Theresa Ferryman advocates for our state's most vulnerable residents

Seth Jacobson photo

Prosecutor Theresa Anne Ferryman stands before a judge and recites the details of the state's case against a serial child molester.

The middle-aged man with the long history of groping children sits a few feet away. He has pleaded guilty on the eve of trial, sparing his latest victim from having to testify.

Most people would find this crime revolting, but Ferryman avoids using incendiary language, which she says is not helpful. She describes the man as "a master manipulator who has managed to dodge the consequences of his actions for more than two decades."

"He has been driving this narrative for 20 years," Ferryman says. "He perpetrates. He ducks into therapy. He perpetrates. He ducks into therapy."

This time, the man is going to prison, and upon his release, will be on strict probation and listed on the state's sexual offender registry.

Ferryman, a senior assistant state's attorney, specializes in prosecuting sex offenders at the New London courthouse where major crimes are tried. TV crime shows notwithstanding, she says the prosecutor is not meant to be a personal hero to child sex assault victims.

"By and large, these children go through these cases with the adults taking care of the case without them going into court," she says, adding that kids who have endured abuse need a return to normalcy. "They need to get back to their lives."

"The 'win,'" she explains, "is the case that is so strong the defendant pleads guilty, receives a punishment, is supervised in the community afterward and the child moves on without knowing me."

She has handled crimes involving teachers, police officers, pastors and parents. The hardest cases, she says, are the ones that go to trial. She takes on those cases when necessary, gently coaxing the victims to tell their stories to the jury and coolly cross-examining the defendants who choose to testify on their own behalf.

At 49, with 19 years experience as an attorney for the state, Ferryman is comfortable on the job and well respected. She considers herself lucky also in her personal life, despite the tragic death of her brother Michael Ferryman in 1985, the passing of her father, Eugene Ferryman, in 1995 and receiving a diagnosis, in 2003, of multiple sclerosis.

Ferryman is a pleasure to behold in courtrooms dominated by men in suits. She wears her dark, curly hair pulled back in a barrette, carrying off the same style she wore in high school. She is well proportioned, and to her sister Patricia's amazement, she's comfortable in stockings and heels. Her skirts trend just above the knee and her blouses tend toward whimsical, with puffed sleeves and Peter Pan collars. She has smiling eyes and is quick-witted but not malicious.

With court adjourned for the morning, Ferryman stands on the sidewalk in front of New London's St. Joseph School, chatting with passersby as she waits for her son, Jack. The youngest of her three children ambles toward her, smiling sweetly, and they head home.

Though her presence is limited in the life of the young victims whose cases arrive on her desk with startling frequency, Ferryman is unabashedly engaged in the lives of her own kids.

She has spent the last two decades shepherding them through hockey games, homework and all of life's challenges with the help of her husband, Kirk Nassetta, her mother, Margaret Ferryman, and her sister, Patricia Ferryman.

Her kids joke that a monster was created when she learned to communicate via text message, but all of them know she counts on them to keep in touch. She keeps her cell phone, with its neon pink cover, close at all times.

"I am most happy when I've heard from all three in the last hour, all happy and engaged in their lives, and the dog is walked and fed," she says. Only then, she says, can she get back to her other love, a great book, free of guilt and distraction.

Her oldest, Emily, is working for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Los Angeles, having graduated last year from Holy Cross University. Her middle child, Sam, is a freshman at Assumption College, where he was recruited to play hockey.

These days, she also has turned her motherly attention to Buford, the rescue dog her daughter Emily brought home two years ago to help Ferryman cope when her two oldest left the nest. Ferryman still insists she is "not a dog person," but the absurdly cute, oversized Basset Hound with the floppy ears, splayed feet and sad eyes gets three meals a day, "like a human," and is ecstatically happy to accompany her on errands, riding in the back seat of her Volvo station wagon on a cushy blanket.

~~~

In 2003, when Ferryman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after experiencing a sudden vision loss, a doctor advised her that it might be best if she stopped working altogether. That was out of the question. She loved her job, and she and her husband had years of tuition payments ahead. She takes weekly injections to manage her symptoms and powers through the bad days, when her motions are stiffer and her right leg drags.

Ferryman says she isn't easily offended by questions and comments about the disease. She makes light of it, saying that most days, she can beat her officemates in a foot race. She considers herself extremely fortunate compared to others with more severe cases of MS.

Ferryman's co-workers openly adore her.

"She's our little sister," says Public Defender Bruce Sturman, even though he and Ferryman often find themselves on the opposite side of a case. Her boss, State's Attorney Michael Regan, is a neighbor, someone she can laugh with when she bumps into him while walking Buford in her sweat pants and clogs.

She works closely with Phil Fazzino, the office's chief inspector, who says he calls her "Miss Ferryman" rather than "Theresa," out of respect, even when he is nagging her to read an arrest warrant that requires her signature.

For most of her career, she has shared an office with fellow prosecutor Paul J.Narducci, who she met when they both attended St. Bernard High School. They sometimes partner up to try cases together.

"In many respects she's my alter ego," Narducci says. "When I have a question she's the first one I turn to. She has a tremendous grasp of human nature."

They still laugh about their years at St. Bernard, where Narducci says they "ran in the same circles."

"We can mention a name and can do a Six Degrees of Separation and have it spiral, and go on to a 45-minute discussion," says Narducci.

Judge Patrick J. Clifford, who presides over the criminal courts in New London, says Ferryman is a breath of fresh air. During plea negotiations, he says, she doesn't bluff or posture like some other prosecutors.

"She makes a fair and reasonable offer based on the strength of the case. She has credibility."

Ferryman is part of a multidiscipinary team that meets regularly with the goal of successfully prosecuting child sexual assault cases. The group also includes therapists, social workers, doctors, police and a victim advocate. Even when Ferryman decides against prosecuting a case that is not strong enough to secure a conviction, the group respects her opinions.

"We bring up these cases, and we're perched on the edge of our seats to hear what Theresa will say," says Kathy Miller, a retired state trooper and court inspector who coordinates the multidisciplinary team. "Theresa gives so much more to this because she's a mother, she's a woman. She cares about not only if the prosecution ends successfully, but about all the players involved."

