Controversial Prosecutor: `We Have Too Much Law'

BRAINERD, Minn. - Crow Wing County attorney John Remington Graham is quickly earning a reputation as the prosecutor who wants less prosecution.

There are cases to dismiss, charges to reduce, and police and social workers to scold. His performance is so unusual that a criminal defense lawyer accused him of being lenient with child abusers while ignoring their victims.

Who is the man some call "Mad Jack," the county attorney who cites 18th century British jurist Lord Camden and the Spanish Inquisition to support his positions? "We have too much law," Graham explained. "I think it's time to lighten up a bit."

His philosophy applies to bad checks, drunken driving and zoning, but his most controversial views deal with domestic violence. "The date-rape thing - who is pushing that? It's the feminists. It's used as a way of carrying out and winning the battle of the sexes; that's what it is."

Current enforcement of domestic-assault laws "gives women power over men that they shouldn't have. It promotes all kinds of social injustice," he said. "An example: Mom and Dad come home; they've both been working hard. The kids are harassing Mom, and Dad's getting a little drunk. Mom and Dad get into an argument, and she presses some wrong buttons. He gets mad, she presses some more wrong buttons and he cracks her. And she says, `Ah, now I'll get you . . . ' and dials 911, and in come the gendarmes and haul him away."

Just two years ago no one, not even Graham, thought he would become county attorney. His law license was about to be suspended. He was living in Quebec in self-imposed exile from Minnesota, a place he likens to a police state. Colleagues were denouncing him.

"He is either an unmitigated liar or has crossed the legal line into insanity as a result of his obvious paranoia . . .," wrote District Judge John Spellacy in a 1988 affidavit.

"I fled," Graham recalled. "I fled into a foreign country."

Why did 11,364 voters in this central Minnesota county elect Graham as their top prosecutor?

First, there was the fluoride issue. Graham developed a following by a small but angry and active group that has long railed against government. Some residents resisted efforts by the Minnesota Health Department in the 1970s to force Brainerd to fluoridate its city water. Graham was their lawyer, arguing that fluoridated water caused cancer. Brainerd lost the fluoride battle, but Graham established himself as a leader of the disgruntled.

Next, in the 1980s, prosecutors around the nation made child abuse a priority. Graham, then a private attorney, defended a Brainerd man charged with fifth-degree assault for slapping his son and soon turned it into a high-profile case.

He accused judges and Crow Wing County Attorney Stephen Rathke of conspiring to persecute the father, claims that prompted the Supreme Court to suspend Graham's license for 60 days. The case quickly became a cause celebre for Brainerd residents who believed government meddled in private affairs.

"This is getting to be like Gestapo tactics, where Hitler came in and raised the kids the way the state wanted," said Irene Johnson, Graham's campaign manager, who draws non-fluoridated water from a special tap the city set up to appease fluoride opponents.

To Graham and his followers, the child-abuse issue was another example of government as Big Brother: First they tell you what to drink, then they tell you how to raise your kids. "There is a common denominator," Graham said. "I do not believe in intrusive government."

Finally, there was his opponent in 1990, Rathke. During 16 years as county attorney, Rathke developed a statewide reputation as a vigorous prosecutor. He helped write state sentencing guidelines, was president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and a member of a governor's task force on crime and drugs.

But he made plenty of enemies in Brainerd, where some saw him as arrogant, vindictive, arbitrary and too aggressive in prosecuting child abuse. His personal life also became fodder. Rathke, who was in treatment for alcohol abuse, said his behavior became the subject of gossip. He became vulnerable.

"I'd been in office for awhile and gathered a fair amount of barnacles along the way," said Rathke, who dubbed Graham "Mad Jack."

Last September Graham's most ardent supporters, calling themselves "We the People," urged him to challenge Rathke. Graham returned from Canada in time to establish residency and get on the November ballot after the original challenger, a former state trooper convicted of terroristic threats, dropped out.

Graham showed up at Johnson's door the morning after the election. "He looked like a man who had been hit over the head with a frying pan. I said, `Jack, what happened?' He was stunned that he had won, flabbergasted. He said, `I wasn't expecting a shotgun wedding.' "

Graham grabbed 58 percent of the vote and more responsibility than he ever had before. Lawyers, police, doctors and social workers fear that his philosophy of less prosecution will upset the scales of justice.

Brainerd lawyer Donald Kirchner recently quit his job as assistant public defender. He said he could no longer represent child molesters in family court because Graham failed to represent the interests of their victims.

"Jack Graham sees himself as a minister of justice," Kirchner said. "He's the prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and jury. He views himself as the benevolent ruler in Crow Wing County."

One case that attracted attention involved a 28-year-old man arrested in October for raping his 8-year-old daughter. Rathke had charged the father with first-degree sexual assault. Rathke and Graham agree on one point: The case against the father was strong. There was the girl's statement, the father's admission and a doctor's report of "acute and chronic sexual abuse."

When Graham took over he reduced the charge to second-degree sexual assault because the father appeared remorseful and agreed to plead guilty. The reduction meant the father received a sentence of 21 months instead of seven years.