'The voice of those who don't have it': Rubin reflects on 40 years as prosecutor, public servant

As he prepares to retire, Rubin sat down with the News Tribune to reflect on high-profile murder cases, the evolution of evidence in the courtroom, his relationship with law enforcement and the nearly 11 years he spent as elected county attorney.

Retiring St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin sits at the prosecution table in a courtroom in the county courthouse in Duluth on Sept. 15, 2021. Hired as a county prosecutor in 1978, Rubin took more than 250 felony cases to trial before being elected county attorney in 2010. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Growing up in Duluth's Smithville neighborhood, Mark Rubin said he never dreamed of becoming a lawyer.

What he really wanted to do was replace Clete Boyer at third base for the New York Yankees, but he settled for his father's more realistic vision of pursuing a career as a dentist.

That was until Sister Agatha, his chemistry professor at the College of St. Scholastica, took Rubin aside one day and politely suggested: "Maybe you should think about doing something else."

Recalling the story with a chuckle all these years later, Rubin can say the switch worked in his favor. He's enjoyed a career spanning more than four decades in the St. Louis County Attorney's Office, including nearly 11 years as the elected top prosecutor and chief legal adviser.

"There's never been any greater privilege than going to bat for people and being the voice of those who don't have it," Rubin said in a recent interview. "It brought a lot of purpose to the work."


Pictures of family, a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol, and other items sit on a table in Mark Rubin’s office Sept. 15, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Colleagues praised Rubin's dedication and contributions to the local justice system and government as he prepares to retire Thursday from a long career in public service .

"I loved working side by side with Mark," said John DeSanto, former criminal division supervisor and later a judge. "He was a good prosecutor. He was well-prepared. He was hardworking. And the other thing about Mark is that I always saw a compassionate person."

High-profile start on Caldwell case

Rubin, a 1972 graduate of Morgan Park High School, said it was the dean of students at St. Scholastica who first suggested he take the law school admission test.

Another connection helped him get an internship in the office of St. Louis County Attorney Keith Brownell in 1975, and after graduating from Hamline University School of Law, he was hired as a Virginia-based prosecutor in April 1978.

While cutting his teeth on the Iron Range, Rubin was tapped by DeSanto to assist in what would become one of the longest and most-publicized jury trials in state history: the murder conspiracy case against Marjorie Caldwell in the Glensheen killings of wealthy heiress Elisabeth Congdon and night nurse Velma Pietila .

Rubin, who had also interned in the law office of defense attorney Ron Meshbesher , was intimately involved with the day-to-day legal work, but they chose to have DeSanto alone sit at the counsel table and present to the jury. He said it's the only felony trial he's watched without playing an active role in the courtroom.


Retiring St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin reflects on his career Sept. 15, 2021. Hanging on the wall behind him is a painting of King John of England accepting the Magna Carta. A gift, the painting is a reminder of the limits to the power a government has over its subjects. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Rubin, DeSanto and lead Duluth police investigator Gary Waller ended up living together for four months at a rented house in Hastings, Minnesota, where the trial was held. And while the 16-week trial ended in an acquittal, Rubin said it was "a gift to be part of it."

"I had so much respect for Ron and his ability, and to work with John and what I learned in that case — that was the turning point for law enforcement in our area," Rubin said. "Everything the Duluth Police Department thought they knew about investigating cases and preserving evidence, it was all flawed. A lot changed as a result of that trial."

It also sparked a lifelong friendship between Rubin and DeSanto, who would work together for nearly 30 years. Outside the courtroom, they attended spiritual retreats together and shared in many family celebrations, with Rubin and his wife, Nancy, becoming godparents to DeSanto's daughter, Abby.

"We've always really treasured that relationship," DeSanto said.

Cases grow more complex as evidence evolves

Rubin said he tried approximately 280 felony cases to a jury verdict. Trials were more common earlier in his career, and they largely relied on police reports and, perhaps, a handful of exhibits including photographs and fingerprints.

But as technology advanced, cases have become much more complex. DNA and other forensic sciences are now standard in courtrooms, along with immense amounts of electronic data and widespread video surveillance, now including police body cameras.


Retiring St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin talks about fingerprint evidence Sept. 15, 2021, while reflecting on the advances in technology since he first became a prosecutor in 1978. The display was once introduced as an exhibit at trial. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"The amount of time per case has increased, which is really unfortunate," Rubin said, while noting that more comprehensive evidence "removes any doubt" and improves the justice system.

"The last thing anybody wants to do is convict somebody who didn't do it," he said. "I'm proud of our reputation over the last 40-plus years. We really, really work hard to make sure we have the right person. And if we don't think we do, I believe we've always had the ethical standard that you don't go with the case."

Rubin briefly left the office in the late 1980s to enter private practice, primarily handling civil litigation and a bit of maritime law. He even handled about a dozen criminal cases as a defense attorney, which he said made him a better prosecutor when he quickly realized he wanted to return to the county attorney's office.

Retired longtime Northeastern Minnesota Chief Public Defender Fred Friedman tried many cases against Rubin, and despite being natural adversaries in the courtroom he said the prosecutor "always treated me right."

"He was definitely a gentleman," Friedman said. "He was very courteous to everybody. He won with grace and he lost with grace."

Finding deeper purpose in prosecution

DeSanto said Rubin earned the right to prosecute "all the big cases," including dozens of homicide defendants over the years. He took on various areas of focus over the years, serving a stint as a designated "firearm prosecutor" under a federal grant and tackling child sex abuse cases.


Starting in the late 1980s, he was a member of the multidisciplinary team that established the First Witness Child Advocacy Center , which provides a child-friendly location and resources with the goal of improving investigations and services for young victims of sexual or physical abuse.

