackson, it’s a small bigger town I’ve realized. Everybody knows everybody. Everyone knew who Rapp was. So even just the logistics of finding a place and then making sure people knew. So it became the Povilaitis meeting, right? So nobody knew what Povilaitis was.
Danielle: Or how to pronounce it.
Angela: Or how to pronounce it. We did that with Nassar too. We found a room the night before. From the Rapp meeting, the thing that was so remarkable is two men who were cousins who didn’t know the other was a victim. So they walk into this room. It’s the detective and I. We have some appetizers and sodas ready to go and bam. They kind of are hit by, “You were a victim too?” It was really emotionally intense. We wanted to have them ask us any question we could answer. We wanted to prepare them for the next day as much as we could and kind of try to alleviate their fears. One of the things I’ve realized in 20 years of trial work is everybody watches Law and Order or some kind of show like that.
Angela: That’s what they think the court is going to be like, right, and it’s so different. Often it’s somewhat boring. That was so great though because the next day we get to court with these men, and they’ve all met each other and they’re not total strangers to each other like it would have been had they just come to court. Just the emotional support that they provided. They all exchanged emails and connected on Facebook. I know for some time they were regularly keeping in contact as needed. So for Nassar, we felt it was really important too to have that kind of outside of a courtroom setting meeting. So we reserved a room, I think, at the community center in East Lansing. Again, it became the Povilaitis room. We kind of didn’t want folks to know. The chief of police bought pizza and we had cupcakes. The advocates had made these worry stones to hand out to everyone that had an inspirational word. We were able to kind of give them a preview, to answer questions. For those two or three hours, there were a lot of tears. There were a lot of connections made, and then you saw those connections continue. Because most of the victims—Many of them knew other athletes from their gyms or from their organizations that were a part of the case, but there were a number who were there alone you know. Then we had two families that had lost their children. One who had died in an accident, another who had died by suicide. We wanted to make sure that those families had a place at the table, were supported. I still have kept in contact with one of them. It’s been really wonderful to know that she was in contact with some of the other victims too.
Danielle: So I have two questions. One is when you gave your closing statement—Is that what it’s called? Was that your closing statement?
Angela: So it’s kind of technically an elocution because there wasn’t a jury, but you get a chance to say something, yeah.
Danielle: Okay. So I went back and read the whole thing, and you know I’m a writer. I’m struck by what an amazing piece of writing it is. I’m wondering how you sat down to write that and what you had to do to sort of clear the mechanism in order to put that together. What was your process like?
Angela: So it was similar to what I would do in a trial. What I did in trial work was I’d always have a second notebook, a legal pad where during witness testimony or closing arguments or when the other side was talking, I’d have ideas that would pop in my head. I’d literally just go to the back and start at the back instead of the front and I’d just write those ideas down. So in the course of those five or six days, I had a ton of ideas. It was like a gobbledygook kind of idea, but even though we were in this bubble I knew that I had an opportunity to potentially kind of talk about some of the big recurring things and the issues that we were seeing. Whether it was from the institutional responses or some of the mean comments we were hearing on social media about the victims, some of the continued victim blaming or questioning. So I knew that I had a really unique opportunity that most prosecutors never get to kind of confront those ideas. I kept thinking about how do we get here? I still kind of am awestruck by that.
We had an opportunity to go to Los Angeles for the ESPY awards when they gave the victims the Arthur Ash award and brought, I think it was over 140/150 of them on stage. I still am struck sometimes by that number. It’s kind of how I feel about what’s going on in the world right now with COVID because you see these gigantic numbers, but behind every number is a person and a personal experience and a family member and a coach and a gym. I remember sitting in the audience in Los Angeles during that rehearsal and just kind of breaking down because the breadth of destruction that one person can cause manifest itself in front of me. It’s, again, one of those things like I don’t think I’ll ever understand many of the predators that I’ve encountered. I don’t even begin to understand Larry Nassar, and I’ve kind of come to peace with that. Here’s someone who went to medical school and was trained to help and had an amazing life and opportunity and prestige, but yet choose to harm and hurt so many. The visceral emotion that was running through those courtrooms, I mean I can still feel it. So I wanted to try to capture that.
