Tom Falck, Class of '75, Set to Retire as Assistant States Attorney
Last week, Don Keplin, who has been appearing in Grand Forks courtrooms for more than half of his 40 years on a long list of charges including several felony drug and violence convictions with plenty of time behind bars, appeared again in a pre-trial conference, again across the aisle from a familiar face.
Updated on more felony drug charges, the most serious in his long career that promise him years more in prison if prosecutors make their case, Keplin was led out in orange and shackles. But not before he turned his head and said, apparently sincerely, "Have a good day, Mr. Falck." Tom Falck, assistant state's attorney for Grand Forks County, acknowledged the uncommon tribute. "I've known Don for years," he said. Like much in his work, it was nothing he hasn't seen before. One man he's prosecuted since the late 1970s often stops to talk, Falck said Friday between well-wishers. "Some of these people become your friends."
Career started in '77
Falck began prosecuting crimes in Grand Forks during Jimmy Carter's first summer as president as Rod Carew was flirting with .400 with the Twins, points out his boss, State's Attorney Peter Welte, who wasn't yet a teenager in 1977. After 36 years, Falck, 64, is retiring May 17 as assistant state's attorney for Grand Forks County and one of the longest-serving prosecutors in the state, other prosecutors say. "It's time for me to leave it to the kids," said Falck, known as a serious, well-prepared and fair prosecutor with little flair for the dramatic, but a sharp, often mordant wit. Friday they held a party for him in the county office building, with federal and state prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and judges lauding him and dozens more county employees and others there to mark it. He got a plaque from federal prosecutors in Fargo, signed by U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon.
Jason McCarthy, one of the dozen other assistant prosecutors in the office, told the Herald it's easy to look up to Falck. "He treats me like a son," McCarthy said. "He treats all with respect. I imagine that's why Mr. Keplin said that." Before Welte ran to replace retiring State's Attorney James Odegard in 2002, he first asked his colleague Falck if he was interested in the elected position. Never, Falck said, then and now. "I enjoy criminal prosecution," he said, rather than administrative or political duties.
UND law class of '75
Falck was a member of UND law school's "star" class of 1975, Welte said: two state Supreme Court Justices: Mary Muehling Maring and Dale Sandstrom; three state district judges: Joel Medd in Grand Forks, John Greenwood in Jamestown and retired Judge Cynthia Rothe-Seeger from Fargo, the state's first female district judge. Medd is one of several judges and prosecutors quick to quote Falck's well-known bromide about any defendant seen too often: "You are serving life in prison on the installment plan." Of his law school classmate, Medd says: "He has been a very conscientious prosecutor and was able to see both sides of a case." Welte said Falck never lost sight of defendants' humanity. "Jim Odegard, my and Tom's boss at one time, used to say a lot that these are good people who have just made a bad decision. I have seen him over and over, after a hearing, say something to the defendant, that you are going off to prison, but when you get out, you will get a fresh start." Richard Olson, speaking for "the defense bar," told Falck, "We really appreciate dealing with a gentleman." Meredith Larson, one of Falck's fellow assistant state's attorneys said last month, a defendant acted up in court and had to be removed. "Tom made a point to go downstairs and try to talk to the defendant and his attorney as he was being led out by the correctional officers. He was trying to convince him to calm down," Larson said. "It didn't work but it's a good example of how Tom tries to be reasonable and talk sense to defendants whenever possible." Falck says, "The biggest concern I've got in my job is trying to be fair to everybody in the system, because you don't want to abuse the power you have."
Farm to prosecutor
Falck grew up on a farm near Buchanan, N.D., north of Jamestown, land homesteaded by his great-grandfather in the 19th century. The oldest of six, Falck said allergies helped him turn from farming to the law. His wife, Susan, is a physician's assistant in Fargo; their daughter lives in Fargo and their son in Grand Forks. His family, including his parents, were at his party Friday. But Falck knows the families of experienced criminals, too. "It's unfortunate, in some families, it goes on for generations," he said. "It eats up a lot of resources between our office and juvenile court and social services and all the various agencies." But it hasn't made him a cynic, he said. "I try to look at the other side, that society is being protected by the work that we do. And in some instances, the individual has actually gotten help from the various resources provided to them. Most prosecutors tend to be fairly upbeat. People develop a dark sense of humor to deal with it, but it doesn't depress me in any way."
Hard work ethic
District Judge Karen Braaten said her father, Judge Frank Kosanda "had a great deal of respect for Tom" and she shares it. His work ethic was admirable, Braaten said, especially "all the late nights Tom has spent working on search warrants. There have been many times when he has called and awakened me late at night to sign a search warrant he and drug enforcement agents had been working on to review and sign." State District Judge James Hovey in New Rockford, N.D., worked as a defense attorney in Grand Forks for years, across the aisle from Falck in the many court rooms. He says Falck was "tough when he needed to be, lenient when the circumstances justified it." He loved talking with Falck in private about a case, Hovey says. "No court reporters, no judge, no public. Just two lawyers trying to work out a fair resolution."