When Oregon’s United States Attorney Amanda Marshall ’92 was being considered for the job, the pundits didn’t give her a chance: too young, too inexperienced, too unknown. But underestimating the state’s appointed top prosecutor has always been a mistake.
A twenty-six-year-old woman with bright blue eyes stands at a pay phone outside the Safeway store in Coquille, Oregon. She is talking to her boyfriend, Ladd Wiles ’92, who is in law school in Portland.
“I can’t live here!” she says into the phone, a bit too loudly. “Have you been here!?”
Her name is Amanda Marshall, it is 1996, and she has just been offered a job in the small timber town and county seat as a deputy district attorney for Coos County. She was the last of some thirty applicants interviewed for the entry-level position, and she was offered the job on the spot. The economy is terrible, jobs are scarce, and she should be happy. But this is not her kind of place. The vibe, in fact, is such that as she drove into town she took the time to pull over and scrape the “Question Authority” bumper sticker off her car.
Marshall already has a job offer, from a bankruptcy law firm in Portland—not her preference of being a trial lawyer, but also not located in a backwoods burg in what is looking to her like the exact center of nowhere.
But Wiles, who will become her husband three years later, has a different take on the news. “Oh, that will be so great,” he says. “I’ll move down after I graduate and we can mountain bike and fish and surf! I love Coos County!”
The vibe is such that as she drove into town she took the time to pull over and scrape the "Question Authority" bumper sticker off her car.
Marshall hangs up the phone and decides to make what feels like an interplanetary cultural stretch and take the job. In a few days, she will hold in her hand the first real gun she has ever seen, as the sheriff’s office issues her a 9 mm pistol—because, as she will say many years later, “that’s how we rolled in the Coos.”
It is one of many fork-in-the-road decisions that have taken her on a path as winding as the nearby Coquille River to this town and this job—where in the next five years she will try more than 100 cases involving murder, arson, kidnapping, fraud, drugs, hate crimes, firearms crimes, and sexual offenses. Decisions that will eventually take her forward to October 7, 2011, President Barack Obama, and her appointment as the twenty-seventh United States attorney for the District of Oregon.
Marshall walks back to her now message-free vehicle. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will never for a single moment miss being a bankruptcy lawyer.
The District of Oregon has had a United States attorney since Amory Holbrook was commissioned by President Zachary Taylor in 1850, nine years before Oregon became the thirty-third state. Holbrook’s big trial during his three-year tenure (and in fact one of the first formal judicial procedures in the vast Oregon Territory) was the prosecution of five men from the Cayuse Nation charged with killing Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and twelve others in 1847. The June 1850 trial took just three days, and all of the Cayuse were found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Today, the cases and concerns are very different. The mission of the ninety-three United States attorneys (some states have more than one district) who work for the Department of Justice covers preventing terrorism, stopping foreign and domestic threats to national security, fighting violent crime, combating financial fraud, and protecting vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, and victims of hate crimes or human trafficking. A large part of the top job is outreach, and, in Marshall’s case, a very large part is finding ways for her legal staff to lend support to besieged county prosecutors who face the fight against crime with fast-dwindling resources.
“Building state and federal collaborations,” she says, sitting in the large corner office with the long mountain views that comes with the job, “and using resources more effectively is key in Oregon. Especially in struggling counties like Lane, where the sheriff’s office is going broke and people are being released from jail and the DA is laying off attorneys and closing the medical examiner’s office. And Josephine and Curry and Klamath, which are on the brink of bankruptcy. I know these people and I care about them, so I spend a lot of time asking how we can help.”
And she knows that time is finite—maybe four-and-a-half more years, maybe more, maybe January of 2013. United States attorneys sometimes continue in their jobs after a change of administration in the White House, but not all that often. “It’s possible to be kept on when the political party in power changes,” Marshall says, “but I don’t expect that. Hearing the clock ticking is actually great motivation to get things done. The challenge is always to leave the office better than I found it—and that’s a big challenge for me, as it was in tremendously good shape when I got here! My predecessors were outstanding U.S. attorneys, and the office has had years of stability and strong infrastructure. But none of this is about me anyway—it’s about what the Oregon district needs. That’s what will set my priorities.”
