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The Prosecution Rests

Acareer prosecutor, a steady hand, a great boss — those are a few descriptors of exiting Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston.

Hired as a deputy district attorney in 1980, Huddleston, 63, leaves the DA's office today after 32 years.

"I'm honored to have served all this time. Most of the time I've enjoyed it," Huddleston said Friday as he reflected on the changes that have come with the passing decades.

Appointed to the top slot in August 1992 by Gov. Barbara Roberts, following the sudden death of former DA Bill Juba, Huddleston subsequently ran for the office in the November general election. Then he was re-elected four more times.

He was sworn in for his fifth and final term on Jan. 3, 2009.

"I believe it is vital for an elected official to have the respect and trust of the community he serves," Huddleston said.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Huddleston graduated from the University of Idaho in 1979 and "fell in love with Oregon" after visiting a friend who lived in the state.

Hired at the Jackson County DA's office in 1980, Huddleston did what all new deputy district attorneys do for the first few years of their careers, he said.

"I handled misdemeanors — DUIIs, bar fights and petty thefts," Huddleston said.

In 1986, a new position was created in the DA's office — one that focused on child abuse, he said.

"We took a look at child abuse in our community and determined we needed to take it more seriously," Huddleston said. "It was decided we'd have one DA who would prosecute these cases. And I volunteered for that position."

Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith was sheriff at the time. Smith described the DA as "a steady hand," and he recalls Huddleston's "baptism by fire."

"I remember his first case was a very serious physical abuse case," Smith said.

For six years Huddleston headed the child abuse case load. He also helped form the Children's Advocacy Center. The nonprofit center provides abused children with a child-friendly, familiar place for a timely, less traumatic medical exam. It is also a place where children can be interviewed by detectives and DAs, as well as begin the process of healing.

Child abuse cases can be the most rewarding, or challenging, for any district attorney, Huddleston said.

"There is a human story behind every one of these cases," he said.

Getting a perpetrator off the streets means a lawyer has done his job to protect the community's children. But the cases that cause the most heartache are those that never made it to trial because there was not enough evidence to convict the perpetrator, "even if you are firmly convinced that it may have happened," Huddleston said.

"It's harder than taking a case to trial and losing it," Huddleston said.

Huddleston credits the cooperative relationships between the courts, defense attorneys and law enforcement agencies as the reason Jackson County has led the way in areas such as changing how child abuse cases are handled and creating protocols for officer-involved shootings.

When SB 111 mandated policies be in place in 2008 for such shooting incidents, Jackson County already had one, he said.

"It came from the ground up, from the officers, and not from me or the administrators," Huddleston said, adding the protocols reflect the county's determination to invest in training and "learn from our mistakes."

"I think we have a very good interagency crime team," he said.

When Huddleston began at the DA's office, there were seven deputy district attorneys. Now there are 19, he said, adding the criminal division of the DA's office is one of the busiest in Oregon, prosecuting more than 7,000 cases last year, he said.

"Last year we handled more cases per (prosecutor) than any of the other 10 largest counties in the state," Huddleston said. "We're usually one of the busiest in the state. We're almost always in the top three."

Most of the lawyers are working in specialized areas such as child abuse, domestic violence, gangs and high-tech crimes, Huddleston said.

"I'm big on specialization," Huddleston said. "You just get better at what you do."

Huddleston said he sought the death penalty in only two cases. Huddleston sat "second chair," behind fellow District Attorney John Bondurant, in the state's case against Shawn Harris, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl in her home. The murder trial brought the first use of DNA in a Jackson County case, he said.

"We had to go through a two-week pretrial hearing to explain DNA," Huddleston said, adding the judge had to determine which "novel scientific evidence" could be received by the jury. Harris was found guilty. The jury refused to hand down a death sentence, but Harris was given "a true life" sentence, Huddleston said.

The second death penalty case involved James Robert Acrement, who pleaded guilty to murdering Roxanne Ellis, 54, and Michelle Abdill, 52, in December 1995. Acrement received a death penalty verdict in the penalty phase of the trial, but it was later overturned "based on concerns about his mental health and converted to a true life sentence," Huddleston said.

Huddleston's last case was the cold case of William Simmons. Simmons in February was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter in the 1996 death of Ruch teen Kaelin Glazier. The 15-year-old disappeared in November 1996, and her skeletal remains were found in 2008, in a field across the road from where Simmons had lived. Simmons was the last person known to have seen Glazier alive.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Beth Heckert will succeed Huddleston on Jan. 1, 2013. Heckert, also a career prosecutor, received Huddleston's endorsement in her bid for office. She served as co-council on the Simmons case.

"He's been a great boss. He's given me so many opportunities," Heckert said. "I was glad I got to try a case with him. I learned a lot about how he prepares and thinks about a case."

Huddleston said he plans on doing a little fishing and more teaching at Rogue Community College. Huddleston has taught law classes at RCC for the past 11 years at night. He'll be adding in a day class too, in hopes of encouraging more students to become DAs, he said.

"Being a prosecutor is a career that a person can take pride in," Huddleston said. "Our charge on a daily basis is to seek justice. Certainly a good reason to come to work every day."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston is retiring from office after 32 years with the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch