Joe Deters Gears Up for the Ray Tensing Trial

Joe Deters is about to prosecute former University of Cincinnati cop Ray Tensing for the murder of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African-American man. It will be one of the biggest trials of his career and will no doubt attract national attention. Will Deters do the right thing? It depends on who you ask.
Joe Deters

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

The prosecuting attorney of Hamilton County is sitting at a table in his office, looking pretty much like he always does: half smoove and half square. The tie is yellow and looks to be silk, the suit didn’t come cheap. The shave is down below the level of rumors and the skin tone is healthy creamsicle. He’s doing OK.

Joe Deters has an audience first thing this day: a journalist, Deters’s public information officer, and two interns who will be sitting in on the morning’s conversation. To get started, Deters mentions the amazing thing he saw on TV that morning, asking, “Hey, did anybody else see this?” Your basic top-of-the-morning conversational gambit, except that what Deters saw was what millions of other people across the country saw in the previous few hours: a Baton Rouge police officer firing his gun into an African-American street vendor, killing him.

It’s a topic that nobody sitting around the table feels much like taking a poke at, other than sighing and gasping and indicating that, yup, I saw it too. “They shot this guy in the back on the ground. They’ve got him down on the ground, one of them pulls a gun and he shoots him in the back!” He says it with genuine surprise, a reasonable response to viewing the footage of 37-year-old Alton Sterling’s last moments. The Justice Department is investigating.

“You know, when the government gives you a badge and a gun, that’s almost sacred,” he says.

Nobody else around the table quite knows what to say. Deters is soon to try former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing for the shooting death of Samuel DuBose, an African-American pulled over for driving without a front license plate. Deters has charged Tensing with murder and voluntary manslaughter. The trial has been set for October 25.

For reasons that have continued to startle many observers who have watched Deters run the prosecutor’s office since the 1990s, he has taken this case extremely personally—the law and order prosecutor of Hamilton County prosecuting a white law enforcement official for murder. Asked if he’s considering a plea bargain, he shakes his head no. “We’re preparing for jury selection,” says Deters.

It is, in assorted ways, autumn for the public Joe Deters. He is the longest-serving prosecutor Hamilton County has ever had, clocking 17 years in the job over two stints. His name is so popular in the county his brother has borrowed it to run for county commissioner, prominently displaying his first, middle, and last name on the ballot—Dennis Joseph Deters. Still, you may be surprised to hear the real Joe Deters is running again for the office of prosecutor in November. Not because you thought he wasn’t going to, but because there has been absolutely no sense that there was even a contest, or any prominent Democrat willing to run against him. (Does the name Alan Triggs ring a bell?) Deters will win, but it’s far from clear he will finish out his final term. Even Deters acknowledges this is likely to be a one-and-done deal: win one more, and then, if rumors are correct, resign and pick his successor.

“I’m getting ready to retire, so look, I feel sorry for my kids,” he says. “At this point every day that I work I lose like 50 dollars. It’s true. You know, [former county prosecutor] Si Leis told me this is a young man’s job. At some point you’ve got to walk away from it.” He adds, “I could be in congress, I could have been a judge. Nothing appeals to me….”

And so it is all the more striking that the man who has built a reputation as a fierce defender of police officers could go out with the Tensing case as his last big trial. The timing is uncanny: Deters has found a way to get everybody’s attention yet again, at a time when he might just as well put his feet up and order out lunch for the next couple of years.

On another morning, deters is on the phone with former Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, talking about how they can help Dennis succeed in his slot as Hartmann’s successor. (The log rolls both ways: Hartmann has been mentioned as a contender to be Deters’s eventual successor.)

After he gets off the phone, he settles onto a couch. The upcoming trial is always a presence, and it’s made for some weird encounters, Deters says. About a week before, he was in a Bob Evans, in shorts and T-shirt and golf hat, when an elderly black man sitting next to him leaned over. “Hey, are you Deters?” he asked. Yes. “And he literally had tears in his eyes, talking about this case.”

Strange days. When the call came in on July 19, 2015, from chief assistant prosecuting attorney Mark Piepmeier, Deters was vacationing in Charlevoix, Michigan, with his 11-year-old son. “We got a problem,” Piepmeier said.

Ever since 2001—when Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old black man, triggering riots and a federal investigation—it’s been city policy to have a representative of the prosecutor’s office on the scene whenever a police officer fires on somebody. Piepmeier says he has been to more than 50 such scenes over the last 15 years.

