CLARKSBURG — Harrison County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Shaffer first became interested in the law when he was about 12 years old.
“I came across a book written about an attorney named F. Lee Bailey,” he said. “It was interesting how he was able to help so many people through the practice of law.”
Reading about the successful defense attorney known for high-profile cases, such as the “Boston strangler” and later O.J. Simpson trials, opened Shaffer’s eyes to the American justice system.
“He was just an interesting character, kind of flamboyant, kind of bigger than life,” Shaffer said. “I was just intrigued by him ever since.”
While his path was set at 12, Shaffer gained life experience before he began practicing law.
His father died when he was 16.
Shaffer had four younger siblings ranging in age from two to 15.
“I kind of wanted to wait until they got a little older until I could focus on myself,” he said.
He decided to attend college close by, at Fairmont State where he majored in business administration.
After graduating, he went into the convenience store business for about 10 years.
He didn’t begin law school until he was 32 and had already started a family.
“My first day of law school was also my oldest daughter’s first day of first grade,” he said. “I dropped her off at first grade then started law school.”
His wife Suzanne, who now works at St. Mary’s Catholic School, worked as a substitute teacher at the time.
“I could not have made it through without the help of my wife,” Shaffer said. “She took great care of the girls while I was in school and sacrificed a lot.”
After attending the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, Shaffer went to work for the law office of Scot Dieringer.
“He taught me how to be a lawyer,” Shaffer said.
He credits Dieringer with preparing him for the practice of law in the real world.
“Scot was very instrumental in teaching me the practical and common sense aspects of the practice of law,” Shaffer said. “They don’t teach that in law school.”
An attorney’s life experiences can benefit clients just as knowledge of the law does, according to Shaffer.
“There’s a skill to practicing law,” he said. “There’s also an art to practicing law. The art of practicing law is where you draw on your common sense and experiences and relationships.”
Shaffer ran a solo practice for about six years before being appointed prosecuting attorney for Harrison County in 2003.
Although he worked as a defense attorney, he was always drawn to prosecution.
He said the job allows him to seek justice while utilizing his business experience.
“I enjoy managing people,” he said. “I enjoy finding the best people to do the job.”
Recruiting talented attorneys is integral to the success of the office.
“I think because of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, I would put this prosecuting office up against any prosecuting office in the country,” he said.
Susan Morris, chief assistant prosecutor, agreed that the office benefits from a team approach.
“He recognizes that we each have a different skill set,” she said. “We have a great mix of personalities that all work together.”
Morris also worked in the prosecutor’s office when Shaffer worked as a defense attorney.
She said he’s always been a “straight-shooter who wants to see that justice is done.”
The office has one of the largest case loads in West Virginia, second only to Kanawha County, according to Shaffer.
“I’m most proud of the work we do here that never gets publicized,” he said.
That includes protecting and rescuing children from abuse, assisting in rehabilitating juveniles who have run afoul of the law, and delivering justice for victims in murder and sexual assault cases, according to Shaffer.
Before being appointed to the position, he had thought about what it would be like to serve as prosecuting attorney.
“What has surprised me about this job are the number of people who repeatedly offend,” he said. “I see some of the same names year after year.”
He believes repeat offenders often have turbulent early life experiences.
“Some people don’t have a chance to be a productive citizen,” he said. “All too often parents don’t take responsibility for raising their children the way they should. Even though we have a fairly good education system, the state cannot raise children 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Working as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor, Shaffer’s motivation has stayed the same — belief in the American justice system.
“I think it’s because for me, it’s a right that is uniquely American,” he said. “The right to have a jury of your peers, the right to appeal to fair courts. It’s not perfect but in the world, it’s a very unique system.”
Staff writer Erin Beck can be reached at (304)626-1439 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.