Some of those priorities will surely be related to one of her passions: protecting children from abuse and exploitation. The hard-nosed prosecutor, once nicknamed “Black Heart” in the Coos, has a soft spot for kids who are in danger, and has since she was in high school, when she started a peer counseling program for troubled teens. By then, she already knew something about being rebellious.
A fourteen-year-old girl with bright blue eyes stands playing Pac-Man at a 7-Eleven in Mill Valley, California. This being Mill Valley—a San Francisco suburb between the bay and the Pacific famous for both celebrities and assorted Marin County herbal-granola-make-me-one-with-everything types—the girl doesn’t even look up when Carlos Santana comes in to buy ice cream. After all, she goes to school with the children of several members of the Grateful Dead and she watched the Super Bowl at Grace Slick’s house.
Her name is Sally Amanda Marshall, and she goes by Amy. She’s a bit of a handful these days. Her free-spirited mother has provided Marshall and her younger sister Kaki with an interesting, if somewhat chaotic, upbringing. They were living in Puerto Rico when Marshall’s parents divorced—she was five years old—and the girls and their mother moved to a commune in Washington, DC, called the Blue House. Then they moved to Mill Valley when Marshall’s mother went to work for a San Francisco nonprofit organization. Her mom’s frequent travel for work often left Amanda on her own to keep house and watch after her little sister.
“I was a rebellious and challenging kid,” Marshall will say nearly three decades later. “I think that was my reaction to the instability and chaos that I perceived in our lives.”
The hard-nosed prosecutor, once nick-named "Black Heart" in the Coos, has a soft spot for kids who are in danger.
Santana leaves with his ice cream. The ninth-grader evades Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde in the video maze. In a few weeks her home life will become rocky enough that she will go to live with her father near Chicago. Two years from now she will be back in Mill Valley, attending Tamalpais High School and having an epiphany of sorts. She will realize that there is no one but herself to make sure she finishes her homework and prepares for college and makes something of her life. She will decide to buckle down and get serious. By seventeen, she will be living in a friend’s house, working part-time as a hostess in a restaurant, and getting involved in various kinds of community service.
The machine beeps as Marshall’s Pac-Man eats another power pellet. She can’t imagine it here and now, but by the time of her high-school graduation, she will have impressed so many people that she will be awarded a $5,000 outstanding student scholarship. Now, on the screen, her enemy turns deep blue and reverses direction.
It was a couple of years after high school that Marshall arrived in Eugene. She had worked as a waitress and a nanny and attended community college in Marin County. Then she went to visit a close friend who was attending the UO. Marshall applied soon after.
She began as a psychology major, but it didn’t take.
Marshall loved her communications classes, and soon one of her professors, David Frank of the now-defunct rhetoric and communications department (“I was devastated when they cut it,” Marshall says), talked her into signing up for forensics.
“I didn’t really understand what that meant,” she remembers, “and I sure didn’t know I would be signing up for the debate team!”
It was soon clear that she had a flair for speaking, and although she was often intimidated, she became, with the urging of Frank and debate team coach Steve Stolp, MA ’90, PhD ’93, a part of one of the nation’s top ten university debate teams, a group occasionally notorious—at least as notorious as debate teams can get—for taking positions defending notions ranging from feminism to anarchy to drugs.
“David and Steve sort of homed in on me,” says Marshall. “They saw some talent I didn’t know I had. It was pretty intense. All the others on the team had been recruited out of high school; they talked really fast and spent every waking moment in the library! I’d barely even spoken formally in front of other people. It—they—really did change my life.”
Frank not only changed her life, he changed her name. There were four Amys in Frank’s debate class, so to avoid confusion he began to sign her up for tournaments as Amanda. It stuck. There was one young man in her debate class named Ladd. He stuck, too. Marshall began dating and debating her future husband in 1991, and they both followed the natural progression of powerful persuaders to law school—she to Willamette and he, a year later, to Lewis and Clark.
Still, she wasn’t planning to be a prosecutor—far from it.
“I had no real concept of the working life of a lawyer,” Marshall says. “I had this idea that I would specialize in indigenous peoples’ rights and tribal sovereignty issues. I saw myself, you know, practicing in The Hague, arguing for human rights! Ask me what I wanted to do when I was in my first year in law school and I would have said things like legal aid, ACLU, defense attorney, working for the Innocence Project against the death penalty . . . But eventually my perspective broadened and evolved.”
