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Dearstyne announces retirement

County Attorney Don Dearstyne will be retiring this spring after 28 years as an attorney. (Nicole Vik/Enterprise)

Hubbard County Attorney Donovan Dearstyne submitted his letter of retirement, effective April 7, to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

"I'm going to be 69 and it seems that I go to more funerals now than I do reunions," Dearstyne said about his decision. "It's been a very successful career. I'm very pleased with the accomplishments that I've done over the years."

Dearstyne served in the United States Air Force after high school, prior to being drafted.

"I enlisted in the Air Force in the hopes that I wouldn't go to Vietnam but ended up there anyway," he said of his military career where he started in law enforcement and security police.

"I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do that," he said about his desire to serve as a police officer. "When I got back from the military, I applied at different places and got hired by Grand Forks."

Dearstyne worked as a city police officer in Grand Forks for 12 years, until one night while he was on patrol a man broke into a couple of liquor stores.

"He and I had a disagreement about him going to jail," Dearstyne said in describing a wrestling match that ensued where he was bit by the individual he was trying to arrest. "I felt something snap in my neck. After we got him handcuffed and into the patrol car, I decided to go to the hospital and make sure I was current on my tetanus shot."

Dearstyne told the doctor at the emergency room that he may have a pinched nerve in his neck. They decided to take an x-ray and determined that he in fact had a C4 and C5 fracture, in other words, a broken neck. Dearstyne had to have surgery and to this day can't completely turn his neck properly.

"It was a blessing in disguise," he said of the incident working as an incentive to change careers. "I was out of work about eight months on workman's comp and during that time I got accepted to law school."

His doctor wrote a letter to the city council explaining that Dearstyne would be a liability due to his neck injury. The council allowed him to continue working on the force Friday and Saturday nights while he worked through law school.

Dearstyne started his career as an attorney in private practice for nearly seven years with two other gentlemen in Grand Forks.

An opportunity came up for a public defender's position in Minnesota at the Ninth Judicial District Office in Crookston.

"The Public Defender's Office wanted to hire some attorneys with some trial experience so they asked me to apply," Dearstyne said. He worked for the office for nearly 11 years before transferring within the district to Walker.

"I had the unfortunate record of having more homicide cases than any other public defender in the Ninth District," he said. "In my career, I think I had 12 homicide cases. As a public defender, I've had four or five of them. They're difficult cases."

He added that the last homicide case he tried was last year as the prosecutor for Hubbard County, which was also a particularly difficult case for him. The case was hard in itself but adding to the difficulty was his mother-in-law had passed away while he was writing his closing arguments at her bedside.

"It was close. I've talked to several of the jurors afterwards and they thought we presented a tremendous case. It just wasn't there and they struggled with it," he said.

Dearstyne explained there's a reason why the judicial system has the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"I believe in that standard. I've defended as well as prosecuted. The standard should be to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "It's a burden that I accept as a prosecutor because we are potentially taking away someone's freedom and it should be a high standard."

On Jan. 1, 2007, Dearstyne started his career as the Hubbard County Attorney.

"I've been happy in what I've done. I'm confident that I'll be retiring and leaving the County Attorney's Office in a better place than how I found it and that was my goal," he said. "We have made some very positive changes and I'm very happy with the staff that I have; they are very hard workers and they are willing to do the job."

At the last board meeting, the commissioners approved a fourth attorney be hired in the county attorney's office. Now, with the news of Dearstyne's retirement, they will be hiring two new people. According to Dearstyne, it is his intent to stay throughout the hiring process.

Dearstyne recommended that the board consider appointing Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Frieden to take his place as county attorney.

"Everybody is replaceable," he said about himself. "Jonathan is a very competent and very personable individual and I think he would do a great job."

Dearstyne said he could have run another term but that he would prefer to enjoy retirement with his wife and family while he still has his health. He insists that he will find things to keep himself busy and intends to do some volunteer work.

"I think I'll miss working with the people. My wife and I have always been community-minded and involved. We always felt we needed to give back," he said. "It's going to be different. I've had a full-time job since I was 17 years old."

"I hope I'm going to enjoy retirement but I'm not going to sit in a rocking chair on my front porch," he joked.