Swingle reflects on career as longest-serving prosecutor

Sunday, November 25, 2012
Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle shows defense attorney Christopher Davis, left, and his client Clay Waller a photo of Jacque Waller during the opening moments of Waller’s preliminary hearing July 25 at the Jackson Courthouse. Waller is charged with the murder of his wife Jacque who went missing June 1, 2011. (Laura Simon)

EDITOR'S NOTE: The description of Steve Julian's job has been changed to fugitive investigator.

Everywhere Morley Swingle went, he kept seeing the old man. And he wished it would stop.

Swingle, in his mid-20s and just out of law school, had just wrapped up his first jury trial. The good news, for Swingle and his new employers at Spradling and Spradling, was that he had won. The bad news, for a man of Swingle's temperament, was that he had won.

Because Swingle had come to believe that his client was the negligent one, not that is was the fault of the older man driving the other car.

That rendered the victory almost meaningless to the son of a Missouri State Highway patrolman. And that's why Swingle found his run-ins with the old man increasingly unnerving.

"I just felt awful," Swingle said. "So, of course, I started seeing him everywhere I went -- the gas station, the grocery store, everywhere. I got to where I'd just hang my head in shame. I didn't like saying things I didn't believe."

Swingle began to wonder, and not for the first time, if a job in the prosecutor's office might better suit his personality.

Shortly after that first jury trial, Swingle left the field of private-practice lawyering and took a job in an office he would not leave for three decades, all but four in the top spot.

And by the time Cape Girardeau County's longest-serving prosecuting attorney announced his resignation 25 years later -- on Nov. 7, to take a job as a federal prosecutor -- he was saying goodbye to a job that he had used to become one of the state's most accomplished prosecuting attorneys.

Swingle's "dream job," as he described it on the way out, can be summed up in wins and losses. Whether it was inside a courtroom or out, Swingle certainly had his share of both. As a jurist and legal scholar, Swingle's prosecutorial career was highlighted by an unmatched work ethic, according to lawyers and judges.

He handled thousands of cases, prosecuting society's criminal element, from killers and thieves to molesters to drunk drivers. Even those who watched him work from the opposing position grew to respect the work Swingle did.

"He is one of the single best prosecutors I have ever come across," said defense lawyer Bryan Greaser.

Greaser flirted with the notion of asking Gov. Jay Nixon for the appointment to Swingle's unexpired term. But, as a Democrat, Greaser opted not to because he realized his chances at re-election in two years were slim. Still, the idea of taking over for Swingle made it appealing, Greaser said.

"He has run such a great office," Greaser said. "Coming in on the heels of Morley Swingle is one of the reasons I considered it."

Swingle took over an office in 1987 that was part-time, had two assistants and a few others who used carbon paper and electric typewriters. He leaves an office that is filing warrants electronically, has six full-time assistants and handles 2,500 cases a year.

Swingle was not afraid to go against the grain. When he wasn't penning three novels, one that drew from his experience as prosecutor, he was making his opinions known on the op-ed pages. His prosector peers did not share all of his opinions, including Swingle's opposition to conceal-carry and requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine ingredient used in making methamphetamine.

Swingle resonated with voters, at least early on, not once drawing an opponent in years he sought re-election. Perhaps they liked his comments about having a "fire in his belly" for prosecuting criminals. Or maybe it was that he wasn't afraid of taking a judge to task, as he did once when he disagreed with what he considered a light sentence.

"If Mother Teresa had a momentary lapse and committed armed robbery," he told a reporter, "she should go to prison."

Not that he didn't have his detractors. Along with the high-profile courtroom wins, occasionally controversy. The most challenging time of his career, perhaps, came when Swingle testified at his divorce proceedings that he was involved in a romantic relationship with the victim in a 2009 embezzlement case several weeks before recusing himself.

That, along with other points of conflict, had at least one public figure wondering if Swingle's promotion to the federal level was such a good thing. Cape Girardeau County Commissioner Jay Purcell bumped heads with Swingle several times throughout the years. Purcell was critical of Swingle using the county website as a place for Swingle to hawk his three books, though the commission ultimately voted to allow it.

Purcell also disagreed with Swingle, who served as the county commission's legal counsel, in a lawsuit Purcell filed against the county commission over Missouri's Sunshine Law. During a closed meeting of the commission in 2008, County Auditor David Ludwig was accused of repeatedly misusing his office computer to look at pictures of scantily clad models. Swingle had argued that Purcell should recuse himself from the meetings because his lawsuit created a conflict of interest.

When asked to comment on Swingle's career move, Purcell said: "At this point I don't know if I am more glad that he is leaving or more scared that he will be going to a more powerful position that he can abuse."

Swingle still won't publicly discuss specifics about his relationship, always maintaining he did nothing wrong. When he learned there was a conflict, he said, he recused himself "instantly." No sanctions from the Missouri Bar were handed down, which Swingle no doubt sees as vindication.

Swingle won more often than not, but some juries didn't buy his version of events. Recent examples of acquittals came in cases against Steven R. Julian and Thomas Evans Jr. Julian, a fugitive investigator, received a not-guilty verdict in 2008 after shooting and killing a parole jumper while trying to handcuff him. A jury found Evans not guilty of second-degree murder in 2010 in the shooting of Matthew "Woody" Ervin, who had been shot in the back.

Lawyers win and lose, as Swingle knew all too well. Those who know Swingle well describe him as an excellent mentor and friend. Among them is assistant prosecutor Jack Koester, hired by Swingle a decade ago.

"I'm definitely a better prosecutor for being able to work under him for 10 years," Koester said. "He's taught me so much about how to go about preparing for a trial and how to conduct yourself while at trial. He's been a great mentor."

The prosecutor's office is not the same without Swingle there, Koester said.

"In a sense, maybe, we thought he'd always be there," Koester said.

As for Swingle, he is immeasurably proud of the job he did. He says he will miss the staff, but the county is in good hands until the governor appoints his replacement. He's looking forward to the challenge of the federal system. And he still tries to remember the valuable lesson that very first trial taught him.

"As a prosecutor," he said, "I've never had to say something to a jury that I didn't believe. That's what I like the most."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

100 Court St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

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