Wagner Alumna Audriana Mekula-Hanson, County Prosecutor during COVID-19

Wagner Alumna Audriana Mekula-Hanson, County Prosecutor during COVID-19

Audriana Mekula-Hanson (Wagner class of 2015), grew up in Northfield, New Hampshire and put herself through college by cobbling together scholarships, Pell Grants, private loans, and long hours working at CVS. After graduating from Wagner, she returned to her home state with a well-earned scholarship at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Perce School of Law. In 2018, she became a prosecutor for the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office.

The English department reconnected with Audriana to ask about her career path from English major to lawyer and to reflect on being a county prosecutor during the Coronavirus pandemic.

She had been long been interested in a career as a prosecuting attorney, trying cases in the courtroom, but she wasn’t always sure she’d make it there. For most law students, it’s the summer internships that determine their future. Audriana’s first internship was with the county attorney’s office and her second was clerking for a judge. Although she valued her experience with the judge, she still felt like she was watching the game that she wanted to play from the sidelines. What she learned is that often the more people you know and connect with as a lawyer, the easier it is to get a job and do that job well. Ultimately everyone has to work together, whether one is a defense attorney, a prosecutor, or a judge, representing different sides of a case. On a normal day, she spends two to three hours in court and the rest of the day reviewing and researching cases and writing trial motions.

Audriana believes that her English major really prepared her to be an effective lawyer. She was an editor for the Wagnerian newspaper and wrote her honors thesis on how the Jewish holocaust was represented in literature such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Reading these works closely taught her to think analytically about how the act of bearing witness to such historically traumatic and terrible events are narrated—how the story matters.  As a lawyer she is constantly writing opening arguments, closing arguments, and structuring a story for the jury and the judge. The way the law is interpreted is so often through narrative.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected her job in ways both expected and unexpected. Before, at the office, she normally had so many cases that she had to prepare for trial that she never felt like she had enough time. But now, defendants are not getting the speedy trials they should because there aren’t jury trials. Some are sitting in jail as cases are back-logged. Hearings often take place through on-line video-conferencing software WebEx (the same software Wagner College uses for on-line instruction), where Audriana is calling in from home while the judge is in the court and the defendants with their attorneys call in from the county offices. Balancing the rights of the accused and the rights of the victim has always been one of the challenges of the modern legal system. Today, because hearings are not face-to-face, it raises the question of a victim’s access to the system since a victim has the right in New Hampshire to be present at a hearing and give one’s own account.

On the other hand, Audriana feels that she now has more time to research cases and work with victims. In some ways, talking to victims via phone is better because under normal circumstances people are too busy with work and have trouble making time to travel to the courthouse. However, some of the ordinary challenges people face are exacerbated by the pandemic. For instance, for some victims of domestic abuse, having the abuser out of jail and working or caring for the children during this time is much more important than a guilty conviction that could result in a long period of no contact and incarceration. Meanwhile, child physical and sexual abuse cases are now often under-reported because children cannot go to school or a friend’s house, where someone is more likely to notice and then report the abuse.

The Coronavirus pandemic has led Audriana to contemplate how much physical space and the courtroom environment affect the functioning of the law. This is especially true for a jury trial with 12 to 14 jurors, civilian and law enforcement witnesses, a judge, a victim advocate, a victim who has right to be present throughout the trial, a defendant’s family or friends, and anyone from the public who chooses to watch the public proceedings.

What the future may bring for Audriana is too early to say. She plans to continue as a prosecuting attorney. To someday become the County Attorney (i.e., her boss) might be difficult since it is an elected position and therefore inherently political. Another option might be to move to the Attorney General’s office where she’d have opportunities to try murder cases and work more closely with police officers building a case from the ground up. But for now, she’s happy to be doing what she’s doing, making a difference in people’s lives.