February 4, 2011
Posted: 01:01 PM ET
Cleveland, OH- The Honorable Deena Calabrese had been on the bench for less than one year when she inherited the high-profile case of Ohio v. Essa from her predecessor.
Getting such a high publicity case in her rookie year seems oddly fitting for the former sex crimes prosecutor whose life and career have been marked by baptism-by-fire type challenges.
Capitalizing on Obama’s popularity, Calabrese ran as a Democrat and won in her first bid to be judge, a career she wanted ever since she was in the 3rd grade and asked her mother to make her a black robe for a Halloween costume.
She began her prosecutorial career trying cases in Youngstown, Ohio, the city so notorious for its violence that it was once dubbed “Murder town U.S.A.” In her first trial, a felony rape case, she was up against the president of the Defense Bar Association, an adversary whose years of experience nearly exceeded her age. When she asked for help, her supervisor gave her a trial manual. The experience left the young prosecutor badly bruised but not defeated. She doubled her efforts and when she wasn’t trying cases she was watching and learning from more experienced prosecutors.
Presiding over the Yazeed Essa murder trial put the 38-year-old judge in the unique position of being familiar with the trial tactics and skills of both lead attorneys. Calabrese had tried cases against defense counsel Mark Marein, and lead prosecutor A. Steven Dever served as her supervisor when she was trying sex crimes in Cuyahoga County.
It was a trial that represented many “firsts” for the young judge, including how to juggle work and child care. In her first year on the bench she gave birth to her son Jack.
Despite her relative lack of experience on the bench, the attorneys praised her in open court, and her warmth and humor often helped to keep tempers in check. It appeared to have made a big impression on the jury. They presented her with a mahogany gavel inscribed with “Ohio v. Essa.”
Judge Calabrese is the first to admit that her youthful appearance can be deceiving. She told In Session how on one occasion she was in the courtroom without her judge’s robe and overheard a defendant berating his girlfriend who he was convicted of assaulting. The defendant later appeared before Calabrese for sentencing and realized to his horror that the woman he had so carelessly dismissed was his judge.
“I’m in trouble aren’t I?” he said. “Yes you are,” she said and promptly gave him the toughest penalty she could under the law.
The judge didn’t have the same discretion when she sentenced Dr. Essa. Under Ohio law, the only sentence she could hand down was life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
-Grace Wong, In Session Senior Field Producer
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