ITHACA, N.Y. – On a table behind Attorney Gwen Wilkinson’s desk is a photo of a child who was sexually abused and killed in Tompkins County years ago.

Wilkinson prosecuted the case and landed a conviction but never let go of that photo, which the young child’s father clung to in court while on the witness stand.

It’s the only memento she has in her office from any case she’s worked over her 11-year-career as district attorney. The photo is a reminder of her legacy, both in early campaigns and in practice as DA, of aggressively prosecuting child abusers.

While murder would have been atrocious under any DA, Wilkinson said child sex abuse and cases involving vulnerable people were not as commonly prosecuted before she was elected in 2005.

“That’s one of the things I ran on my very first campaign…I would aggressively prosecute domestic violence and child sexual abuse and child physical abuse,” she said. 

Wilkinson is retiring early from her term as DA, which was supposed to end in December 2017, after struggling with health problems since November. Her last day in office is Friday.

“It was never my career goal…”

After graduating from The Dickinson School of Law — now run through Pennsylvania State University —  Wilkinson became a lawyer in 1989, and a prosecutor soon after.

In 1991, Tompkins County District Attorney George Dentes brought her on board in the DA’s office.

“It was never my career goal and, even when I was offered the job, I took it not because I was so dedicated to prosecution at that time, but because it was an awesome opportunity to get trial experience which I desperately wanted,” she said.

She’d originally opened her own office and worked with assigned council to defend low-income or indigent clients.

Her perspective in prosecuting changed though as she took on the role of working on behalf of vulnerable victims, such as children, domestic violence survivors and elderly people.

“I got some specialized training in that regard and that was something that really resonated with my interests,” she said.

Prosecuting cases involving children, though, is a tough task.

Most children, she said, are abused by people they know and sometimes love, creating rifts and loyalties within families. Direct statements from children that can be used in court are not common. Investigators put in more resources than usual gathering evidence for the case. And if a child is put on the stand, something prosecutors try not to do, jurors tend to be less likely to believe them over adults who testify in a case.

“So the cases are difficult to prosecute and they’re not always winners. Sometimes you have to be willing to step up knowing that you might not prevail. But I thought it was important enough to shine a light on the issue,” Wilkinson said.

She left the DA’s office in 1996 to become a domestic violence prevention coordinator. In 1998, she began working for the Tompkins County Department of Social Services to file petitions on behalf of family court.

She successfully ran for DA in 2005, beating out Dentes, who was a 16-year Republican incumbent.

In an online blog that transcribes a speech she gave during her campaign, Wilkinson reportedly said:

Specifically, with respect to violent crime, people are discouraged, upset, even outraged at the failure to prosecute crimes of domestic violence and child abuse by the incumbent. On the subject of addiction-related crime, there is overwhelming support in the county for the use of drug court as part of the sentence for addicted offenders. There is overwhelming support for the need to wipe out addiction and the crime it generates. People are clearly tired of revolving doors to the prisons, without getting treatment.

When Wilkinson was elected, she says both of those issues were among changed policies in the DA’s office.

During her first term, she said that not only were prosecutors able to land more convictions for child abusers, but they were able to do so through plea deals, keeping young children off the stand and out of the courtroom.

And the county began using the drug treatment court again, something Dentes had stopped using due to budget constraints.

Drug treatment court offers those convicted of drug offenses the opportunity to complete rehabilitation programs, keeps people connected with social services and can offer a reduction in jail time for those who successfully complete the program.

“We have burdened law enforcement for far too long with this war on drugs that was doomed to fail.”

“As a young ADA, what I got my early trial experience in was prosecuting drug dealers who barely merit, barely merit the label. I mean, they would sell two tiny little bundles of coke to an undercover dealer at one of the bars on the boulevard back in the early 90s  and my predecessor had a policy that any drug dealer went to state prison. So we never made offers on those cases that didn’t include state prison,” Wilkinson said.

Her opinions on drug use changed over the years, though, as she prosecuted more and more drug offenses and began to see the same people go through a revolving door in the criminal justice system.

