By MICHAEL LARIS
The Washington Post
ROCKVILLE, Md. - Karla Smith smiles easily for someone who has seen the worst that people have to offer.
Her three rambunctious sons help. "I go home to my kids every night and love them and talk about how lucky we are to have each other," she said.
Their joyous images surround her at work. But pinned to the corkboard beside her desk in the Montgomery County state's attorney's office is also a photograph of a little girl in a pink shirt who was beaten so badly that she needs a wheelchair and feeding tube.
The prosecutor has spent more than a dozen years steeped in the horrifying details of abuse, five as chief of the family violence division, bringing a mother's eye and an unflinching approach to a job she held longer than many could handle.
"There are not a lot of people who want to do it," said longtime detective Dean Cates, who has worked with Smith. "It affects you in everything you do, especially when you have children."
Cates said his five years as a homicide detective were "significantly easier than the two investigating the child abuse cases."
Now Smith, 42, is headed for a new role. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has chosen her to become a District Court judge, and she is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday.
Defense lawyer David Martella, who trained Smith as a prosecutor in Montgomery and has been going up against her in court for years, said Smith looks for justice, not just lockups.
"Karla was always very good and very diligent in making sure that no one got prosecuted who didn't deserve to get prosecuted. That's a judgment call, but she's always shown good judgment," Martella said.
Smith, who started her career as a prosecutor in Prince George's County in 1997 and moved to Montgomery three years later, has approached cases with the same sense of purpose she saw at home in the 1970s.
Smith's mother, Betty, was a third-grade teacher at Beall Elementary School in Rockville. Her father, John, helped run Howard University's School of Social Work and was chief of staff for pioneering black congressman Augustus Freeman Hawkins, whose Los Angeles district had been hit by the 1965 Watts riots. For a school project, Karla interviewed Brooklyn's Shirley Chisholm, the nation's first African American congresswoman.
John W. Smith had been a foster child and eventually was taken in by relatives with slave roots in Montgomery. During a family reunion trip to Canada while Karla was in law school, she saw a copy of a bill of sale for members of the family that came from the Montgomery courthouse.
Soon, Smith will preside over cases in a new, nearby courthouse _ the first African American woman appointed to Montgomery's District Court, according to Administrative Judge Eugene Wolfe. Judge Sharon Burrell, the first black woman appointed as a Circuit Court judge in the county, preceded Smith to the bench in 2008.
"It's an awesome responsibility," Smith said. "My sole job is to be fair and impartial and work hard and make all the people who paved the way for me to get there proud."
In her job prosecuting some of the most wrenching crimes, Smith has had to be both relentless and comforting, knowing how to put victims and detectives at ease.
Smith was the prosecutor on Detective Kristie Taylor's first case seven years ago. A man had raped and photographed his girlfriend's teenage daughter.
"When you're sitting on the stand and you look out and you see her, you at least know she's there, you know she's in your corner and you know she's fighting to get the same victory you want," Taylor said.
The man showed no remorse, blaming the girl and her mother in court, Taylor said. He was sent to prison for decades.
Smith takes satisfaction in long and deserved prison terms. But another measure of success does not come in numbers.
"The best feeling for me always is to turn around and look at a victim at sentencing and see what ultimately is a look of relief on their face," she said. "The victim knows that somebody listened to me, and somebody believed me, and what happened to me was wrong."
The children she has helped stick with her.
There are the two boys who endured torture on top of molestation. Their mother's boyfriend made them hold their arms out to their sides as he forced them to perform sex acts.