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Pierce DA loved his job but could do without the politics

Following 20 years of prosecuting criminal cases in Pierce County, John O'Boyle's career in the legal profession will change with the new year. <i>Phil Pfuehler photo</i>

ELLSWORTH -- After being elected and re-elected nine times as Pierce County district attorney since 1993, John O'Boyle is job hunting for 2013.

Twenty years ago O'Boyle knocked off the Pierce County district attorney incumbent Andrew Maki.

Twenty years later, the 50-year-old O'Boyle was knocked out of the same office in the August Democrat primary by Sean Froelich.

Froelich was unopposed in the November general election and will succeed O'Boyle in January.

O'Boyle admits that two aspects of his defeat trouble him:

1) Low voter turnout, with only 6% of Democrats voting in the primary and Republicans not allowed to cross over to vote and 2) Active opposition to his candidacy by a segment of the law-enforcement community, primary the Pierce County Sheriff's Department and River Falls Police.

"It was disheartening and frustrating to have guys I'd worked with, prosecuting their cases, out campaigning against me," O'Boyle said. "One was an officer I even let hunt on my property."

O'Boyle compared the frayed relationship with the sheriff's department and police "to a marriage gone bad."

"There's a disconnect that's happened," he said, adding that it involved "the need for evidence" and understanding how high the bar is to establish "the burden of proof" in a courtroom

O'Boyle said some officers were easy to work with and willing to learn. Others "took it personally" when asked to gather more evidence in a case.

O'Boyle said law enforcement's campaign to unseat him had the biggest impact in the village of Ellsworth's primary voting.

"It hurt, their influence," he said. "I think the public listens to police officers."

While first campaigning for district attorney in 1992, O'Boyle stopped at the door of then-Pierce County judge Robert Wing of River Falls.

O'Boyle asked for advice and said the judge gave it like this: "Do your own analysis. Do what you think is the right decision and for the right reasons, but realize not everyone will like those decisions and may turn on you, including law enforcement."

O'Boyle said his conduct as district attorney adheres to that philosophy -- with prophetic results.

Asked about being a DA, O'Boyle said: "The field is fascinating...the criminal law part, seeing all the aspects of human nature."

While his job is to prosecute defendants, O'Boyle tries to carry out those duties with compassion and open-mindedness.

"It's not just about getting convictions and putting people away in jail or prison," he said. "It's also being able to help people, even those being prosecuted, treating them fairly and being able to get them on the right path again."

When it's reasonable, O'Boyle will agree to non-sentencing options like having defendants participate in programs or panels conducted by Pierce County Drug Court, St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice or to offer "deferred prosecution" for those willing to accept counseling or drug/alcohol treatments.

"I'm limited by what I can do, but I look for creative ways to get people to change their behavior," said O'Boyle.

O'Boyle relishes the actual work of his profession.

"I enjoy the assembling of a case and then presenting an argument to 12 strangers, the jury, and trying to get a decision that goes in our favor," he said.

He also relishes the adversarial wrangling with defense attorneys.

"It's nothing personal," he said. "It's a challenge to match wits and trial strategies with them, even when they try your last nerve of patience."

Running for public office is another story.

"It's one thing I dreaded the most to do," said O'Boyle. "I don't mind going door-to-door, but it is time consuming and I'm not that extroverted."

O'Boyle's no-nonsense approach doesn't make for ideal campaigning.

"I'm not a schmoozer...I've viewed my job, my court work, as helping victims and prosecuting defendants," he said. "I assumed the politics of the job would take care of itself...that I could let my work as prosecutor speak for itself.

"I never make work decisions based on politics, only what's right for the office, even if it's unpopular...I don't like beating around the bush."

If he has a regret, O'Boyle said it's with his public image.

"I've kept a low profile, didn't glad-hand with people...didn't flaunt my position in the community," he said. "Maybe I should have been more political, should have projected myself more in the public's eye."

For much more on this story, please see the Dec. 27 print edition of the River Falls Journal.