“I remember it was hotter than hell when I got the call,” Piepmeier says. “You get pretty good at assessing things when you’re at the scene, and the majority of times it’s a good, clean shooting. Then you go back to homicide and are present at all the interviews. I was present on the scene and called Joe right away and said, ‘Joe, this one doesn’t look good.’ And it’s rare for me to say that.”

Piepmeier told Deters there was video from Tensing’s bodycam that he needed to look at. It was too sensitive to transmit via internet; the investigator slipped a disc into an envelope and FedExed it to Northern Michigan. Deters put the disc in his computer. “I looked at this and went ‘Oh fuck. We have a bad one,’” Deters recalled. “No one wants to go after a cop, not in my job, at least, but it was a bad shoot. It was bad. I called Mark, told him what I thought, and he said, ‘That’s exactly what I thought.’ I really had no conversations with anyone after that.”

The possibility of unrest, says Deters, isn’t something he can think about. “I can’t deal with that. It’s not my role. That’s for Cranley and those other people,” he says. “I swore to uphold the law and I’m gonna do it.”

The shooting quickly became national news. People thought anything might happen—especially if there were no charges brought against the UC police officer. Baltimore was burning following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man arrested for possession of a switchblade, who ended up with a broken neck after taking a ride in a police van. About 350 miles due west, Ferguson, Missouri, was still boiling in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer.

Still, Deters refused to release the bodycam video until the grand jury had delivered its decision, and because he didn’t want Tensing to couch his statements based on the footage. The tension in the city was palpable, and officials were feeling it. When Deters finally made the video public, during the July 29 press conference announcing the indictment—about as bad a video as anybody has seen, in an era of bad videos—you could feel the whole city holding its breath. Nobody knew what would happen next. Except Deters. When he made it clear he’d be charging Tensing, a cop, with murder, a lot of people on all sides did not see that coming. But you could almost feel them collectively breathe a sigh of relief.

Deters shrugs. “I ran into the mayor—I’ve known him from high school on, and John [Cranley] said to me, ‘You saved the city from riots.’ I said, ‘That’s not why I did it; I did it because it’s the right thing to do…’” Which, he says, is what he said to the guy at Bob Evans who was trying to thank him: “It was the right thing to do.”

“A lot of people said ‘Don’t try it—let us do it, you don’t need to alienate people in law enforcement,’” he says. “The people I know in law enforcement who I respect and are good cops say, ‘You’re doing the right thing.’ That gives me a lot of comfort.”

Albert Johnson is a 48-year-old concerned citizen—exactly how he wanted to be identified—who has a message for Deters. But to get to the message, I first have to wrap my mind around a metaphor Johnson has been working on for a good part of this warm, summer day.

He asks me to think about Deters being the cook in a kitchen baking a cake. Johnson is very specific about this: It is a banana nut cake. Johnson has questions. Are you putting the right ingredients in? The jury is going to slice that cake and make a decision—are there bananas in there? Did you remember to put the chocolate chips in? Johnson’s point is that a person can’t just say they are going to do something; they have to go all the way, follow through. And they must succeed.

It’s another July day hotter than hell’s kitchen and I’m talking to Johnson in Classon Park, on the University of Cincinnati campus, where a small group of protesters are marking Samuel DuBose’s death exactly a year ago by demanding that justice be served. Just the day before, in Baltimore, charges were dropped against the third of six cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray. And concerned citizen Albert Johnson makes clear he isn’t just talking about baking. It’s a high stakes contest; you either win or not. Is Deters playing to win? “What does he do to make sure that what happened in Baltimore doesn’t happen here? What will he do differently here?” he asks. But those are the questions, not the message. Johnson explains what he wants to tell the prosecutor of Hamilton County: “Let’s see the cake.”

The demonstration is sponsored by the DuBose family, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, and the UC student group the Irate8. A handful of demonstrators weave through the crowd wearing signs on their backs with the names of African-Americans who have been killed recently by police across the country: Sandra Bland, Texas. Shereese Francis, New York. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7 years old, Detroit. The plan is to march to the spot in Mt. Auburn where DuBose was shot in the head. The protesters proceed down Vine Street, turning and stopping at the corner of Rice and Valencia. It’s here where, following the shooting, DuBose’s car struck a telephone pole and came to a halt. The pole has a deflated balloon tied to it and a T-shirt tacked to it printed with DuBose’s face. “Jah bless my brother,” the shirt reads.