While in law school, Marshall worked as the tribal court clerk for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. This was before the windfall of their Spirit Mountain Casino, when the tribal offices consisted of a couple of trailers. It was there that Marshall met Mike Mason, the attorney who represented the Grand Ronde tribes.
“He was my idol,” she says. “I wanted to be just like him.” And she tried—except Mason himself talked her out of it.
“When I graduated from law school in 1995, I was applying to tribal offices in Arizona, Oklahoma, and South Dakota,” Marshall explains, “and when Mike heard about it he sat me down and said, ‘You’re making a mistake. You should not be a tribal attorney. There are two kinds of lawyers: litigators and everyone else. You are a litigator. You should be trying cases in court. Go to a public defender’s office or a DA’s office—get in the courtroom.’ And when Mike Mason talks, I listen.”
Never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. That’s a cardinal rule for trial lawyers. At least in theory.
“That’s very good advice,” Marshall explains, “but it isn’t always possible. Because even when you already know the answer, you can’t always depend on the witness to give it to you! You have to think on your feet. You have to be comfortable with the fact that in trial your witness isn’t going to say 50 percent of what they said in your office, no matter how much you prepare them. And with opposition witnesses—I see trial lawyers taking shots in the dark all the time, but it’s a huge risk. You never want to just go fishing.”
Marshall remembers prosecuting a man for kidnapping and felony assault on his wife—committed in the presence of their five-year-old daughter. The girl, who was six by the time of the trial, was scheduled to testify, so Marshall and the county’s victim advocate took her into the empty courtroom to show her around, to let her sit in the witness chair and help her get comfortable with what was going to happen—and to be sure she could handle it. On the day of her testimony, the little girl was nothing short of adorable on the stand to begin with, cute and precocious, and after she testified bravely, the defense attorney took an ill-fated flier.
“It’s been eight months since this happened,” he said. “That’s a long time, right?”
“Yes,” the girl answered.
“And you’ve been living with you mom, and she’s been talking to you about the case?”
“And so has Ms. Marshall?”
“So what did Ms. Marshall tell you to say today?”
The little girl looked at the attorney. “She told me to tell the truth.”
“And what about your mom? Did she tell you what to do here today?”
The girl sat up a bit taller in the chair. “She told me to act like a lady.”
The jury made a sound you could pour on a waffle, and the defense was done.
Even as far back as her first months in the Coos, Marshall has particularly distinguished herself in prosecuting domestic violence and child abuse. It became her mission from the day she walked into a roomful of skeptical sheriffs and announced, “We’re going to save the battered women and kids.”
She walked into a roomful of skeptical sheriffs and announced, "We're going to save the battered women and kids."
“I’m talking about zero tolerance and mandatory arrests,” she recalls clearly, “and the cops are looking at me like I’m insane. Before this, half the cases were summarily dismissed, often on victims’ wishes, and now I’m telling them that if we can prove the case and get a conviction, we’re going to prosecute every time. I knew the cops wanted to put away the bad guys and, to the extent they hadn’t been doing it, it was because the DA’s office didn’t back them up.”
Marshall backed them up with a passion—and made them work so hard to provide evidence that would hold up in court that the cops began calling her “Demanda.”
Marshall took that as a proud compliment.
She earned her other nickname after her tough-as-nails zero-tolerance policy prompted a letter to the editor of the local paper asking, “Is there no kindness in this Amanda Marshall’s black heart?” More than a decade after leaving the Coos, Oregon’s United States attorney still can’t help smiling at that one.
After five years in the district attorney’s office, Marshall began to feel like she was losing sight of the light at the end of the tunnel when it came to fighting domestic violence and protecting families.
“I was getting frustrated by our inability to make a more systemic impact for families and children,” she says. “You’d finish the trial, the bad guy would go off to prison, and there goes support for the kids. The family is still a mess—so what was our real impact? I wanted to get involved at a level that could make more of a lifelong positive difference.”
