Michelle Henry ’91
For the Prosecution
When people are young say, in middle school they tend toward a sense of justice that is uncomplicated, righteous, and pure. Some people are lucky enough to hang onto that conviction. Michelle Henry, a specialized prosecutor for Pennsylvania’s Bucks County district attorney’s office, is one of them. “I knew I wanted to do this at a very young age,” says Henry, whose early ambition was not just to become a lawyer but to become a prosecuting attorney. Never attracted by the high-end salaries attached to some corporate fees, she says she was after “that sense of doing the right thing” and “playing by the rules.”
As a specialist in child abuse cases, Henry knows that doing the right thing can mean saving a child’s life. The sexual and physical abuse suffered by children is “horrendous,” she says, but as difficult and emotionally challenging as the testimony and evidence may be, she finds the work rewarding. “To take somebody from the torture they’ve seen and bring them a sense of justice” is the heart of her life’s work. “What keeps me going is the belief that you can make a difference, and you can make it better.” She believes in the United States judicial system, she says, and has faith that it works most of the time. And when things get snagged, because of missing evidence or difficult decisions from juries and judges, Henry says the frustration only inspires her to roll up her sleeves and work on the next case.
As a student at Allegheny, Henry majored in communication arts with a focus on public speaking. The College’s liberal arts education was the best preparation for law school she could have had, she says. She earned her law degree at Widener University’s Harrisburg branch, then clerked for a year under a Lancaster County judge. From there, she went to the Bucks County district attorney’s office, and in 1998 she became head of child abuse prosecution.
“Allegheny was a good springboard for law school,” she says, citing her Senior Comprehensive Project in particular. The project, a rhetorical analysis of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, still inspires her; she found that despite the two women’s similar stature in the fledgling world of women’s rights, it is Susan B. Anthony who is remembered. Anthony was the better orator, and more comfortable in front of crowds.
Henry is also an effective speaker, and loves the showmanship required of trial lawyers. She says that at her first jury trial she remembers thinking, “Oh, my God! It’s better than TV!” She still gets excited about going to trial. “It never goes away,” she says. “After you’ve put your heart and soul into a case, and the jury stands up and says, ‘Guilty’ there is no rush like that.” And, though she sometimes works ten- and twelve-hour days, the work is everything she hoped it would be, she says. “It truly has lived up to and exceeded my expectations.”
-Virginia Myers Kelly
This article was featured in the Winter 2002 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.