~~~

Ferryman was born outside of Philadelphia. Her family moved to Waterford when she was in kindergarten, and she walked to Great Neck School. She graduated from St. Bernard in 1980 and went on to get a Bachelor in Economics from Trinity College in 1984. She was attending the University of Connecticut Law School when her brother, 19-year-old Michael J. Ferryman, was killed while working at a summer job at Electric Boat.

Her brother's supervisor was arrested. The New London state's attorney's office handled the case, and Ferryman says this was when she first became aware of the role of prosecutors.

"I certainly think being a member of a victim's family informed some of the process (of her current work)," she says. "I also understand the limits of what we can do. I remember my father saying, 'We will endure it or we won't, but it won't be because of what the state's attorney's office does.'"

Her brother's death and the nature of her work both have contributed to her "hypervigilance" as a parent, Ferryman says.

~~~

"This is reality," Ferryman says one afternoon after picking up her son at school, dropping him off at home, walking Buford to the curb, fetching her sister's three children from their nearby home, making sure the kids are settled and feeding Buford. Her mother, who usually meets the younger children after school, had accompanied a friend to a medical appointment and hurries in a few minutes later, saying, "Sorry, honey."

"She truly has provided the support I needed to work," Ferryman says of her mother.

She is back at the office within an hour, but she hasn't eaten anything for lunch. She shrugs and takes a sip of a diet Coke.

Dinner will also have to wait if Jack has hockey practice. Like his older brother Sam, he plays with the Southeastern Connecticut Seahawks.

Leaving Buford in the car during one recent practice night, Ferryman tucks a book under hear arm and stands at ice's edge at The Rink in Norwich. She deftly hands Jack a water bottle when he glides by. She sips a cup of tea and keeps an eye on her son. Ferryman says she's learned a lot about hockey, but her interest is mainly in seeing that her son gets off the ice safely.

Ferryman's husband Kirk, who has never missed one of his sons' weekend hockey games, sometimes can get to the rink on his way home from work to relieve her on practice night. This night, though, she is there until Jack comes out of the locker room at 8:30 p.m. He's hungry, and she won't be free to read her book until she's driven back to New London and prepared dinner. She looks weary but does not complain.

"It's what any mother would do," she says.

Her sister says she is always amazed at how much Ferryman accomplishes, both at home and at work.

"She's a very strong person and obviously has been fabulous to me," says Patricia Ferryman. "As a family we've faced some unfortunate circumstances. She's always optimistic and fair. I don't think she ever gave in to any bitterness. When faced with a challenge she always seems to find a way to meet it. I think she just always rises to the occasion."

Ferryman discusses cases with, from left, Judge Patrick Clifford, Public Defender Kevin Barrs and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Paul J. Narducci in Judge Clifford’s Chambers recently at the Connecticut Superior Court in New London.
Ferryman discusses cases with, from left, Judge Patrick Clifford, Public Defender Kevin Barrs and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Paul J. Narducci in Judge Clifford’s Chambers recently at the Connecticut Superior Court in New London. Tim Cook photo
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Theresa A. Ferryman works in her office at the Connecticut Superior Court in New London.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Theresa A. Ferryman works in her office at the Connecticut Superior Court in New London. Tim Cook photo

Editor's Note

We've gotten some wonderful feedback on the April/May cover of Grace. Curious photography types can check out this behind-the-scenes blog on making the portrait: http://sethjacobson.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/behind-the-curtain-cover-photo-for-grace-magazine-of-theresa-ferryman/

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