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Washtenaw Prosecutor William Delhey Is Mr. Law 'n' Order

Mark Thompson-Kolar
From The Michigan Journalist

When William Delhey, the Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney, interviews potential assistants, he asks them about topics like capital punishment and Ann Arbor's recently increased marijuana fine.

"Anybody I can turn around to agree with me in just a few minutes, I won't hire," he says in a low, deliberate voice. "I want a person who will think on his own, yet I want a person who will follow my direction."

In other words, Delhey hires people with attributes similar to his own. The veteran prosector has built his 33-year career on intelligence coupled with strong discipline.

These managerial traits have led his 19 assistants to many courtroom successes, say local judicial officials. In 1988, prosecutors tried 2,597 cases, an average of nearly 140 apiece. Eighty percent led to convictions.

The county prosecutor's office handles all Washtenaw County felony cases. It also deals with State Police drunk-driving and Sheriff's Department criminal cases.

"He does a very professional job," says Probate Judge John N. Kirkendall. Of the assistant prosecutors, he added, "I find them to be very well trained and to be good people."

Delhey also has a personal reputation as an excellent trial lawyer. he is most famous for prosecuting John Norman Collins, a serial killer who is believed to have murdered several female college students from 1967 to 1969. Collins is now serving a lifetime prison sentence.

The case gained national attention through the book "The Michigan Murders," and earned Delhey the nicname "Silver Fox" for his silver hair and crafty use of scientific hair and textile analysis as evidence.

"I've found that my scientific background has helped me more than anything else as a trial lawyer," says Delhey, who holds University of Michigan chemistry and biology degrees. "If you're going to be a trial lawyer, you have to be an instant expert in your cases. You need a broad education—a little of everything."

While growing up on Ann Arbor's West Side, Delhey did not plan on a law career. As a Navy flight cadet during World War II and as an undergraduate student after the war, he wanted to be a doctor.

After graduation, however, he decided to forgo medical school. He instead took a job working days as a chemist at Ford Motor Co. and studied law at night for four years at the University of Detroit.

"I went to law school because it was the only advanced degree I could get at night," he says. He entered private practice in Saline in 1955, and three years later joined the country prosecutor's office.

He became prosecuting attorney in 1964 when William Ager left the position to become a judge. Delhey, 65, has been re-elected in the six elections since—no small feat for a Republican in a primarily Democratic county.

Some credit his popularity to a hardline dislike for plea bargains.

He is very law and order," says Public Defender Lloyd Powell. "He sticks to his guns. That's what they hire him for."

That strict policy against bargaining leads to some unnecessary courtroom backups, though, says Powell. Washtenaw County Circuit Court judges oversaw more jury trials apiece than any other Michigan county judges did in 1987.

Still, a suspect "should be charged with the crime he's accused of," says Delhey, firmly. "Why should there be bargaining? My job is to enforce the code."

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