Christina Brown from Black Lives Matter is stirring up the crowd. “This is what love looks like, right?” she asks.

The group lets out a loud affirmation.

“This is what justice looks like?” she asks, her voice now really posing a question. The response is negligible. “We gonna find out in October,” Brown chuckles.

The megaphone is passed to DaShonda Reid, DuBose’s fiancée at the time of his death. She describes a phone call she had gotten that very afternoon.

“Joe Deters called and told me his team is working very hard for a conviction,” she says, and there are whoops from the crowd. “He said he couldn’t be here today because he is not in town.” (In fact, it was Piepmeier who called; Deters was in Washington, D.C., at the time.) Nevertheless, he sent his prayers to the family, Reid says, and told her “his team is pulling out all the stops.”

Before the demonstration ends, I have a moment to speak with Audrey DuBose, Sam’s mother. What does she want to see happen at the trial in October? “Justice.” The word hangs in the air as she stares at me. And what would justice mean? “It means a start on making the world right, making the world peaceful. To make it right we got to have some kind of peace.”

I ask if she has a message for Deters. She thinks, and then says, “Thank you. Thank you for being”—and she stops, her eyes filling with tears. “Truthful.”

It was something unexpected and startling to hear: gratitude, first. But then the feeling attached to it, one almost of wonder that the charge of murder had even been brought. Like something miraculous had occurred. Thank you for telling the truth.

Christina Brown of BLM doesn’t see this as a miracle. Instead she talks about Deters’s actions as a product of an overwhelming video and Cincinnati history. “It’s just unfortunate that this case was so egregious,” she says. “An unarmed motorist outside of the campus. Then we find the UC police have a record of disproportionately stopping black people…it would have been almost an automatic demonstration of injustice had there not been an indictment.” Not that an indictment is equivalent to a conviction, she notes; George Zimmerman was indicted for the murder of Trayvon Martin but wasn’t found guilty. (Deters once told radio host Bill Cunningham he would have found it hard to bring charges against Zimmerman.)

“I’m temperate about celebrating something that should have happened,” Brown says. “I refuse to concede the idea that [the indictment] is a superlative thing that should be celebrated. It’s not. It’s doing a job.”

Does Black Lives Matter thank Deters?

She scoffs. “No. Absolutely not.”

He looks more like his mother, Nancy, says his brother Dennis. But it was Donald Deters, their dad, who was the disciplinarian in the house. Dennis thinks Joe’s candor comes from Donald, who was a tough, direct man. There were eight children in the Deters household in Finneytown, fanned out across a 17-year span. That meant Dennis, the baby in the family, shared a room with Daniel and Joe—who was months away from leaving home for college.

“It’s funny, because one of my earliest memories was sleeping in my crib at the age of 1 or 2, while my brothers were in a bunk bed,” says Dennis. “I can remember them throwing stuffed animals to get me to stop crying, they were so frustrated.”

It was a raucous house, and with so many kids you learned quickly to fend for yourself. “You knew you were loved and that you had the support system,” says Dennis. “But let’s just say you learned to eat fast.”

Joe went to St. Xavier High School, and then UC where he stayed on to get his law degree in 1982. Having grown up close to his grandfather, Hamilton County sheriff Daniel Tehan, he had long felt the pull of county politics, and after graduating he jumped in. Deters became an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor, in an office then and now owned by Republicans, and grew active in party circles. By 1988, he was the clerk of courts.

Until then a Queen City homebody his whole life, Deters made the inevitable-seeming move in pursuit of greater glory. While serving as county prosecutor in 1998, he ran for and won election as Ohio State Treasurer, then set his sights on the office of attorney general. It wasn’t bluster, just a sensible plan. But it didn’t take long for things to go as off-script as they have ever gone in Deters’s life. A stockbroker under investigation by the FBI had raised money, at the direction of Deters’s staff, for the Hamilton County Republican Party (which then wrote checks to Deters’s campaign). After a year-long investigation of his office, fueled by allegations that he gave preferential treatment to businesses that contributed to the party, a former chief of staff and a fund-raiser pled guilty to misdemeanor charges.

Deters angrily testified before a grand jury for three hours. At the end of the investigation, he says he was asked to accept the same plea deal that the two others had accepted. “I said to them, ‘I ain’t pleading to anything. There’s no way. And I’m gonna go down swinging because I know I would never do anything like that.’ ”

He was never charged with anything, but the investigation, and a stream of leaks he says came from the investigators, made him damaged goods in the state capitol. Not that he misses Columbus. “It fundamentally changed me as a prosecutor because I saw the abuse of the power of a prosecutor’s office first hand,” he says. “That’s why I don’t like ever leaking nonsense to the press.”

