Mike Barry and Allison Ruth may not be names everyone in our community knows, but they’ve been the primary players in prosecuting someone whose name most know: Kathryn Knott.
Barry and Ruth, both assistant district attorneys with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, handled the high-profile gay-bashing case for more than a year. Knott, Kevin Harrigan and Philip Williams were part of a group of 15 people who verbally and physically assaulted gay couple Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught Sept. 11, 2014, in Center City.
By all accounts, the victims were the primary focus throughout Barry’s and Ruth’s work this past year. They negotiated plea deals with Harrigan and Williams that were satisfactory to Haught and Hesse and walked the victims through each step of the process when Knott chose to take her case to trial. They expertly sifted through and presented the facts of the case in a digestible and credible way that ensured convictions. This case has the potential to shed serious light on the state’s lack of a hate-crimes law, and Barry and Ruth’s leadership — and focus on the real impact of the crimes committed Sept. 11, 2014 — have been influential in that effort.
Investigators and the D.A.’s Office contend that Harrigan made an antigay comment toward Haught and Hesse that set off a melee in which all three defendants verbally and physically attacked the couple. Knott, Harrigan and Williams were arrested about two weeks after the incident, and Barry and Ruth were assigned to the case from the start.
It was a high-profile case from the onset but, in an interview last month, Barry told PGN he’s comfortable with such cases; he prosecuted former police officer Frank Tepper for a 2009 murder and Mustafa Ali for the 2008 double murder of two retired cops.
He took the sharp public scrutiny in the gay-bashing case in stride.
“It was tough because so many people felt so strongly about this case, every move we made was met with some response but that’s part of being a public servant,” he said.
Nellie Fitzpatrick, assistant district attorney and director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, said Barry and Ruth come from prosecutorial backgrounds that made them natural fits for this case.
“I think it was very important for prosecutors to be working on this case who have high levels of experience dealing with high-profile crimes,” she said. “Mike certainly is no newcomer, and for that matter neither is Allison, to handling high-profile matters in the city.”
Barry, a native of Northeast Philadelphia, is the son of a late police detective. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Scranton and a law degree from Temple University.
He became an ADA in 1999 and was named chief of the Central Bureau in 2010. His criminal prosecution has spanned all levels, including six years in the Homicide Unit.
“Mike is a consummate prosecutor,” said John Delaney, Deputy District Attorney in the Trial Division. “He thoroughly prepares his cases, and is an extraordinary advocate for victims and all people of the commonwealth.”
Ruth shares that commitment, Delaney said.
The Lehigh County native earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s University and a law degree from Quinnipiac University, becoming a prosecutor in 2008. She handled serious criminal cases in Central Bureau before her assignment to the Homicide Unit earlier this year.
“Allison combines tenacity and compassion to achieve justice,” Delaney said. “She personifies what we expect of our prosecutors in our cases: She does the right thing for the right reason.”
The duo brought their education and experience to the table throughout the process, which included multiple meetings with the victims and negotiations with the defendants’ attorneys.
Harrigan and Williams agreed to the plea deals this past fall, but Knott declined, choosing instead to present her case to a jury.
When the trial opened last month, Ruth delivered a fiery opening statement that drove home the seeming motivation for the crime.
“You dirty, fucking faggot,” Ruth opened, repeatedly using the antigay slur to quote the language the victims say was hurled at them during the attack.
Ruth and Barry split duties throughout the four-day trial, both leading direct examination of prosecution witnesses and cross-examination of defense witnesses. Among Ruth’s contributions during the trial, she handled the direct of Haught and the cross-examination of defense witness Taylor Peltzer, who contended Haught hit her. Among Barry’s responsibilities was the cross-examination of Knott — in which he grilled her on her involvement in the incident and history of antigay social-media postings — as well as the 80-minute closing statement.
After about 14 hours of deliberations, the jury returned with four convictions — two counts of reckless endangerment as well as conspiracy and simple assault — out of 10 possible charges, acquitting Knott of the more serious felonies; however, jurors later told reporters that the majority wanted to convict on all counts but had to compromise to avoid a hung jury.
