MIAMI – Former Ottawa County Assistant District Attorney Becky Baird knows a lot about choosing the right path. As an assistant prosecutor for nearly 30 years, she’s seen lives changed for the better and worse by the paths chosen.

“It’s funny how you think back and how your life would have been very different if you’d have taken different paths,” Baird said in an interview the week after retiring as assistant district attorney with the DA’s office.

Of her service, District Attorney Kenny Wright had only good words for Baird.

"Becky has been an outstanding 1st Assistant. I knew I could always rely on her to handle anything from first degree murder to a traffic ticket. I really appreciate her service and her loyalty. She always put public safety first and did everything she could to protect our communities," said Wright. "I got the chance to work as her adversary, her co-worker, and her boss. One of her best qualities is her honesty. It is so important in the work we do for people to be able to count on your word. We all know we can count on Becky's. Congratulations on nearly 30 years of service to the people of Oklahoma!"

Baird’s last day in office was March 31. Former Ottawa County District Attorney Eddie Wyant recruited her to Miami.

Engineer or attorney

“I’ve been here since Eddie took office in 2003,” Baird said. “Actually I have a Petroleum Engineering Degree from the University of Tulsa. I was in my junior year and getting into my engineering classes, and I spent a summer in the oil fields…I just didn’t enjoy what I was doing that much.”

After taking a business law class and with some encouragement from a friend, she switched her college major.

“Someone said, ‘I know how you think, I’ve seen how you discuss things, and you need to consider law school,’” Baird said. “I really enjoyed the class I took and started looking at law school. Those people that know me know I like to argue and discuss points, it makes people think.”

Her intentions were initially to practice patent law.

“I had no intention in pursuing criminal law whatsoever,” Baird said. “Law school is like getting hit in the face with a whole different way of doing things. You have one exam at the end of your semester, you do a lot of writing, you also do a lot of discussion, you do a lot of critical thinking, which was right up my alley. It seemed I had an instinctive understanding of the criminal law classes. I understood that I got this.”

While just 22 years old and still in college Baird was hired at the University of Oklahoma as the assistant to the general counsel of the Student Affairs Department.

“I was defending students who were accused by the university of various things, some of them academic cheating those kind of things, some of them crimes. They actually had a student court where they charged kids with crimes,” Baird said. “ I was doing defense and I was getting people off.”

Defense or prosecution

Baird said she found herself working the cases in her mind from the prosecution side.

“I started thinking maybe I didn’t have the right mindset to be doing defensive work,” she said.

After graduating from law school Baird interned for a year at the DA’s office in Norman. She then worked as assistant DA in Jackson County before she passed the bar because she had completed the year of internship.

“It was simply a matter of where I could get a job,” she said. “Yes, I got the job and was working as an assistant DA, but you have to pass the bar. The only requirement was that you have to take the bar at the first available testing and pass or you’re out. Everybody who goes through law school worries about passing the bar.”

Baird said she had a back up plan in case she should fail and had applied with the FBI, and was actually accepted a couple weeks before as she awaited the results of her bar exam.

“I didn’t really sweat the bar exam until I was getting close to when the results were coming in,” Baird said. “The FBI called me a week before my bar results were due in and said, okay you’re in…and I’m a week from knowing if I passed the bar and I’m enjoying my job as an assistant DA.”

After finding out she had passed, this left Baird with a big decision to make.

“The rest is history. That’s kind of a path not taken, and I think about it some times because I probably wouldn’t have gotten married and had my children and done all of those things I have if I had got into the FBI,” she said. “Absolutely no regrets.”

Taking paths

Making tough decisions or taking stances is something the prosecutor has never been afraid of doing.

From there Baird moved along as assistant DA for three terms in rural southern Oklahoma District Nine in Atoka and Colgate counties.

“It was part time and I had both my children during that time and got to spend a lot of time with them,” she said. “ My husband Brett had pizza stores at the time down there.”

She stayed with the next elected DA for another two terms for a total of 12 years, and after that was interviewing and offered positions in three districts in Oklahoma.

“I came up here and interviewed with Eddie, and I didn’t know Eddie, but I really had a good feeling about him when I interviewed,” Baird said. “You need to have the same philosophy about how you’re going to prosecute.”

Baird said her family had a beautiful 60-acre rural property and home and the decision to move to northeast Oklahoma was difficult.

“I came back home from the interview and said, ‘Brett you’re going to kill me but you’re really going to love this guy,’” she said laughing. “They’ve ended up becoming really close friends, and we became good friends. He was a wonderful boss. He was personable, but upfront, he was blunt as to what he was interested in doing, and wanted to do, and he was keyed on helping the community, which is what I’ve always felt prosecution was about.”

Other prosecutors can be more political or focused on the punishment aspect of prosecution, according to Baird, not the end goals she aspired to in her own legal work.