FILE: Mark Rubin 1994
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin talks with Duluth police officer Ed Moroney in preparation for his testimony in an upcoming trial in September 1994. Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken has enjoyed a longstanding monthly breakfast meeting with Rubin, swapping stories and seeking solutions to some of the city's more pressing crime problems.

"There are events that happen over the weekend, on a Friday night or Saturday night, and I don't wait until Monday to talk to him," Tusken said. "He'll sometimes get a text from me at 5:30 on a Saturday morning saying here's a significant issue or a dangerous offender that we really need your help prosecuting, and Mark always gets back to me right away."

Rubin has also found meaning in restorative justice efforts, accepting prison invitations from defendants he helped put away. Among the notable examples, he's visited with Todd Warren, who fatally shot Samuel Witherspoon, Keith Hermanson and Peter Moore at an East Hillside house party in 1994, and Brad Voorhees, who killed his estranged wife, Carolyn Seitz, outside her Lincoln Park workplace in 1996.

"Those experiences changed me and just gave me a real sensitivity for everything about it," he said. "I've gotten to go down at least once a year and sit in these restorative justice circles with guys in prison. Just me and them, and maybe a social worker. No guard. You see these guys who did bad things, but they're decent people and they want you to know that. …

"That's been a phenomenal experience, and I hope my other prosecutors can have that kind of experience, because that really helps you see the other side and understand."


Bringing 'true expertise' to top job

Most of Rubin's service as a prosecutor fell under the 28-year tenure of County Attorney Al Mitchell, who he called "a great guy to work for."

But the office entered a more turbulent era in 2006, when Mitchell was challenged for the first time and narrowly lost reelection to newcomer Melanie Ford. Amid office politics that made for a myriad of headlines, Rubin threw his hat in the ring against his boss four years later.

FILE: Rubin election night
Mark Rubin reacts to early results in the St. Louis County attorney's race during his campaign party at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth on Nov. 2, 2010. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"I had some wonderful support from the community, law enforcement, people I worked with and, most importantly, from my wife," Rubin said. "I wanted to take everything I had learned and bring it to the role of county attorney. I felt I had something to offer, and I'm glad I ran. I think we've made a difference."

He acknowledged that the job differs from his prosecution days. It's fundamentally political, and he recalled going out to shake hands at 30-odd parades in his election campaign. It also means serving as the legal representative to all county departments and the independently elected Board of Commissioners.

"I never wanted to admit it early on, but I had never been to a county board meeting until after I was elected," he said. "It's been challenging sometimes, but so rewarding because what they do affects people's lives so deeply."

The St. Louis County Attorney's Office has 34 lawyers working in criminal, civil and public health and human services divisions in Duluth, Virginia and Hibbing. Rubin said 26 of them, a majority women, were appointed during his tenure. Four of his hires went on to be selected as district court judges and one as a child support magistrate for the 6th Judicial District.


One of his proteges, current civil division head Kim Maki, has been selected by the county board to fill out the remaining 15 months of Rubin's term and has indicated she is likely to run for a full, four-year term next fall.

FILE: Mark and Tony Rubin performing
Mark Rubin and his son, Tony Rubin, perform during Fourth Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 4, 2017. Longtime musical partners, they have also been colleagues since Tony was hired as a prosecutor in early 2019. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Rubin drew some criticism for hiring his son, Tony, as a prosecutor at the start of his third term in 2019, and the board ended up adopting an anti-nepotism policy as a result. But he has otherwise enjoyed a relatively uncontroversial tenure, never receiving a challenger in either of his reelection bids.

"He brought true expertise back to the top of the county attorney's office," said DeSanto, who left the office in 2007 and was appointed as judge in 2009. "And I don't mean that in a disparaging way against Melanie; I'm not saying she didn't work hard. But Mark had been in that office as a prosecutor for so many years and he really brought back that expertise that had been exhibited by Al Mitchell."

Staying involved in policing issues

Without the daily grind of a caseload, Rubin said he found himself able to work on bigger issues: implementing diversion programs for first-time, low-level offenders, addressing chronic truancy and advocating for survivors of domestic abuse and sex trafficking.

He's taken a particular interest in policing issues, serving on a statewide working group led by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington in hopes of reducing deadly force incidents.

Mark Rubin walks past shelves of law books outside his office Sept. 15, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Tusken said police and prosecutors need to maintain a close relationship in order to protect the community, but it also comes with some "push and pull."

"There are times where we're trying to hold someone accountable and the facts of case just aren't quite there," Tusken said. "For Mark and his staff, they will push back and tell us the things we need to do to make it a viable, prosecutable case. ... What we want is justice. We want to make sure we have done our due diligence and the facts are pointing in the direction of holding the right person accountable."

Rubin praised the work of local law enforcement agencies. His office contains a photo from his days playing on the Duluth Police Department softball team, and he has often spoken of the 1990 shooting death of his friend, Duluth police Sgt. Gary Wilson.

Awards recognizing Mark Rubin's years of service from the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and the US Attorney’s Office for Minnesota lay on a table in his office Sept. 15, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But he's also prosecuted a handful of officers in his career, making a rare return to the courtroom recently to charge Duluth officer Tyler Leibfried for the shooting of an unarmed man through the door of a downtown apartment last September.

"That is one of the toughest things we have to do because we go to bat for law enforcement, we go to bat for victims of crime (and) we go to bat for society," he said. "To actually prosecute a law enforcement officer is not pleasant."

Rubin said policing is one of the few issues in which he hopes to maintain a public voice in an otherwise quiet retirement.

"My goal, or least what I believe I'd like to do, is just really pull back and be hard to find," he said.

A framed document hanging in Mark Rubin’s office shows he was admitted as an attorney of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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