BOSTON – When the Middlesex County district attorney promoted John Kerry (search) to be his top assistant just months after he had earned a law degree, veteran prosecutors grumbled. Some thought he was little more than a smooth, politically connected opportunist looking for higher office.
Then came the George Edgerly (search) case. A career criminal acquitted years earlier in the beheading of his wife, Edgerly stood accused of rape in 1977. After Kerry won a conviction, the biggest during his first year on the job, prosecutors gathered at a neighborhood bar.
"One by one, the veteran prosecutors in the office went over and shook his hand, and by the end of the night all of the prosecutors were down at John's end of the bar," recalled John Markey, another assistant district attorney at the time. "I'm sure there were some people who hoped he would fall flat on his face, but he really won them over on that case."
Kerry had decided to become a prosecutor because he liked the idea of putting away "bad guys." Now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, he cites that experience as part of his tough-on-crime credentials.
"I was interested in the prospect of the law and trying to enforce it in order to protect people, and just provide the kind of civil society that we all hope for," Kerry told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Before turning to law, Kerry tried politics. He had been a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (search) and had lost a bid for Congress in 1972 by the time he attended Boston College Law School.
Kerry worked summers for Middlesex District Attorney John Droney and, under a state rule that allowed law students to prosecute misdemeanors, had about 30 jury trials.
Droney suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease and had difficulty talking and moving. He faced a difficult re-election campaign in 1978 and was looking for someone who could project the image of a tough, vigorous prosecutor.
"In a sense, John Kerry gave a young face to an old office and helped convey to people that this was not an office that was stuck in the past, but this was an office that was keeping up with modern times and moving forward," said Peter Agnes Jr., a former prosecutor in Droney's office who is now a Superior Court judge.
The young prosecutor spent much of his time as an administrator, manager and staff supervisor in Droney's office, which many lawyers considered slow-moving, inefficient and outdated. At news conferences to announce major indictments, Kerry spoke for Droney or gently repeated his remarks when reporters had trouble understanding him.
Among the top cases on which Kerry worked was the prosecution of Howie Winter, an organized crime leader who ran gambling rackets in the Boston area and western Massachusetts. Winter was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
"It was enormously gratifying," Kerry said. "It was what I went there to do. It was what the office was supposed to do."
Andrew Zaroulis, a defense attorney who faced Kerry, said some lawyers resented Kerry because he was "Kennedyesque" in appearance and didn't socialize much with other attorneys.
"He was handsome, good-looking and articulate, and he was kind of aloof," Zaroulis said. "He conducted himself very professionally. He was a very bright, sharp guy."
Kerry knew he was resented and not popular among his colleagues.
"I tried to handle it sensitively and tried to offer people opportunities and work with them, but some people — no matter what — were just bound to find it difficult that somebody was promoted that fast to a position of responsibility," he said.
Kerry restructured the district attorney's office, securing several million dollars in federal grants to modernize it and add prosecutors. He started a program to help victims and witnesses, particularly rape victims, navigate the judicial system. He also began an organized crime unit, a political corruption task force and a unit aimed at getting top cases to trial within 90 days.
"He had great ideas for running the office and great managerial skills. He really moved the office from the 19th century to the 20th century," said William Codhina, a former prosecutor who is now a defense lawyer.
During Droney's re-election campaign in 1978, a Superior Court judge scolded Kerry for a campaign advertisement that violated a gag order in a murder case. Kerry took responsibility, saying he helped design the ad. The judge did not impose any sanctions, but he criticized the district attorney's office for "insensitivity."
In 1978, a defense lawyer accused Kerry of violating grand jury secrecy rules by leaking stories to the media about an investigation into the sale of county jobs. He denied being the source of the leak.
Kerry left the office in May 1979, six months after Droney's re-election. Political pundits and Kerry's friends at the time said Droney pushed him out because he worried that Kerry intended to run against him. Not so, Kerry said.
"I left, in essence, because I had done it," Kerry said. "I had put the office together, it was doing very well, and to a certain degree, John Droney began to feel stronger and better and was taking more direct involvement in the office. I'd had this enormous responsibility for 2 1/2 years, and it just struck me as the right time to move on."
Kerry spent the next two years in private practice, specializing mostly in medical malpractice and wrongful death litigation. He and his partner won a new trial and, eventually, freedom for George Reissfelder, who spent 15 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder.
From there, Kerry relaunched his political career, winning election as the state's lieutenant governor in 1982.