“Some prosecutors are very big on winning and I don’t think that’s the goal either,” she said. “Like when I was in law school, what is the thing you are trying to accomplish and the best way of getting there, and that’s kind of the way I have looked at prosecution ever since.”

Making paths

Baird has always taken a realistic, common sense approach to her cases.

“It may be overly simplistic, but I’ve always felt like prosecution was more about solving problems and trying to help the community,” she said.

Baird serves as the president of the local bar association and feels professional respect helps attorneys keep legal matters more civil and is best for all in stressful legal proceedings.

“I love the law and you need to know the law. We are bound by the law – there are things you can do and things you can’t do. There are things that you would love to do but you’re not permitted to do,” she said. “That’s the rules, that’s the way it is and if you believe in the system, you have to follow those and you have to guard those closely. It goes all the way back to our forefathers, the system is set up if there are errors made, it’s made on the side of the accused. When you’re a victim you don’t like that, and that’s perfectly understandable,”

The prosecution must be able to prove the charges, and that must be done by presenting evidence and testimony in a courtroom and not just on beliefs, Baird said.

“There’s times we all chafe against the presumption of innocence, if you will, but in fact the whole system is skewed deliberately by our forefathers to protect the accused, but that’s because anybody can make accusations,” she said. “If an accusation is all it takes, we all have axes to grind, and so you can’t make decisions based on accusation.”

Baird praised local law enforcement’s ability to investigate crime.

“There’s very few charges that came across our desk if you look at percentages, a very low percentage of cases that are brought to the district attorney’s office that are not field in some form or fashion,” she said.

In all of her years of prosecution in Ottawa County, one case comes to mind, as one Baird is proudest of, a domestic crime case where she encouraged and she says even pressured the victim to testify.

“Domestic cases are so difficult because there’s so much pressure put on the victim, by themselves from an emotional stand point, these are people hurting them that they care about, and by families to recant- and on top of that they’re afraid,” Baird said.

She describes the case of a woman who was choked and beaten repeatedly throughout her life and was finally willing to testify against her abuser.

“When domestic victims show up the abuser pleads, because you can’t change history,” Baird said. “When I walked back in where she was at waiting to testify and told her we had just finished sentencing and he had plead and he was going to jail, she just broke down and started crying and she said, ‘You don’t understand, this is the first time in years that I’ve been able to sleep.’ That’s probably one of my proudest moments.”

Baird said to stop such criminal abuse, victims must be encouraged to stand and control the justice process by telling the truth and stopping the violence, and she said there is some victory in telling their story, no matter the outcome of the court proceedings.

Justice served

“The biggest frustration that I had was we would see the same people, over and over, and over again,” she said. “You know you try to catch their attention with the system. You try to catch their attention with some county jail time. You try to catch their attention with what it is that this person reacts to. Do they want to sit home and watch TV all day- then let’s make them do community service,” Baird said. “We want to interfere in their lives to the point they will change. You finally get to the point where you have nothing left but the penitentiary…that’s a huge frustration.”

Baird said the legal system is now made more complicated and time consuming by the avalanche of motion filings and appellate processes. The experienced prosecutor said her goal has always been to do what is best for the community.

“The reality is most people who I met through the criminal system are not bad people they make bad decisions, which doesn’t excuse their behavior. But it means they are salvageable if we can convince them to change their lives, but that’s hard. Don’t get me wrong, there are people who need to be locked up for the good of society,” she said.

Prosecutorial decisions are based on facts, experience, and history, according to Baird.

“I’ve been doing this for just under 30 years,” Baird said. “Prosecution changes over time just like everything else .We enforce the laws the legislature sees forth to enact, we don’t make up the laws we are here to enforce them. There are a lot of changes that are on the horizon. We’ve got judges that are talking about retirement, a new sheriff, some sweeping changes going on in the criminal justice system…it just seemed like a good time.”

Baird’s plans for retirement are to now complete some personal projects she has put off, and she isn’t ruling out a run for a seat as judge in the future.

“I’m not opposed to being a judge, it’s an entirely different hat,” she said. “The judge is more of a referee.”

Baird said she will keep up her law license and will be traveling with her husband, Brett, who works in residential rental property, spending more time with her grown daughter and son and she will take a break before making any decisions.

“I think that despite the problems our justice system is better than any other system in the world. There is no perfect system,” Baird said. “ I hope that the public understands that prosecutors don’t charge their neighbors, their loved ones their sons, their fathers, or their mothers…prosecutors don’t charge anybody based on personal stuff. It’s not what family you are from, it’s not what color you are, it’s not how old you are or what part of town you live in, that has nothing to do with prosecution. Prosecutors look at whether there’s been a law broken and whether we can prove who broke that law…and what can we do to make it as right as possible.”

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.