So I stayed at a hotel in the area. It became kind of my refuge. I remember I kind of started putting it together. I usually would be in my room. I remember my dear friends—you and Megan—sending me flowers, which were wonderful. For whatever reason, the night before the hearing I wanted to sit in the main lobby, the little gathering place. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I think I tried a Hot Pocket for the first time, which was really disgusting. I just wanted to kind of see what was going on in the world, but also kind of read through it in my mind and try to organize it. So I just started typing the thoughts I had written down and try to have some kind of cohesive themes running through it. I’ll be completely honest. Chris Allen, again, from the attorney general’s office has always been my go to editor. He helped me edit it and get rid of some of the redundancies that I like to. I think it was sort of the Eaton County one I had some really strong words that probably didn’t need to be expressed because we were kind of dealing with some folks who were going to the media with some incredible comments. I think I might have suggested someone involved was a Holocaust denier. Maybe that wasn’t the best analogy.
So Chris helped me edit it into something that I think I’m really proud of. I listened to it a couple of times or read it and I go back to it when I’m now teaching people. Because I think those larger issues are still—even with the transformative effect that the Me Too movement and Tarana Burke and the Weinstein case and so many other cases have had, I think we’re still grappling with those larger victim blaming rape culture myths for sure.
Danielle: Right. Do you think that the Me Too movement has turned a corner? Has made an impact? Has changed our systems, our society? Or do you think there’s just so much more work to do because we’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of years of patriarchy and white supremacy?
Angela: Yeah. I mean I think it has helped. We don’t have a magic wand where suddenly all of the issues we’ve been grappling with related to victim responses and institutional responses to reporting and support. I think we don’t have to look any further than the Weinstein case where you saw how hard it was for those victims to come forward and be eviscerated in the courtroom, sometimes in the media about their motivations. I mean this is one of those things I’d often try to voir dire on in jury question. No one questions the motivations of somebody who’s saying their car was stolen or their house was broken into, but there was this knee jerk reaction of what can we even believe that this crime occurred? That’s unsettling. We have to kind of break it down into it’s so hard for victims to come forward and to participate in the system, particularly if they’re not being treated well by the people who should—the prosecutors, the police, the court system. I mean I question whether I would ever come forward if I had ever been in that position because I know there’s so many non—We just can’t guarantee what’s going to happen and how your life’s going to be upended. All of the survivors I worked with on that case and many others who have risked so much.
Angela: I’d be remiss. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Nassar, but you know how important the other big case that I was on.
Danielle: Shawana Hall.
Angela: Yeah. Before Nassar, the Calvin Kelly case which involved a serial rapist truck driver who we had linked to 11 rapes spanning four states. I mean that was my big case before that I was working on for four years and had gone through many adjournments and many appeals. The women in that case—and especially Shawana Hall who was our main charge victim, they were treated pretty horrifically by many of the responding police departments. Not only did they report their rape, but it was horrific brutal assaults and kidnappings with weapons and lots of harm. They truly believed they were going to be killed. They would get to safety, and they do what we ask them to do. They report it to the police. They got to a hospital or a sexual assault program and get a rape kit done. Almost every single one of those police reports as we look back over 20/25 years, you know many of them there was some doubt when they had that contact with police or prosecutors even. I mean the police [inaudible] prosecutors to take what they thought was a challenging case. It was a challenging case, but it wasn’t unwinnable.
When you break it down, what does someone have to gain by lying? I mean that’s one of the analyses I would use when I was reviewing the case. Does somebody have a motive to lie? Is there someone in the child’s life who maybe has a reason? You have to be prepared for what the defense is going to bring. When you really break it down—Oh in Nassar they wanted money, or they wanted fame. I mean that’s just absurd because there’s no guarantee of that. When you talk about women from marginalized communities and minority populations and inner city neighborhoods, I mean they’re not going to have people to sue anybody. The idea that they’re somehow gaining something. The defense was that they were all prostitutes, which was not true, and that they didn’t get paid. So then they’re going to use the system for 10/15/20 years to try to settle a debt.
Danielle: It’s preposterous.
Angela: It’s preposterous.
Danielle: And gross.
Angela: The defense attorneys have to do their job. I want them to do it well. I have encountered very excellent defense attorneys. Some of my friends are. We need that aspect of the system. I want them to have their due process rights protected and [inaudible] to my burden, but it’s hard because working with the victims you see the impact that not only the assault has, how it’s changed their lives. The trauma, especially when we’re talking about untested rape kit cases or cold cases that we reopened. You see the impact that it has just on their ability to function everyday or to move forward. Then they’re willing to take that risk and come along on this journey with you to try to get justice, to try to be heard. Shawana did that. Some of the other victims in that case did that at great personal sacrifice. That case will haunt me forever. I am grounded in the idea that there was nothing more I could have done, and I truly believe that. I mean I worked on that case for four years with three weeks of the trial. I don’t sleep during trial. I probably get four or five hours because there’s something more I always feel I can do. I usually gain about 10 pounds, which is not good, because I’m not exercising during the trial or I wasn’t. It’s probably the reason I pulled back. I’m eating junk. I’m laser focused. I’m not a great mom or wife during that time or probably friend because I do feel this tremendous weight of making sure I’ve done everything I can. I know that in that case I did.
