Friday, April 18, 1997
High-fashion prosecutor
gets her man

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Powers and Deters
Melissa Powers, assistant Hamilton County prosecutor, with prosecutor Joe Deters
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The murderer prefers blondes. He likes good listeners, too.

Melissa Powers is both. She's also an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor.

She is not your father's assistant prosecutor. That job used to be filled by hard-boiled men with rumpled suits and bad haircuts.

Her hair is styled just so. She's well-dressed and has the looks of a fashion model, which she is in her off-hours.

For five hours last Sunday, she sat in a prison outside St. Louis and listened to the racist ramblings of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin. She was there at his request.

It was his 47th birthday. And to thank her for dropping by, he gave her a confession.

He admitted to the cold-blooded murders of two teen-age cousins, 13-year-old Dante Evans Brown and 14-year-old Darrell Lane. He described how he shot them on June 8, 1980, from a railroad trestle over Reading Road. His confession closed a case that had been on the books for 17 years.

To get that confession, Melissa Powers had to act weak, quiet, mousy. She had to be everything she is not.

Prosecutor Joe Deters said asking Melissa Powers to take this assignment left a bad taste in his mouth. But he knew this was his best shot at a confession, at closing this case.

''Apparently, he was abused by his father,'' the prosecutor said. ''He refuses to talk to men.''

The prosecutor also admitted that after sitting in jail for 17 years there's probably a touch of Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter in Joseph Paul Franklin. He wants to see a woman in makeup, catch a whiff of her perfume or the fragrance of her shampoo. He thinks he can control women. ''And, he likes to be in control.''

Melissa Powers first sent the murderer a handwritten letter. He wrote back. A telephone call - with Joe Deters and four investigators listening in - was arranged.

''There we were, a bunch of men trying to tell Melissa how to deal with some guy,'' the prosecutor said. ''We quickly realized she would have better insights than we would.''

Using the passive card and playing on the murderer's ego, she told him her bosses weren't very interested in the old case. They weren't giving her much time to solve it. She had to work on it on her own time. Could they meet on a Sunday?

She was half telling the truth. Joe Deters said he had ''no intention of playing footsie with this guy for any longer than a month.''

By this time, only two Sundays were open, April 13 and April 20.

Joseph Paul Franklin ruled out April 20. That's Hitler's birthday, and he always celebrates it. Melissa Powers knew April 13 was his birthday. She told him so, and he was impressed.

''You really did your homework,'' he said and invited her to see him in prison.

She sat across a bare table from him. He was shackled. One guard stayed in the room.

No one else was present. No glass wall separated the killer from the assistant prosecutor.

A mission

Melissa Powers cannot talk about their conversation. She will be a witness when the murderer is brought to trial in Ohio.

But Joe Deters will talk about it. Joe Deters needs to. The case has haunted him.

He grew up less than a mile from the railroad trestle where the killer hid. He was in law school when Darrell and Dante were murdered.

As prosecutor, he read the grim police reports. He knew the one boy died instantly, but that the other boy lingered several days in the hospital. That's one part he can't shake.

Another was talking to the boys' mothers, hearing their sadness, hearing them cry.

This case dug its fingers deep into his soul. Joe Deters had to close it or this case might never let go of him. And so he sent Melissa Powers, for the mothers and himself.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.