Pitt Law alum to be first female Chester County district attorney

Deb Ryan won the Chester County District Attorney’s race last month after serving as a prosecutor in southeastern Pennsylvania for 15 years.

Photo courtesy of Deb Ryan

Deb Ryan won the Chester County District Attorney’s race last month after serving as a prosecutor in southeastern Pennsylvania for 15 years.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Contributing Editor

A Pitt Law graduate recently accomplished a historic feat in a southeastern Pennsylvania local election.

Deb Ryan won the Chester County District Attorney’s race last month, beating First Assistant District Attorney Mike Noone in a 76,251 to 62,958 victory. Ryan will be the first Democratic DA in Chester County, as well as the first woman to hold the position.

“It has been surreal. I’m slowing digesting and processing what happened. I’m excited about coming into office in January and executing my vision to make this office a better place,” Ryan said.

Ryan has been a prosecutor in southeastern Pennsylvania for 15 years, working in both the Philadelphia district attorney’s office and Chester County district attorney’s office. As district attorney, she plans on focusing on crime victims’ rights and criminal justice reform in her county, which has a population of about half a million.

But before she set upon her career path on the other side of the state, she walked the halls of the Barco Law Building as a Pitt Law student. She arrived at Pitt Law in 1995 after completing her undergraduate degree at Boston University, as well as an internship at the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.

During her internship, she was able to watch a prosecutor give a closing argument in a homicide case. This experience is what led her to want to become a prosecutor herself. With this goal in mind, she enrolled in Pitt Law and began tailoring her schedule to fit her ambitions.

“My experience [at Pitt Law] was a good one. I think going to law school with the idea of becoming a prosecutor helped me make good class decisions. My course load was a lot of criminal procedure, criminal practice and evidence,” she said.

Ryan said she was inspired by two particular professors, Welsh White and John Burkoff. White, who passed away in 2005, taught her criminal evidence class. Burkoff, a professor emeritus who retired from the University in 2017, taught her constitutional criminal procedure class.

Though she was a student of his more than 20 years ago, Burkoff takes pride in his former pupil’s accomplishments throughout her career.

“I couldn’t be more proud of her. She seems to me to be an incredibly good lawyer, but also an incredibly good person,” he said.

Ryan still recalls the excitement and passion both Burkoff and White instilled in her as a law student.

“When I sat in those classes, I knew that was the stuff I cared about. It really resonated with me. Because they were so interested in that area of the law and they were such great professors, it made the students really interested in the law. They were just excellent at what they did,” she said.

After graduating, Ryan moved back to Philadelphia and began working in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, where she was first inspired to become a prosecutor, in 1998. During her four years in Philadelphia, she tried hundreds of cases and eventually was promoted to an assistant district attorney. After the birth of her first child, she left her position and moved to Chester County where she worked part-time for Champions of Caring, a non-profit organization founded by her mother dedicated to empowering young people in the Philadelphia area to work to improve their communities and affect positive change.

Ryan returned to prosecuting in 2006 when she was hired by the Chester County district attorney’s office where she would eventually become a deputy district attorney in charge of the Chester County Child Abuse Unit in 2012. According to Ryan, this was a very significant moment in her life.

“It changed the trajectory of my career,” she said. “It was probably the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Working with children, especially very young children, is incredibly difficult. There’s such a great satisfaction to be able to help one of the most vulnerable populations out there.”

Ryan’s mission to protect the children of Chester County continued after she left the Chester County DA’s office in 2016. She was hired by the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County as the County Coordinator in charge of the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative.

According to Christine Zaccarelli, a Dietrich School alum and the CEO of the Crime Victims’ Center, Ryan was hired to work with a grant they received from Penn State to combat child sexual abuse in Chester County. Zaccarelli and Ryan both collaborated on the Stewards of Children, a training program that teaches adults how to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse. They also both began working at the center around the same time period and were transitioning from careers in prosecuting to advocacy work.

“Both of us were coming into a new field of work that did not involve practicing law. It was great to be able to relate to each other on that level. We both enjoyed it and Deb was a great fit for the position,” Zaccarelli said.

While working for the Crime Victim’s Center, Ryan was able to work to promote child abuse prevention, as opposed to working with the victims of such crimes.

“As a prosecutor, you’re reactionary. You’re dealing with the after-effects of something pretty traumatic. What we saw in Chester County over the past several years was an exponential increase in child abuse allegations of more than 760%, which is unconsionable,” she said. “Being able to work in the prevention side of things was a wonderful and natural fit for me because we need to figure out how we can protect kids and stop this from happening in the first place.”

She decided to run for district attorney after speaking to friends in local law enforcement who expressed desire for a change in leadership. She was especially encouraged by her brother, who passed away last year.

“The day before he died we spoke about it. He was a huge advocate for me to run for DA and outlined it really well for me. After his death, it really made me assess what I wanted to do with my life and what kind of work I think is important and meaningful,” she said.

Though she will be starting a new job this January, Ryan is still dedicated to advocating for crime victims and has said she will make this a priority throughout her time as district attorney.

“I know how important it is to make sure we’re treating victims with respect and dignity — keeping them in the loop about their case and making sure their voices are heard,” she said.

She is also focused on criminal justice reform in Chester County. For Ryan, this means creating and expanding programs that are an alternative to jail, specifically for those with mental illnesses or drug and alcohol problems, and for those who have committed a low-level nonviolent offense. These programs could potentially include counseling, job skills training and a GED course. She also stressed the importance of equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

“We’ve had a disparity in the treatment of certain types of people and we want to make sure we rectify that. Everyone should be treated equally,” she said.