CYNTHIA WRIGHT: This is not the first time I've seen an infant death or child death, and there's a certain sort of pattern that comes with it. And, you know, there's love involved. I mean and I think that's the problem with all these cases, is that at some level the parties loved each other at one time. And then something went horribly wrong.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
In the more than 20 years that she's been a prosecutor for the District of Columbia, Cynthia Wright has had one of the most agonizing jobs imaginable - prosecuting those who commit crimes against young children. Wright is now 53. And when she was younger she wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to help people. She has a grown daughter. And she says she sees herself as an advocate for slain children who can't speak for themselves. She also considers herself a support for their families.
Cynthia Wright's job is often grim and this interview contains some disturbing material. Cynthia Wright is this week's Sunday Conversation.
WRIGHT: You know, I like to get the cases right away. As soon as I know that there's been a child who's been murdered, I like to get the witnesses in right away because initially the parties are outraged, they want immediate action, they want to get to the result, they want justice.
WRIGHT: The problem is, as time goes on, people start to want to heal. And they want to go and move away from the dead child because it's just too hard to live with the pain, number one. Number two, they want to start forgiving their perpetrator. And so, you really have to be an advocate for the child and keep people on task and say this child's life had value.
LYDEN: But, of course, that's a very critical piece for you. As you were saying, you want to be an advocate. You want to help, basically, the healing process - or the completion process.
WRIGHT: Yes. I think that's a really important part of the job. And so, you want to get people in. You have to listen to them, you have to let them grieve. If they need housing, if they fear for their life's safety - I mean we have witness protection, we can move people, get them to a safe place. Because once they're safe, then you start to process the death and what happened and what we're going to do.
The grand jury is an integral part getting people in to tell their story, and they're oftentimes very afraid of the grand jury. And it's not just about using the grand jury to get the indictment. It's about seeing how people are responding because sometimes there're cases where the grand jury will hear a case and they're like, you know, do we really want to prosecute that person? It sounds like more of an accident.
LYDEN: Let me ask you, on Friday, your office put out a press release about a case in which the prosecutor's office agreed to accept a plea of voluntary manslaughter. And this was the case of a young woman who had immigrated to the United States from Samoa. She joined a convent in Washington, intending to become a nun. And while there she gave birth in secret and suffocated her own baby.
This is the kind of complicated case I think that you're talking about. What was your approach?
WRIGHT: The big question in this case was, she delivered a child, an infant, a newborn, and she claims she didn't know she was pregnant. So you're, you know, it's like, OK. You know, and the medical examiner is, like, oh, my gosh. This is, like, there's been a move about this case. It's, you know, the "Agnes of God" story. So you actually start to look at all the medical evidence and you figure out what happened.
It wasn't stillborn. The baby was actually born alive; its lungs floated. I mean it was clear that she had suffocated the child. Then you start to ask yourself, well, why? What possessed her to do this? We offered her the plea to voluntary manslaughter even though we could get her for first-degree murder, and first-degree cruelty to children, which could carry life without parole. But what's fair and just in this particular case?
Here's a woman who's been in the United States six days. She has this baby that she claims she didn't know she was pregnant.
LYDEN: Was alone.
WRIGHT: And was alone and had no friend, nobody here to tell. I mean that's what it's all about, is figuring out the choices that people are making. She waited for 24 hours before she notified. And then the second problem was she lied. She said she had found the baby outside, and it's really the lies that get people in trouble.
You know, as a prosecutor, it's not to be hang them up high and go for as much time as you can. And how does society really benefit from that? She's not like this other defendant I prosecuted who was stalking the Internet for women and abusing kids, and then murdered one. He's a repeat offender. So you have to really see where they are in continuum.
LYDEN: Right. How do you cope with that, when you have to look at these pictures of kids?
WRIGHT: Well, I have two be in the right state of mind. I have to have had enough sleep. I mean there some days when I can't look at them. I have to go do something else. You know, I have to write a motion or do some research or - because it's not entertainment. These are real people. They have lost a loved one. They've lost a child. It's usually - the perpetrator is usually someone they loved.
So you have all this emotion going on. And people, I think, there are so many shows on TV about lawyers and criminal shows and "CSI." And I mean it's fascinating. I mean the reason I do this job is 'cause I love it. It is fascinating. It is...
LYDEN: Do you watch those shows?
WRIGHT: I never even had cable, 'cause I never wanted to be distracted by watching TV.
LYDEN: I've read in a story about you, in The Washington Post - which is how you came to our attention - that recently after prosecuting a defendant who had killed a 4-year-old, while the mother was at work. That you stopped and linked arms with the family as they were praying at the closure of the case. And they were very surprised that you did that with them. Does that sort of speak about your faith or just more about your empathy as a human being?
WRIGHT: Empathy as a human being. I mean I am a person of faith and I always ask people two questions. I find they're very important. Is one: Is do you hug? Are you a hug her or not? Because some people find comfort in hugging. If you're not, you know, we'll shake hands. And there some people who don't even want to shake hands with the prosecutor. So you have to find out where is their barrier.
The second thing is: Are you a person of any faith. And some people will tell you no. And that's fine because as the prosecutor you have to respect everyone, whether they are atheists or whether they're whatever a religion, and respect that. So with some families, you know, that are spiritual, it helps. It gives them hope. It's a sign of respect for their tradition, for their culture because they're so upset and so distraught because everybody is thinking: I should've done this, I should've took the child and babysat. They put a lot of guilt on themselves. And so, you have to find a way to give them peace.
LYDEN: Cynthia Wright is a prosecutor and trial lawyer in the Special Victims Unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It's really an amazing story.
WRIGHT: Thanks, Jacki, for having me.
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