They were addicted to drugs, eventually arrested and prosecuted for having drugs, went to prison, and then were released back onto the streets where they started using drugs again. She’d inevitably see these people again in court for similar crimes.

She said she began to feel more like addiction should be dealt with as a medical issue as opposed to a law enforcement issue.

“You have to remember, back then the general attitude was you needed to deter drug sales and the way you did it was you threatened the perpetrators with swift, certain and harsh punishment. It was during that time that I started to get sort of the creeping feeling that something was out of sync there,” she said.

Wilkinson made it clear that she has no professional sympathy for big-time dealers who see selling drugs as a lucrative career move — the deadly cost to the community is too high. But she said the war on drugs has always been a failure.

“We have burdened law enforcement for far too long with this war on drugs that was doomed to fail. That has failed at the cost of billions and billions of dollars and thousands and thousands of lives and mass incarceration on a scale that (was) heretofore unimagined anywhere,” she said.

But she’s hopeful that Tompkins County and Ithaca might be among the first places in the nation to claw its way out of the archaic approach to drug offenses.

Most recently, Wilkinson helped spearhead the committee that wrote The Ithaca Plan, the city’s controversial new drug reform policy that calls for supervised drug injection facilities for addicts, among other radical plans meant to combat the opioid addiction crisis in the city.

Related: The Ithaca Plan Story Archives

The county’s reentry program, which is meant to help people being released from prison and prevent recidivism and relapse into addiction, is also something she wants to continue working with.

Wilkinson is a big proponent for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, meant to get drug addicts off the streets and into treatment facilities as opposed to being taken to jail.

She said helping people get treatment before they have a criminal record is an essential component to helping people get employed and stay sober.

“It’s probably the biggest single problem facing Tompkins County. So I’d like to stay involved in that,” she said about opioid addiction. 

“I’m not happy that this is the way it’s ending and I’m not done.”

When Wilkinson announced her early retirement at the end of June, she said it took some people by surprise, but those closest to her may have suspected the announcement was coming.

“I don’t think anybody was really shocked because I’ve been sick for a long time and everybody knows it,” she said.

Wilkinson was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August of 2010 and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and other treatment until around early 2011.

She’s still in remission but suffering severe side effects from the treatment. In November, she began experiencing the most health issues and has been in and out of the hospital since then.

But she’s still been heavily involved with the day-to-day decisions in the office.

While Wilkinson said all of the prosecutors on her team are experienced and can run their caseloads smoothly, Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia helped run the office when she was not there.

“But you’re still talking. You’re still thinking about it. You’re still making the decisions, as you can, so there’s really no getting away, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I loved it and I kept my hand in with my regular life that made me be motivated to recover. But on the other hand, it made the kind of rest I needed unlikely to happen,” she said.

Her doctors began recommending that she find a way to lighten her schedule and find ways to be less stressed in January, something impossible to do as DA.

She said the job requires a 24-hour-a-day commitment. She’s been called to major crime scenes at midnight. Once while headed out of town for a vacation, a major crime in the county meant she had to turn her car around and drive right back.

After attempts at more treatment and another surgery in the spring, Wilkinson said it became clear that she was not getting better.

“If I want a shot at getting better, I need to not be doing this job,” she said. “This is not a decision I come to easily and I’d be lying if I said I’d made my peace with it. I’m not happy that this is the way it’s ending and I’m not done.”

Wilkinson said that she doesn’t know how long she’ll have to be out of work due to her illness. But she eventually wants to come back to being heavily involved in some of the committees she’s been a part of in the community.

If Wilkinson is able to rest and her treatment stays on track, she said she hopes to be hands-on with these projects again, possibly, by the end of the summer.

But Wilkinson said that after years of forging relationships with brilliant people in the community and being supported by voters through three elections, two of them uncontested, she will have a hard time moving on to new work.

“It goes beyond missing. Of course I will miss being part of it and miss seeing those people. But on some level, I guess, I have to wait to find out who I am if I’m not DA or a prosecutor. You know, it’s been a long, long time. I’ve been fighting for other people. So we’ll see. I imagine I’ll find a way to keep doing that, on some level, on a more healthy proportion to the rest of my life,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a huge part of my identity.”

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.