Judith Hawley’s fingers tingled.
On the witness stand sat Nathan Gustavsson testifying in the defense of Allen Scarsella, who was on trial for shooting five black protesters in Minneapolis in November 2015. Gustavsson hoped his testimony could acquit his friend, who faced at least 10 years in prison.
“Justice needs to be done,” he told the jury.
Hawley, an assistant Hennepin County Attorney, was at a disadvantage. She had no idea what Gustavsson would say. He had never given a statement to police about what happened that night.
But Gustavsson had no idea who he was up against.
Hawley built a 43-year career prosecuting some of the state’s highest-profile cases. When she retired at the end of June, her colleagues praised her influence.
“If you’re practicing law in Minnesota, Judith Hawley’s career has had an impact on you,” said Cheri Townsend, an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Hawley started in Chicago practicing in labor law, but she said the lure of the courtroom called to her. She would return to Wisconsin and ultimately get hired as the first woman to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney in the state’s western district. She cut her teeth on conspiracy, police corruption and fraud cases but wanted to take on prosecuting violent crime. She took a job at the District Attorney’s office in Madison, where she was one of the first women to try a murder case solo.
“It was easy to be excited about these cases,” she said. “You’re upping your skills each time, and the consequences are so important.”
She got her first taste of the limelight when she prosecuted a case that got national attention, when a police officer’s wife was slain in her home in front of her children.
When she came to Hennepin County in September 1987, one of her first major cases was against Billy Glaze, a serial killer accused of killing four American Indian women. She won, but the case is still controversial, as the Innocence Project of Minnesota argued that the attorney’s office went after the wrong man. Glaze died in prison.
“I have no doubt,” Hawley said of Glaze’s guilt. “The evidence is so clear.”
She won convictions in numerous other high-profile murder cases. Mark Profit, who killed women and left them at Theodore Wirth Park, was convicted in 1997. In 2004, she went to trial against Christopher Earl, who raped and murdered a mother and her two children in their Long Prairie, Minn., home.
“The reason she got all those important, complex cases is that there was really nobody better than her,” said Amy Sweasy, an assistant Hennepin County attorney.
By the time she was done, she prosecuted 70 murder cases in Hennepin County. Her calm, soft-spoken demeanor would suggest that she wouldn’t be suited for that line of work. But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that was part of what made her “the perfect prosecutor.”
“She looks like a gentle person until you get cross-examined by her,” he said. “You don’t want to scare everybody. If you’re the hell and damnation preacher, it doesn’t work in this business.”
Her last high-profile case wasn’t a murder trial but against Scarsella, who made national headlines when he and his friends were charged in connection with shooting Black Lives Matter protesters after the death of Jamar Clark during a scuffle with police. Freeman wanted Hawley to prosecute it.
When Gustavsson took the stand in January, it was at that point the biggest moment in the trial. Gustavsson started out confidently. He testified that his friend fired at the protesters after seeing a weapon.
But when she cross-examined him, he changed his story.
“I did not see the weapon,” he told the jury.
She asked about racist texts he sent.
“I don’t believe using a word reflects my true opinion at all,” he replied.
“What word?” Hawley asked.
“I guess I’ll say it,” he said, “specifically the word”— and then he uttered a racial slur.
A few days later, a jury would convict Scarsella on all counts. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.