Barry told PGN last month that Haught and Hesse were comfortable with the mixed verdict.
“I did discuss the possibility of a mixed verdict with Zach and Andrew all along and it was something they wouldn’t been, and were, fine with,” Barry said. “The reality is, all they ever wanted was for somebody to acknowledge [Knott] did it, and for her to take something from that, change her attitude and grow from it; Zach and Andrew weren’t vengeful people, which was refreshing. And it was clear from this verdict that the jury agreed she did what we said she did.”
Shortly before the verdict was read, Barry sat with the victims and coached them on keeping their emotions in check and their reactions minimal. Throughout the trial, he and Ruth frequently were heard explaining to the victims and their families what to expect each day, and asking how they were holding up, which Fitzpatrick said was illustrative of their approach to working with victims.
“Mike has spent most of his career in homicide, so he’s used to working with victims who are grieving, devastated, who’ve lost loved ones. So he brings a large level of empathy to the human suffering people are dealing with in the criminal legal system,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that Ruth, who was her first trial partner, also was attentive and compassionate. “Allison is a highly, highly empathetic and intelligent human being. Watching her deal with Zach and Andrew was very impressive. I think that she was able to really help alleviate some of their concerns. Mike and Allison are very different in their personalities but it’s wonderful to see them in action together. They covered the whole spectrum of what you need to do in working with victims, especially victims of such a brutal crime.”
“Mike and Allison were so kind and patient and really took time to comfort [Haught and Hesse], in addition to guiding them along this process,” said Caryn Kunkle, a friend of and advocate for the victims. “It meant so much to us and our families. I’m sure they have 100 cases a year and they didn’t need to take the time to be so kind and positive, but they did.”
Apart from working closely with the victims, both Barry and Ruth also continuously emphasized that the incident was a hate crime — one that could not be covered by state law, which does not include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity; the city has since adopted an LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes ordinance.
“Let’s stop beating around the bush,” Barry told jurors in his closing statement. “This is a hate crime.”
Barry told PGN that advancing an LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes law was not his goal with this case, but he would be “very happy” if it helped influence such an aim.
“All people should be protected,” he said. “It’s crazy that the protections don’t include the LGBT community.”
“I think this case heightens and emphasizes the need for continued understanding within society of what hate crime really means, compared to what hate crime legally is,” Fitzpatrick said. “In this instance, there was not a charge for hate crime because it was not available but I think it’s important and commendable that the D.A.’s Office still handled this case as though it were, because it was clearly motivated by bias and hatred.”
Kunkle said that, after hearing about Haught and Hesse’s ordeal, many people have shared with her with their own stories of anti-LGBT bias crimes.
“The reaction from the community has been so gracious and supportive, I am personally hoping to see some widespread legal changes to support the LGBT community needs,” she said. “The stories that people have approached me with just break my heart.”
Fitzpatrick added Barry and Ruth’s commitment to protecting LGBT victims, and advancing LGBT equality, extends beyond this case.
She noted that Barry turned out for the recent bill signing of legislation to mandate gender-neutral signage on single-stall restrooms in the city.
“He stuck out like a sore thumb at the bill-signing,” Fitzpatrick laughed. “He looks every bit the part of a city prosecutor, with his suspenders and bigger-than-life personality, but it’s great to see a prosecutor who cares so deeply about everyone in the city, especially the LGBT community; he’s willing to not only go the distance for victims in court but also to engage and be a constant presence outside of court, so people know he’s here and he’s invested and accessible. And Allison has always also been involved behind the scenes in all sorts of work to protect people who are LGBT within the criminal-justice system. So there’s a history of them both doing the right thing and valuing the partnership with the city and the community.”
Barry said this type of case — which has the potential to get results for both the victims and on a larger scale — is what drew him to criminal prosecution.
“This is why I do what I do,” Barry said. “This case had meaning, meaning beyond the facts, meaning beyond what happened to Zach and Andrew. As a person who likes doing meaningful work, I was glad to be in those shoes to do that.”