Every great prosecutor has been relentless to the point of monomania, and Richard Aurel Sprague is no exception. Four years ago the 48-year-old first assistant district attorney of Philadelphia set out to bring to justice the killers of former United Mine Workers official Jock Yablonski, his wife and daughter. Sprague was positive one of the guilty would turn out to be the union president, W. A. (Tony) Boyle. Early in the case, Sprague explained his strategy: “Get the little guys and ask them if they prefer the chair—or something a little less severe.” He began with confessions from intermediaries, and now, after five smashing courtroom triumphs, Sprague’s crusade is ended. Boyle stands convicted of first-degree murder for ordering Yablonski’s death. Juries also handed down first-degree murder convictions on four other men. Three others pleaded guilty to murder, and another confessed to lesser charges. And Sprague has emerged as perhaps the most celebrated prosecutor in the nation.
The verdict marked the 70th time in 71 cases that he had won first-degree convictions. To the competitive Sprague, whose critics charge that he sees the world only in terms of good guys and bad guys, the latest verdict is more than justice. “There is a greater lesson,” he says. “It is that people who are in positions of power—like Boyle—get so used to their power that they lose sight of humanity.”
Sprague has been hammering away at illegal abuses of power for the past 14 years as the boss of a 150-lawyer staff. Democratic District Attorney F. Emmett Fitzpatrick is the nominal head of the department, but Sprague, also a Democrat, is the man who carries the fight into the courtrooms. His rewards are modest enough—a $33,750-a-year income and the use of a bulletproof, city-owned Chrysler equipped with a telephone, police radio and siren, which Sprague sometimes uses to clear traffic for himself.
A small man, only 5’7″ and now tending toward portliness, Sprague basks in his reputation as tough and savvy. His delivery in court is an icy monotone. He never speaks from notes, preferring to have all the details of a case in his mind. One cowed opponent has likened facing him to “firing a BB gun at a howitzer.” The awe which Sprague inspires is not based on courtroom histrionics, but rather on exceptionally thorough preparation. “His technique,” says a longtime assistant, “is to say that this crime could only have happened this one way.” Along with the logic goes a barely suppressed sense of outrage. “He is seething with righteous indignation,” says one judge.
Sprague’s background is unusual in that both of his parents are psychiatrists. He himself is well read and has a keen interest in the theater. (Not surprisingly, he sees the courtroom as theater. “Your jury is the audience, but your play has been written by the law and your players’ unpredictable conduct outside the courtroom. So you are perhaps more of a director without a script than you are an actor.”)
Sprague’s success against Tony Boyle has brought him $100,000 salary offers from big Philadelphia law firms. He says he isn’t interested. “I’m simply devoted to the prosecution. I don’t need a big Yablonski case to satisfy me. My client is the public, my community. We have a generation of people growing up who need to have ingrained into their minds the element of punishment. If you do wrong, you will be punished. Without that feeling as part of our culture, we have no society.”
He does favor certain rehabilitation programs—and reinstatement of the death penalty. Dick Sprague remains ever the district attorney, granting favors to no one. “He would,” says an assistant ruefully, “prosecute me for stealing cookies.”