Gerry Leone is an uncompromising old-school prosecutor who takes deep satisfaction in getting bad guys off the streets.
At the same time, he is the kind of new-school district attorney who will spend Wednesday morning at Woburn High School, warning 250 teenagers about the dangers of domestic violence, an issue some of his predecessors barely thought about. Indeed, Leone reels off a list of domestic crimes when he is asked to list some of the most memorable cases he has been involved in during his six years as Middlesex district attorney.
One of the best prosecutors in Massachusetts, Leone said Tuesday that he will leave office next month, earlier than expected. He had said previously that he would not seek reelection but had been planning to complete his term. He is headed to Nixon Peabody, the same major firm that recently landed Scott Brown.
Leone said the opportunity in the private sector was simply too good to pass up. He will work with white-collar clients and targets of federal investigations. That sounds a lot like he will be defending the kinds of cases he has prosecuted in state and federal government.
Leone, 50, grew up in Franklin. He played football and boxed a little at Harvard and went to Suffolk Law School at night. He has been a prosecutor virtually his whole career, working in both the Middlesex district attorney’s office and the US attorney’s office before being elected Middlesex district attorney in 2006.
It’s a safe guess that Leone will do a lot more lawyering at the new firm than Brown, who was hired as a rainmaker. Unlike the telegenic former senator, Leone is a person whose heart is in the courtroom.
From his description, he clearly regards his move as much more than a job change: “When I told my staff I wasn’t running for reelection. I borrowed a quote: ‘I’m leaving what I am to be what I will become’. It’s a lifestyle, it’s not just a job. There’s an ethical component, and there is a personal component. You’re not just leaving a job, you’re leaving a way of conducting your life. That’s how I think of it.”
In recent years, the Middlesex district attorney’s job has been a stepping stone to higher office. Leone’s three immediate predecessors — Scott Harshbarger, Tom Reilly, and Martha Coakley — all went on to become state attorney general. Leone had a different dream destination, US attorney. The elevation of his good friend Carmen Ortiz to that post in 2010 started him thinking about life after public service.
Leone’s departure means that Governor Deval Patrick will appoint a district attorney to serve out the remainder of Leone’s term, which ends in 2014. Though Leone and Patrick have had several long talks about who that replacement should be, Leone said he offered no advice, nor suggested names.
“I was very adamant that the authority for that is his, not mine,” Leone said. “As I got closer to leaving, I went to him with great respect and talked to him about that. I told him I stand ready to serve him, to help anyone who succeeds me be a success.”
Leone is reluctant to speak about his most memorable cases, saying that many of the most important triumphs are not the highest profile.
“Sometimes I remember cases because of the media attention, or because I happened to go to the scene,” he said. “But all cases involve victimization, and that’s what is really important.”
One of Leone’s lesser-known triumphs was playing peacemaker after the explosive arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a Cambridge police officer for breaking into a house that turned out to be the professor’s own. Long before there was a beer summit at the White House, Leone was the driving force in making the criminal charges against Gates disappear.
“It was obvious to me that this did not belong in the criminal justice system,” he said. “We resolved it as gentlemen and in the best way for everyone involved. And that is the way things should be resolved.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this column incorrectly characterized former US senator Scott Brown’s duties at Nixon Peabody.