To Paul Stern, the search for justice often is about helping people “understand what may not be understandable.”
During nearly 200 criminal trials spanning more than three decades, the Snohomish County deputy prosecutor regularly stood in front of juries and asked them to grapple with difficult truths.
Yes, somebody can be so cruel and enraged that he’d kick a 3-year-old boy to death after the child soiled his pants.
No, it’s not unusual for a little girl to be sad that her daddy is in trouble, even though it is because he’s finally been caught molesting her.
Yes, that small-town businessman with the grandfatherly shock of white hair really did murder his younger wife in a jealous fit, and then he somehow managed to make her body and other physical evidence of the crime disappear.
Being a prosecutor is about “holding people responsible for what they do,” Stern said. “And you are doing it on behalf of the community and the victims.”
It’s a job with weekends devoured by work, nights lost to worry and the knowledge that a single misstep in a courtroom may mean a bad guy will go free.
“It’s always been worth it,” Stern said. “It’s the right thing to do. The work’s got soul.”
Stern is set to retire this month from the prosecuting attorney’s office, a place where he focused his energies as a trial lawyer handling many of the county’s biggest cases.
Along the way, he pioneered new approaches and won verdicts that changed lives and the law.
He successfully prosecuted the state’s first criminal trial using DNA evidence. He won convictions in 70 homicide cases, more than anyone else in county history. He networked with other experts to develop and field-test many of the techniques now common in child abuse cases. He wrote a book about the most-effective ways to present, and to counter, expert witness testimony in those difficult legal battles.
“Paul is a litigator,” said Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle. “I’ve always hoped that I would never be on the other side. He is fearless and unrelenting for a righteous case.”
Woe unto the unsuspecting expert witness “who thought he could blind Paul with science. Not a chance,” Berliner said.
Stern grew up in Boston and worked for a time as a newspaper reporter before graduating from law school. He practiced law in New Jersey for a few years and headed West in 1984.
The young lawyer came to work for Seth Dawson, the former county prosecutor credited most with establishing the office’s reputation for vigorous advocacy on behalf of young victims. Stern told his boss he was interested in cases involving violence: rape, assault, murder.
Dawson warned him the job would mean cases with children.
“I remember, vividly, thinking ‘That’s fine. How many of those can there possibly be?’” Stern said.
As it turned out, holding people to account for mistreating children defined much of his career.
One of his first big challenges was the second-degree murder prosecution of Darren Creekmore, a case Stern won along with Ken Cowsert, who went on to become a Superior Court judge.
Eli Creekmore’s 1986 abuse death was front-page news across the country. The case probed how little was done to protect the 3-year-old from repeated exposure to his father’s violent rage. It also highlighted how toothless the law was in preventing and punishing such behavior.
The Legislature responded in part by establishing the crime of homicide by abuse and making possible a maximum penalty of life in prison. Public outcry about Eli’s death also led to the proliferation of programs aimed at addressing the physical and sexual abuse of children.
The Creekmore case was followed almost immediately by the prosecution of Richard Cauthron, who was convicted of a string of sexual assaults against women in and around Everett.
For close to three years, a rapist had been forcing his way at gunpoint into cars while women waited at stop signs and traffic lights. He wore a mask and was careful about leaving fingerprints.
Bill Deckard is now director of public safety programs at Everett Community College. The retired Everett police captain spent decades as a major crimes detective and was the lead investigator in the Cauthron case.
People assigned to handle tough cases self-select to some degree, Deckard said. They share a drive to catch those responsible, and just as important, feel a duty to do it right so the conviction sticks. Deckard said he saw those traits in the lawyer, along with a detective’s curiosity and intuition for why the details mattered.
Stern didn’t just want to know how somebody reacted when detectives put them in handcuffs, Deckard said. He wanted to know what, if anything, the defendant had to say, whether he looked at the scenery as the patrol car ferried him to jail, how he behaved during booking.
“It was the complete package. Everything. He wanted to know everything,” Deckard said.
Together, the detective and the prosecutor pored over the evidence that had been gathered in the rapes. Street cops and others had been meticulous in seeking physical evidence from the scenes. At the time, if they got lucky, they may have been able to learn the attacker’s blood type — a detail that could help rule out a suspect and not much more.
It’s been close to 28 years, but Deckard still remembers Stern asking him what he knew about DNA and the science of finding what some had begun to call genetic fingerprints.
“He educated me and the whole investigation team about the power of DNA,” Deckard said.
When experts examined evidence from the rapes, they found Cauthron’s DNA in semen from five of the attacks. It became the seventh criminal case in the United States to head to trial based on genetic evidence, Stern said.
Before that could happen, though, he first had to convince the court the science was sound. That took a hearing so lengthy and complicated it amounted to a trial before the trial.
Cauthron was then in his early 30s. He had a job and an attractive, attentive wife. It was hard to place him in a ski mask, a gun in hand, hiding behind the bushes near a stop sign.
In closing arguments, Stern spoke of how one day, maybe scientists would be able to tell why people commit rapes and other acts of violence.
