GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In 40 years as a prosecutor, 30 as the elected head of the county officer until his retirement just over a year ago, Bill Forsyth personally tried more than 40 murder cases and oversaw thousands of others.
Now, he will oversee a case the whole world is watching.
Saturday’s announcement from State Attorney General Bill Schuette came as a surprise even to those who know the former prosecutor well.
“I had no idea, no rumor, no inkling that was even on his radar,” said current Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, whom Forsyth hired 22 years ago. “He was my first boss and my only boss.”
Becker thinks his former boss is the right guy for this daunting job.
“I think it’s an inspired pick just because integrity is the first thing you think of when you think of Bill,” Becker said. “He’s gonna be thorough, he’s gonna look into everything and he’s not gonna leave any stone unturned.”
In his last election in 2012, Forsyth received the most votes of any county-wide elected official.
That’s an indication of how much of a force he was in Kent County.
Among the most high-profile cases Forsyth Prosecuted was the 2008 conviction of Jeffrey VanVels, who shot and killed Grand Rapids Police Officer Robert Kominski — Forsyth’s last case in the courtroom.
Forsyth was regarded as a dogged prosecutor, relentless in the pursuit of what he considered justice.
But Forsyth also took the lead in 2015, seeing that Quentin Carter was freed from prison after 17 years behind bars.
Carter was wrongly convicted of raping a child — where the alleged victim and her mother lied on the stand to cover up for the actual rapist — was set free.
24 Hour news 8 talked to Forsyth in December of 2016 during his final weeks on the job.
“I’ve seen some things that I’d just as soon forget, but you can’t,” Forsyth said. “Kiko Cruz, who beheaded the young man up in Sparta, then videotaped himself doing a variety of things to the skull. That’s a memory I’ll always have. I would just as soon not have it.”
Becker says Forsyth was not one to cave into pressure, doing what he thought was right.
“He’s got no political future or anything like that, he’s just gonna do the right thing,” Becker said.
Other attorneys share this sentiment, including Richard Hillary, the head of the Kent County Office of the Defender who said he expects a fair and through investigation by his former courtroom adversary.
Kent County District Court Judge Jeffrey O’Hara was a defense attorney for more than 20 years before he was elected judge in 2014.
“(Forsyth) made a career of thoroughly investigating and prosecuting the most difficult capital cases, including numerous sexual assault cases,” O’Hara said. “His character is beyond reproach and he is respected by law enforcement throughout the state of Michigan for his hard work, honesty, and credibility.”
Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan saw Forsyth’s work since 1988.
“If you’re looking for someone to take on this job, it seems to me, he’s a perfect match. So I think it’s a great choice,” Sullivan said. “He’s very competent, does a good job, he’s fair.”
Becker, who is a graduate of Michigan State University, says it will take a thorough understanding of what happened before justice and healing can occur, but he does not think it will happen fast.
“I would be shocked if it took less than a year,” Becker said.
One of the things that was unique about Forsyth as a prosecutor was he would often issue multipage explanations of why he did not charge someone.
That’s an example of the kind of transparency that many say has been missing in this case.
In 2016, Forsyth said he lived by a piece of advice he received from David Sawyer who had the job before him.
“He said, ‘Make the best decision you can make (with) the facts that you have and move on.”