So in the fall of 2001, Marshall and Wiles, who had just had the first of their three children, moved back to the Willamette Valley, he to join the Yamhill County district attorney’s office and she to work for the Oregon Department of Justice as the assistant attorney general and the attorney in charge of the Child Advocacy Section. “It was rewarding,” Marshall says. “I began to see the light again. At the end of a case there is closure because a child is going to be adopted. It was also an opportunity to step out of my litigator role and find my strengths as a manager.”
She took on the supervision of the litigation work and advice provided by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Department of Human Services Child Welfare division. Protecting Oregon’s children from abuse and neglect was fulfilling, but rarely easy; Marshall herself admits that “the Department of Human Services is not the most popular agency in the world.”
Marshall was promoted often, and by 2009 she had attracted the attention of the committee put in place by United States Senator Ron Wyden, JD ’74, to select finalists for presidential appointment as United States attorney. Marshall was named to the top three in October, and thus began two years of being second-guessed, scrutinized, and occasionally demoralized. Some were surprised when, on October 7, 2011, she was at last sworn in as Oregon’s top federal prosecutor. Those who knew her, or had faced her in court, were not.
A forty-three-year-old woman with bright blue eyes stands before a bank of media microphones, talking about the first conviction of a registered grower since the United States attorney’s office began cracking down on abusers of Oregon’s medical marijuana law. Turns out the Grants Pass man, along with three other registered growers, was shipping large amounts of marijuana to the East Coast for illegal sale. He was also found to be in possession of unregistered machine guns, silencers, and short-barrel rifles.
The woman under the lights says, “Our hope was to expose the lie about these huge operations, that they are just benevolently supplying medicine to sick people. Now we have the opportunity with this conviction to be able to have one more bit of evidence out there, so people can be thinking critically whether or not this is what they want in their communities.”
It isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that Amanda Marshall argues a position in black-and-white that many people see in shades of gray. But for her, it isn’t a matter of policy, it’s simply all about the law.
“I’ve always been attracted to justice,” she says later, “and I love the law. I guess because I had a fairly chaotic upbringing, I’ve always been drawn to the security that the law provides. It is the great equalizer, and the best tool we have for fairness.
“Is it my passion to crack down on medical marijuana? No. And virtually no one in law enforcement cares about people with illnesses or pain smoking pot for relief. But that’s not the real issue. There are the utopian debates about decriminalization, and then there’s what’s really going on in the states that pass medical marijuana laws in defiance of federal statutes and then fail to provide any regulation—which is that many ‘medical’ growers are shipping pot off to national drug trafficking organizations [DTOs] for thousands of dollars per pound. These DTOs are involved in violence, murder, tax evasion, money laundering—that’s the issue for law enforcement and for citizens. I don’t care about pot used as medicine; I do care about DTOs.”
"When the law exists, it's my responsibility to enforce it."
Then there is Oregon’s death penalty, which citizen Marshall would oppose and yet for which prosecutor Marshall has argued. “As a citizen,” she says, “I would certainly vote against the death penalty. I don’t think it’s the best thing for our society for a variety of reasons. But as a prosecutor I would certainly ask for the death penalty if it was appropriate under current law. I wouldn’t have a moral issue with that. When the law exists, it’s my responsibility to enforce it. And it’s the defense’s responsibility to hold the state to our burden of proof. I’m so grateful for the American system of justice, law, and checks and balances.”
The briefing done, Oregon’s United States attorney steps away from the spotlights. Years ago, a judge she often tried cases before would always say, as part of his jury instructions, that he “could have the prosecutor and the defense attorney switch places, and as trained lawyers they could each do the other’s job perfectly well.” Marshall would always smile, but she always felt a bit offended.
“Could I be a defense attorney now?” Marshall asks. “It would be very difficult for me. The defense may well know that their client is guilty, and they have to defend them vigorously anyway—which is a role in the system that’s vital and deserving of respect. But it would be hard. If I don’t believe something, I just can’t say it. I remember I was speaking to some high school kids and they asked me why I was a prosecutor instead of a defense counsel, and I said the first thing that popped into my head: ‘Because I always get to tell the truth.’”
Todd Schwartz ’75 is a Portland writer who gets paid to ask the questions he doesn’t know the answers to—which works in theory and in practice, because he doesn’t know the answers to very much.