I will constantly be haunted by the idea that 12 people can see something so differently than how I did because I thought after close to 20 years I could predict. I had gotten good at not selling something because I have never brought a case that I believed somebody wasn’t guilty. In fact, I’ve had cases where I asked supervisors to dismiss charges when I thought there was a question of someone’s guilt. I still struggle with how I could have read it so wrong and someone else seen it so differently. So for the listeners, he was acquitted. There’ve been a couple of really great articles written about the case and the impact on the victims.
Shortly thereafter, Shawana Hall died of an accidental overdose. I think I got the call—This is where it intersects with Nassar because it’s hard for me to separate those two cases because they were overlapping at the same time. The Kelly trial was in September 2017 and I literally had to pivot immediately to prepare for the Nassar trial, which we thought was going to start in December 2017 before the plea happened in late November. So it was the weekend before the Nassar plea that I got the call about Shawana’s death. I remember coming home from the Nassar plea. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 2017, and I had finally been able to connect with Shawana’s sister, Talaya, who you’ve met before and talked to. So here we have this relief of Nassar has plead guilty and we have a guaranteed result. Our victims don’t have to go through a potentially six month trial of intense media scrutiny where it still was not a slam dunk case. The jury could have found him not guilty or some other thing could have happened. There’s that kind, I don’t want to say euphoria but relief. Everyone is happy about the fact that he’s admitted it. Then I come home and try to figure out what our family’s doing for Thanksgiving because it was a different year with all that was happening. Then I get a call from Talaya and I connect with her. The detective and I who threw her heart and sole into it too, we built such a relationship with the family. We didn’t blame ourselves. That’s not the appropriate word, but we did feel–
Angela: Somewhat responsible, yeah. I mean she had been doing well. Both the trauma of going through a trial and being cross examined and the not guilty hit her really more than anything, probably even potentially more than the assault or at least in a different way. So you know it’s actually her birthday tomorrow. I’m pretty sure it’s either the 4th or the 5th. It’s early April because it happened to be–
Danielle: It was her birthday that night.
Angela: That she was assaulted, yeah. So those are the kinds of things that stick in my head, right. I remember the days of assaults. I remember the locations of assaults because we have to prove those as part of our crime. So those kind of get embedded in my head. I’d probably not be a very fun person to drive around Michigan with because I could tell you where all the different assaults. I had three cases in Charlevoix in a short period of time. Now I go to Charlevoix, which is so idyllic and beautiful, and all I think about is the rape that happened during the Venetian Festival or some other sexual assault. So it is hard to turn it off.
Danielle: I think we should just say happy birthday to Shawana Hall.
Angela: I do too.
Danielle: If she were with us, we’d be able to celebrate that. I think one of the things listeners probably don’t know is that the key difference between the Calvin Kelly case and the Nassar case isn’t who the victims are. In the Kelly case, the majority of the victims were made marginal by their race, by their class, by their poverty. They were not believed in the same way that the victims who were more middle class, had lighter skin, came from intact families were believed. The cases are just so stark in that way. I mean both serial predators, both men who on their face are guilty, but a jury in Kalamazoo refused to believe Shawana Hall. It’s hard not to see that their verdict was rooted, in lots of ways, in their own conscious and unconscious biases. That’s work that we still need to do. We need to work on getting everyone to believe women and men who come forward and say that they’ve been assaulted. Believe first. That’s something that you advocate, right?
Angela: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s important for listeners to know that he still is under investigation in another city that had pending cases and continues to test their rape kit cases and has even more connections. So he’s in custody in Memphis and awaiting trial there on at least three.
Danielle: Oh good. I didn’t realize he was in custody.
Angela: Yes. We worked with those officials shortly after to make sure it was on their radar. Absolutely. I mean there’s a large national movement in light of everything that’s happening here. One of the things I was looking forward to before the country kind of stopped was an international conference I was going to be speaking at in a couple of weeks in Washington D.C. for the End Violence Against Women International. I was going to be doing a case comparison of those two cases and what we can learn, but that group has started a national campaign that essentially is the Start by Believing campaign. That instead of questioning or being suspicious of folks who report or disclose—and we’re not just talking to police. I mean as a result to Nassar, I had at least a handful of family and friends who disclosed their own history to me that I didn’t know prior to that.