“Right now, the best they can do is tell us who,” Stern said. “They have, and it’s him.”
The jury voted to convict. Years later state appellate courts found fault with precisely how jurors were told that Cauthron was linked to the DNA evidence. The technology was so new at the time that scientists hadn’t yet agreed on how best to explain the statistical improbability of other people having the same genetic profile. Today, jurors schooled by TV crime shows, often are surprised when DNA evidence isn’t offered up in routine criminal cases. It’s been used here to solve “cold” case murders and to clear the falsely accused.
State v. Cauthron helped make that possible in Washington. It was resolved by a plea agreement, one expected to keep the rapist behind bars for the rest of his life. He died early this year at 59.
The conviction brought the satisfaction of knowing a dangerous person was off the streets, but no joy, Stern said. People were hurt. And the good the offender may have done, if he’d chosen another path, also was forfeited.
While Stern was relentless and unapologetic in the courtroom when advocating for convictions, he came to understand that the only feeling worse than winning in a criminal trial was losing. Nobody walks away without some scars.
He loved the battle, though, wielding words as weapons and tapping into the power found in a phrase that succinctly captured an argument.
Working with deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler, Stern helped convict David Schubert of Arlington for the 1989 murder of his wife. That trial came a dozen years after Juliana Schubert disappeared, leaving behind two sons, then ages 6 and 8. Her body has never been found. But Stern told jurors the circumstantial evidence — the context of her disappearance, her husband’s talk of killing her to “get some peace,” the shifting stories he told to explain her absence — all added up to one conclusion.
He urged them to think of those details as a collection of pebbles. Look at each. Put them together in one place. They will form a wall of guilt, Stern said.
Jurors deliberated 47 hours over seven days before they announced their decision. One juror, a plumber from Snohomish, said Stern’s challenge to build a wall from the facts ultimately helped carry the day.
“We did, and it was laid out perfectly, and that was how we came to a conclusion,” the plumber said at the time.
Sometimes the prosecutor fought best by saying nothing.
During the trial of a child rapist who had abducted and sexually assaulted young girls from Everett, Stern played a recording of the man’s confession. It included his description of choking one of the girls nearly to death and abandoning her near Mount Pilchuck as snow drifted through the trees.
Stern introduced testimony that it would have taken at least three minutes for the girl to cease struggling. In closing arguments, he spent the same amount of time standing silent in front of the jury box, his hands wrapped around the throat of a teddy bear.
Deckard worked that case, too, “and I’m sure glad Stern was there,” he said.
As Stern prepared to clear out his office at the county courthouse last month, that same teddy bear slumped in a chair. He bought it years ago when he was trying to figure out how to communicate with young children entangled in criminal cases. He even learned some ventriloquist tricks, thinking that may help set kids at ease. Nowadays there are specially-trained interviewers who work with child victims. In this community they are based at Dawson Place, the child advocacy center that puts under one roof the cops, prosecutors and health care professionals who work together to investigate cases involving young victims.
Stern’s time as a prosecutor taught him important lessons. Innovation is key, and the worst reason to do something is because that’s the way it always has been done. You must let the evidence inform your decisions, he said. And just because something feels right or some smart guy says so, that shouldn’t stop you from assembling a list of hard questions.
Learn from your losses. A key moment in Stern’s career came during his third trial, a sex case involving a pair of young girls who were being abused in their home. The defendant was smart and poised. It was his word against the children.
At the time, Snohomish County judges had jurors deliberate into the night. Stern can’t trust his memory for all the details, but he remembers the verdict was announced late in the evening. The girls had been dozing on the floor in his office. It fell to him to try to explain that not convincing jurors of the man’s guilt was different than them deciding the girls were liars.
In that moment, the prosecutor knew two things. It didn’t matter what he said, he couldn’t make it better for those girls, and he never, ever, wanted to let victims down like that again.
“Absolute cowardice,” Stern said. He insists that’s what’s driven him across all the years, including a day about a decade later when he brought new charges against the molester who’d gotten away.
The man had moved on to prey on other young girls. One of the victims in the earlier case was in the courtroom when he pleaded guilty and headed off to prison.
Stern won his final trial, a test that whittled 14 pounds from his already lean frame. The defendant was convicted of attempting to murder his ex-wife, an attack that left her horribly burned. Stern and the team of public defenders assigned to the case repeatedly clashed. At one point, the defense asked the judge to sanction Stern and to throw out the charges. That didn’t happen.
For years, some defense attorneys have cursed Stern in the hallways outside courtrooms. They’ve complained that he’s pushy, stubborn, prone to pressing the law to what they saw as its limits and beyond. But he’s a role model to a cadre of younger deputy prosecutors he mentored, and he has admirers among the defense bar, too.
Longtime Mill Creek defense attorney Tom Cox said Stern is a fearsome opponent, and “one of the best trial lawyers this county has ever seen.”
Cox squared off against the deputy prosecutor several times. “I’ve always learned something about life and about the law,” he said.