Updated: Friday, February 24, 2017, 3:01 AM
It was August. Pennsylvania’s attorney general was standing trial, nearing the end of a spectacular scandal. In the middle of a packed Montgomery County courtroom stood Michelle Henry, introducing Kathleen Kane to the jury as someone bent on revenge.
“At its core, this case is very simple," Henry told the six men and six women on the panel. "The defendant wanted to get revenge against someone."
After a weeklong trial, jurors needed only 4½ hours to reach a guilty verdict. Now, six months later, Henry has landed high up in the office she investigated -- as the first deputy to newly elected Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
A 48-year-old prosecutor who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, Henry has quietly made a name for herself in the courtroom and behind the scenes in Bucks. In joining Shapiro, a former Montgomery County commissioner with a deep political resume but no prosecutorial experience, she brings courtroom chops to the office. And, say spectators, her politics-free reputation positions her to revive an agency that Kane brought down.
“By her appointment, [Shapiro] has made it absolutely clear that he wants his criminal division run with total professionalism, to be completely above and apart from politics,” said former Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler. “She can also be just an unquestionable bastion of integrity.”
Shapiro has said Henry shares his view of what the attorney general should do, calling her a prosecutor’s prosecutor. “She is tough as nails. She’s ethical, she’s smart,” he told reporters after hiring her in December.
He also said the former child-abuse prosecutor will bring diversity and “a new perspective” to the office. Henry is the first woman to be named first deputy. She said it is important for women to be in leadership roles.
“I hope that maybe a young woman in law school would see me in this position,” said Henry, who did a senior project in college on the rhetoric of suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. "And that would inspire her to step to the challenges that a job like this presents.”
The challenges in Harrisburg are myriad. Two weeks in, she and Shapiro had every employee sign a voluntary ethics agreement. Henry named addressing child abuse and the opioid crisis as priorities, along with civil consumer-protections work. And, of course, there’s the need for change to an office roiled under Kane.
“I definitely think that the impact of what she did, in terms of the trust that the citizens, that the public has of this office, has to be restored, and I don’t think you normally have that in a change of an administration,” said Henry in a Jan. 30 interview at her new Harrisburg office.
Shapiro, a Democrat, has pledged reform, and in some ways, Henry balances his role: They come from opposite political parties; he knows politics and she knows prosecution; he’s skilled in the spotlight while she has shied from it. Henry has never run for office.
“She doesn’t have to be in the limelight,” said Drew Crompton, counsel to Senate Republicans in Harrisburg, who attended law school with Henry. “She’s excellent in the limelight … but she’s fine being behind the scenes.”
Crompton and others describe Henry as a clearheaded, convincing prosecutor who impresses even her foes.
“If I was being tried by Michelle Henry, I would simply just plead [guilty],” joked Crompton, who remembered Henry winning their moot court team extra points with her prowess during a competition. “And I mean that, because she’s incredibly well-prepared.”
That nonstop ethic, Henry says, comes from her childhood: Growing up in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, Henry and her brother were raised by their mother, a speech therapist for special education students who taught her children to be industrious.
Henry’s mother still teaches one day a week at 75. She often made the 4½-hour drive to Doylestown to watch her daughter try cases. And her hard-work mantra has become the theme of Henry’s career.
“Her emphasis was always an incredible work ethic and I learned that from her firsthand,” Henry said. “She taught me how to roll up my sleeves and just, you know, work.”
In the Bucks County office, nobody could out-prepare Henry, said current District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub, describing her as “nonstop.” But, he said, Henry also was always willing to take a break to give advice to anyone who stopped by, he said.
“She just has such a charisma about her,” said Weintraub. “I liken it to a planet, like Jupiter, that has this powerful gravitational pull: People are drawn to her.”
Henry graduated from Allegheny College in 1991 and from Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg in 1994. She was quickly hired in Bucks County, where she worked for two decades.
She became head of child abuse prosecution and took on some grisly cases, such as that of Thomas Cusick, who killed himself in 2000 awaiting trial on charges he sexually abused many of his 28 adopted and foster sons. Seven years later, Henry won the death penalty in a retrial against Richard Laird, who killed gay artist Anthony Milano in 1987.
When District Attorney Diane E. Gibbons became a county judge, Henry was appointed to take her place. She served as district attorney from 2008 to 2010, but did not run to keep the office. Heckler won, and Henry became his first assistant.
Heckler’s agreement to lend his top deputy to the Kane prosecution in Montgomery County put Henry in perhaps her highest-profile case ever.
Heckler said having Henry on the team could have helped blunt Kane’s “old boys’ club” defense – that she was being prosecuted for investigating sexism and racism among power brokers in the state criminal justice system – but said Henry was tapped not for her sex but "because she was the best” prosecutor for the job.
“In a very pleasant and courteous way, she just disembowels people,” he said, recalling her cross-examination of one defense expert years ago. “I think that’s one of the reasons Kathleen Kane didn’t take the stand: because she knew she would have to face Michelle Henry.”
In her free time -- though she has little these days -- Henry reads murder mysteries, such as novels by crime author Lawrence Block, and watches Law and Order. She claims it’s relaxing.
“I just don’t know what to say, it’s true,” Henry said, laughing. “It’s what grabs me still, after all this time.”
Henry moved from Doylestown to Harrisburg for the job in January. Now, she’s working for an entire state, not just one county. Still, Henry said, her outlook on a prosecutor’s job remains the same.
“The thing that I go back to all the time, but it has been affirmed for me over and over again, is that hard work -- there is just no substitute for hard work and preparation,” Henry said. “No matter how big the case is, no matter who’s on the other side. … That’s what you can do. You can work really hard.”
Note: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for the law school Henry attended. She attended Widener University School of Law at its Harrisburg Campus.