When we talk about start by believing, I think it’s important for people to not think of it just in the context of the criminal justice system but in society in general. You may have a friend who comes to you and discloses something that happened to them acutely or years ago. Your response to that person can really impact how they heal, how they move forward, whether they decide to report. There’s this conflict sometimes within law enforcement and prosecution that well, our job isn’t to believe them. It’s to investigate. If we’re automatically believing then we’re abdicating our duty or something. I completely disagree. I think you can both start by believing. You can corroborate. I want the police to do a thorough investigation and try to determine if they can corroborate a victim’s version or not or look into motivation if there is. You don’t do that through a police cross examination of a victim. There’s a good Netflix series, An Unbelievable Rape, where it talks about a true life story about detectives who didn’t believe that victim and then ultimately the ramifications of not believing had impact on other victims. So.
Danielle: That’s a great show.
Angela: It is. It’s very well done.
Danielle: It is very well done. Did you feel like it was pretty true to form in terms of inside business?
Angela: Oh absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. I mean the thing about that is I had read the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, their long story that won the Pulitzer about that case. So that’s what started it. Then I know they wrote a book and then became a movie. I know [inaudible] was instrumental in assisting them with some of the technical assistance parts of it, but it was spot on about what we hear. I mean we’re in suburban Detroit. When I was in Wayne County, I was there when they discovered the 10,000 plus rape kits. When Kim Worthy became a really national advocate on this issue and raising awareness and this idea that it’s not a Detroit problem. I think at its peak there were 400,000 rape kits that were untested. Even just in those 10,000 in Detroit, they found connections to, I think, well over 40 states. So there are real ramifications both in public safety and offender accountability and victim healing when we don’t start by believing.
Danielle: Right. What do you think is the role of investigative journalists in the work that you do?
Angela: I have such tremendous respect for all journalists and especially the investigative journalists. Even in the last couple of weeks I think there’s so much news being disseminated and consumed. One of the pieces that I don’t think got enough attention and kind of got buried is this idea that thousands of journalists around the country through I think it was Ginette are going to be forced to have furloughs one week a month. What that really means for our communities is that these watchdogs who on our behalves are holding public officials accountable, holding institutions accountable, who sometimes are the only voice for a victim. When we look back on Nassar and we see how people had reported to people in authority and how those reports were diminished or buried. Particularly when we look at USAA Gymnastics. People thought they were doing the right thing by telling the president and others who have relationships with the FBI. I think all of that, that chapter is still left to come out in writing. Without those journalists, we wouldn’t have Nassar. Without those journalists, I would submit much of the focus we’ve had on rape kits wouldn’t happen. Without those journalists, we wouldn’t have Me Too and Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and all of these kind of groundswell cases.
So I know just in the 20 years I’ve been within the criminal justice system, I think I talked earlier about picking up a newspaper and seeing a headline case and then being able to go and watch that case. That just doesn’t happen anymore. I know in Detroit there were at least a small handful of reporters whose job it was to cover Frank Murphy because you have 13/14 floors of just the craziest stuff going on. You could be in an elevator with the defendant’s family and a victim’s family and a police. That’s just not happening. So we’re already missing those stories. It kind of blows my mind when I talk to my friends there and they’re telling me about a big case they’re doing it. I’m like I’ve never heard of this. How can I not hear about this?
Angela: Because it is important. Without those investigative journalists, there’ve been so many journalists involved in the Nassar case that I think have been great and others who’ve branched off, including on the Kelly case. Matt Mencarini from the Lansing State Journal are formally—His office allowed him to really dive into the Kelly case and spend a significant amount of time on that subject because they found value in telling that story. That’s what we lose when we don’t prioritize investigative journalists. I think it’s one of the most local things. I want to know what my city council’s doing and not just rely on Nextdoor or some other place to get it, right?
Danielle: Especially not Nextdoor.
Angela: Especially not our Nextdoor, right. No offense to the people that might be listening from Nextdoor.
Danielle: We could have a podcast just about kooky things from Nextdoor.
Angela: We could. Just from our own, right? But yeah. It’s troubling. I think that people have so many things to worry about right now. I know that that is probably not on most folks’ radar, understandably so, but if we lose the free press, if we lose our investigative journalists I think that the ripple effect through society is pretty horrific.
Danielle: Yeah. I agree. I agree. I have a couple of more questions and these are going to be kind of fast ones. Then I think maybe you probably want to eat some lunch or something. So what is your go to pump me up song that you listen to on the way to court or on the way to work? Did you have a song that you listened to during the Nassar case that helped you?
Angela: Oh jeez. I had a playlist that I would go to, but I don’t know. Can we swear on this thing? I don’t know what I can tell you.
Danielle: Of course you can swear on this thing.