The experience made him less trusting. He marvels, he says, at the power and discretion he has as a prosecutor. He thinks for a second or two. “I could ruin your life tomorrow,” he says. “Anybody. I just release to the media that we’re investigating John Cranley and…” He doesn’t even need to finish. “It really affected me.” He resigned and left Columbus under a cloud in 2004.

But what happened in Columbus stayed in Columbus. Back home Deters was as popular as ever—so popular that he jumped in late and still won the race for prosecutor that year as a write-in candidate in the wake of former county prosecutor Mike Allen’s intra-office sex scandal. Since then he has honed his image as a law and order politician who will put more bad guys in prison than anybody else. He’s sent 14 people to death row, pushed successfully to make the purposeful murder of a child under 13 death penalty eligible, and made it easier to sentence certain juveniles as adults.

The world he describes in public is a roiling, dangerous place that gets more dangerous the further you stray from suburbs into urban areas. I asked if he shared the widespread consensus that racial tensions in Cincinnati have eased since 2001. “I don’t think it’s changed much,” he said. “I think that we’re always one incident away from unrest.”

His worldview looms large whenever he gives a press conference—there’s always the chance he will say something that a) is red meat for his base, and b) sounds crazy to others. Or he c) might poke a little fun at a fellow politico. Back in April, exiting City Hall after a meeting to discuss crime fighting strategies with the mayor, CPD Chief Eliot Isaac, City Manager Harry Black, the regional FBI and others, he took one look at the stand of Red bikes on the sidewalk and cracked: “Cranley and his goddamned Pee-wee Herman bicycles!”

Case in point: In June, he announced that he would not prosecute a mom whose child had fallen into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, an incident that had ended tragically when the zoo was forced to shoot a gorilla named Harambe. The moment was a gilded gimme, a chance for Deters to look good putting a story of national interest to rest. In a soothing tone, he explained there was no reason to bring charges against the mother. Then he turned dismissive.

“If anyone doesn’t believe a 3-year-old can scamper away very quickly, they’ve never had kids. ’Cause they can,” he said. He added: “For instance, had she been in the bathroom smoking crack and let her kids run around the zoo, that would be a different story. But that’s not what was happening here.”

Wait: for instance? Nobody had said anything about crack. Where did that come from? A logical supposition is that it came from the place his mind goes when it fixes on an African-American mother he does not know who has become a news story, a place filled with stock images of crack smokers and neglectful parents whose kids run in the streets.

McKinley Brown is a former Cincinnati police detective who has worked as a detective in the prosecutor’s office for 18 years. He is also African-American and very loyal to Deters. “I’ve been black for 65 years, I know what a racist comment is…,” he starts. “The quotes? That’s just who he is. He’ll say something and we [in the office] will ask, ‘Why did he say that?’ But he’ll say, ‘Wait. What did I say?’ Joe just calls it the way he sees it.”

He’s like the opinionated cousin you see once in a while: he’s fun when he’s talking about boats, you just hope he doesn’t start talking about hip-hop. Whether he’s opining about Pee-wee Herman bikes or going off on a problematic rant about black criminals, Deters has the aura of someone who, as the cliché goes, “doesn’t read from a teleprompter,” or “isn’t politically correct.” He has used color-coded descriptors like “thug” in reference to black suspects. In a press conference last year he described a group of African-Americans arrested for beating a white man in Fountain Square as “soulless and unsalvageable,” people who “will hurt you. They will hurt your grandma.” If nothing else, he became an equal opportunity offender when he indicted Tensing last summer, calling the incident a “chicken crap stop” and an “asinine, senseless shooting.” Suddenly the loose talk wasn’t about thugs anymore, and social media burned with law enforcement voices venting about the wayward prosecutor.

Like Donald Trump, who he eventually came around to endorsing for president (despite some doubts), Deters is admired by a considerable number of voters for viewing life without a filter. But it will be interesting to see how well his filterless approach operates under the scrutiny of a major trial with racial implications. If we are indeed just one incident away from the edge, how close will Deters’s words take us to the precipice?

