Prosecutor brings compassion, passion to role as deputy AG
Laura Ditka huddled with three rape victims and their families at the Allegheny County Courthouse in February.
A jury had just convicted Arthur Lamont Henderson, 39, on 53 counts for raping the women in Ross and Hopewell.
“You were all strong, you were all brave. Thank you,” Ditka told the women, who were crying after the weeklong trial.
The scene was somewhat typical for Ditka, 50, of Ross, who tries to balance aggressively prosecuting criminals and compassionately advocating for victims of physical and sexual abuse, those who know her say.
“In all the years she prosecuted cases, she never lost sight of helping and protecting the most vulnerable victims,” said Joan Mills, manager of A Child's Place at Mercy, whose counselors perform forensic interviews and medical exams of victims of suspected child abuse. “But if you think her uncle Mike was tough, she makes him look like a wuss.”
Ditka — whose uncle is Mike Ditka, the former National Football League player and coach — joined the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office on Monday as senior deputy attorney general after nearly 25 years as a prosecutor with the Allegheny District Attorney's Office. She said she sought new professional challenges and plans to start working from the attorney general's Downtown office on Wednesday. Her salary is $100,050.
“I have been doing something that I'm really passionate about and that I love,” Ditka said. “I was motivated always by what was best for the kids.”
Veteran prosecutor Janet Necessary will move from supervising the violent crime, firearms and narcotics units to fill Ditka's role supervising crimes against persons, child abuse and elder abuse units.
“What sets Laura apart is her passion and empathy for her victims, along with one of the strongest courtroom presences and ability to prosecute that you'll find anywhere,” said Scott Hollander, executive director of KidsVoice, a Downtown nonprofit.
A North Allegheny graduate, Ditka received her bachelor's degree from Ohio University and law degree from Duquesne University. During her tenure as a deputy district attorney, Ditka established the child abuse unit, drafted the county's first child abuse protocol and helped establish a weekly court for child abuse victims. She represented the office on various task forces and boards, including the Child Death Review Team.
“I believe that she is the best prosecutor in the area of child abuse, and her contributions will be missed,” said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Bruce Beemer, senior counsel to Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, worked alongside Ditka in the District Attorney's Office from 1996 to 2010.
“We truly are extremely lucky to have someone of her talent, capacity and ability,” Beemer said.
The state office has jurisdiction over certain types of public corruption, drug trafficking, environmental and cyber crimes. The office handles some local cases when a district attorney has a conflict of interest.
Ditka said getting young victims to trust her was paramount.
“You have to be an adult they can look to and count on, and take what is a terrifying process and make it somehow palatable,” she said. “Kids will respond if they trust you.”
Advocates say Ditka was successful because she treated young victims like adults.
“She very much understood the backgrounds of the girls that we work with, and she was very much an advocate in terms of protecting this vulnerable population,” said Lynn Knezevich, executive director of Gwen's Girls, a North Side nonprofit that helps girls up to age 18.
“In that scary world of criminal court, she gave them rights,” said Mills, of A Child's Place. “She gave them a voice.”
Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.