Angela: So you may already know this.
Danielle: This is why I asked.
Angela: You do, right? That’s why you’re asking this. So one of my songs that I would go to when I was getting frustrated—and there were a number of frustrations along the way—but Big Sean was a go to. I Don’t Give An F About You. Not in a pump me up kind of way. In an I’m on the treadmill wanting to get try to get rid of this anxiety kind of thing. I had this playlist called fierce. I put a bunch of songs in it that reminded me of the victims or reminded me of Rachael or reminded just of this moment. Like Rachel Platten’s Fight Song was one of them. It always reminded me of Rachael Denhollander. This is going to get really cheesy, but Jewel Hands. That song kind of reminded me of the duty that I had to kind of help people. Oh, I can’t even remember some other ones. I mean I love all genres of music and tend to kind of gravitate towards sometimes 90s hip hop a little bit. So Eminem is always one. I think Lose Yourself is something. My friends if they were asking you from law school would tell you that there are two songs whenever I do karaoke or go to a Tiger’s game. It was Brick House. That was one of my karaoke songs.
Danielle: That was one of my favorite songs too.
Angela: Like the Eye of the Tiger. I love that song at Comerica Park. I could go on and on about music. There are so many great songs.
Danielle: Knowing what you know now about the world, about yourself, about being a mother, a friend, what advice would you give to your 20 or 30 year old self?
Angela: Well, I think one of the most important things—and this wasn’t a conscious decision—but I’ve told law students this when I speak to them because so much of them are focused on what’s my job going to be and where’s my first job and what’s my career? How do I get to be partner? How do I get to be judge or whatever? The most instrumental decision I think I’ve made in my life has been kind of who my partner is, who I marry, who my support system is. I hope everyone is as lucky as I think both of us Danielle to have tremendous partners through these life’s journey because I know I couldn’t have gotten through those really tough years of prosecuting and just trying to dig myself out of this emotional hole as a result of it without my husband. Knowing that he could handle everything that came our way with the kids and school and all of those responsibilities. So we’ve been together for 20 years, shortly after law school. That’s something I think is lost. I think we’re just lucky to have had that opportunity and to have found the people that really support my career and my ambition and my goals and have similar goals with our family.
I would say not to stick to the plan that you think you have for your life. If I would have stuck to that plan as a 22 year old first year law student, I wouldn’t have been a prosecutor. I thought I’d always be a prosecutor in Detroit and thought I’d spend 30 years there. Then an opportunity kind of came with the attorney general’s office to start something new. As a result of that, there were so many blessings and opportunities and doors that opened. Then really being aware of kind of when you need to make a change. I’ve since left the attorney general’s office as you know about a year and a half ago. I realized that for our family at that stage in our life that I could still do really good work and be committed to this bigger passion of mine and working on intimate partner violence and sexual assault but do it in a way that also took care of me, my emotional well-being, my physical well-being, and my family and the needs of my family at this stage. So I don’t know what the future looks like for me professionally or what, but at the stage I’m at right now I feel like I’m still having a really great opportunity to do good work but also have a much more balanced life. So.
Danielle: That’s really important. I know you’re doing good work and you’re making huge changes. You’re training police and prosecutors, you’re talking to judges, you’re educating everyone around you. You have made history. I know because I know you and know what kind of person you are that you will continue to do that.
Angela: Thank you. I’m grateful for you.
Danielle: I’m grateful for you too. Thank you for talking to us today.
Angela: Thank you for having me. This was fun.
Danielle: It’s been great. I hope to see you in the hood.
Angela: From six feet away at least.
Danielle: Yeah. We need a long walk. What are you doing during the quarantine to stay sane?
Angela: Well, I am grateful that we have the ability and opportunity to have a peloton bike in our basement. We’ve had it for about a year. It was I think a recommendation from you guys. I have got a nice streak going. So even if it’s just 10 minutes I’m jumping on the bike every day. Hopefully, a little bit more time to get lost in that. I still am trying to keep this gratitude practice where everyday even with so many worries and concerns and really all the stuff happening in the world, I have so much to be grateful for. So every morning I try to write it down, do a little bit of meditation, and try to have some grace with myself because it’s hard juggling all that we’re juggling with the dark cloud that I think it over everyone whether they realize it or not. So.
Danielle: I agree. So if people want to find you, where can people find you on the internet Angie?
Angela: Oh, so I’m on Twitter. I don’t even know what my Twitter handle is. I can link you to it. I think it’s @AngiePovilaitis. That’s the best place.
Danielle: Perfect. Thank you.
Angela: Thank you guys.
Danielle: Talk to you soon.