Mark Piepmeier has known him for a long time. So long that, at least once in a while, he’ll be thinking about his boss on a weekend when he’s not at work. Like, he’ll be at his parish festival, St. Michael the Archangel in Sharonville, as he was last June, and on a whim decide to get the boss a present. Like a T-shirt. Which he did. “Mister Softee,” it said.

Sitting in his office downtown, with an autographed picture of Don Knotts on the wall, Piepmeier is still chuckling about it a year later. He first met Deters in the early 1980s when he was a young prosecutor and Deters was an intern. Before long they shared an office and hit it off. Piepmeier had gone to Roger Bacon High School, which back then had a rivalry with St. X, and one day Deters asked him, “How come you Bacon guys hate St. X?”

“Because you think you are better than us,” Piepmeier responded.

Deters for the win: “Well we are! How do you expect us to feel?”

It’s funny, Piepmeier says. There was a cheer at Bacon-St. X football games. If Bacon was winning late in the game, the St. X stands would erupt: That’s all right, that’s OK, you’re gonna work for us some day. “Well, sure enough,” laughs Piepmeier, “except for a few years with Mike Allen, I’ve worked my whole career for Si Leis and now Joe Deters—St. X guys!”

Piepmeier grabs a fortune cookie off his desk and holds it up. One night in the middle of a murder case he and Deters were trying, they ordered Chinese. When they got to the fortune cookies, Piepmeier cracked his open. “It was something stupid like, ‘Man sleep with dog wakes up with fleas’ or whatever—but it was funny.” Deters dared him to work it into his closing argument. “Well of course I had to do that,” Piepmeier says.

Ever since, when they work together, they enter into the trial somewhere a fortune from a cookie. They throw it in really quickly, like when interviewing a prospective juror. Deters might say, You wrote on your questionnaire, ‘When in life one faces hardships…’ What did you mean by that?

Piepmeier looks over in the direction of Barney Fife. “You just make it up,” he says. “But in a death penalty case, they are so horrible, sometimes you need a little relief.”

Which gets us back to Mr. Softee, because the T-shirt meant something. “He knew exactly what it was about,” says Piepmeier. It’s about a guy who gets stopped on the street by people who spill their guts. They tell him about an injustice being done to them, a sentence that was too harsh, and Deters listens and sends Piepmeier to investigate the story and see what can be done. Lives have been changed, he says, though Deters won’t talk about it.

But maybe there’s more to Mr. Softee than that. Maybe it’s a reference to a perception among law enforcement that only somebody going soft would ever bring charges against an officer of the law. Deters has faced criticism for both the charges he brought against Ray Tensing and for his words when he announced the indictment.

“I know a lot of police officers and after those remarks it was very hot and heavy,” says Mike Allen, who now works as a criminal defense attorney. “I know Joe likes and supports police officers…but I just don’t understand what prompted him to make those statements. It was so unnecessary and so intemperate.”

Allen also is critical of the intensity with which Deters has gone after Tensing. “I don’t agree with the indictment for murder,” he says. “Murder is a purposeful act and you have to then assume Tensing intended to kill Mr. DuBose during the traffic stop. I don’t buy that. Backed up with a manslaughter charge, which I don’t think is warranted, either.

“It was an overreach,” says Allen. “I think he’s going to have a hard time proving those charges…. Juries are reluctant to convict police officers and want to give police officers the benefit of the doubt. And I think that’s appropriate.”

Even inside the prosecutor’s office, there are differences of opinion about the likelihood of a conviction. “I think [Tensing] executed the guy. But you have got to get 12 people to agree. I don’t see it happening,” says Brown. “That’s just my personal opinion. You’ll get a hung jury. All you need is one out of 12.”

Deters says he would have a conversation with Stew Mathews, Tensing’s lawyer, about a plea bargain if Mathews was agreeing to a manslaughter charge. But as of September 1, when this story went to press, Mathews had only offered a misdemeanor plea. “Do you want an apology, too?” Deters mockingly responded.

“There’s great comfort in doing what you think is right,” he tells me. “And if [I] do that, then I don’t care what people say, I really don’t.”

The possibility of unrest, he says, isn’t something he can think about. “I can’t deal with that. It’s not my role. That’s for Cranley and those other people,” he says. “I swore to uphold the law and I’m gonna do it.”

His neck is out there. He will say what he wants to say, the way he wants to say it. None of it as linear as a fortune cookie.

“Look, every profession has bad apples,” he says. “There are bad reporters, bad prosecutors. The measure of an institution or a community in my mind is not that they exist but in how you deal with it. And we’re dealing with it.”

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