It took just one case for Deb Ryan, now running for District Attorney in Chester County, to know she wanted to be a prosecutor.
After graduating from Boston University, she had a sense of wanting to “help” in some way; she just didn’t have a “how” yet. She landed an internship at the office of then-Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, where she “fell in love with the work.”
Early on, she sat in on a trial where she watched a prosecutor make a closing argument in a murder case.
“It was riveting,” she said. “Watching him advocate for justice on behalf of the victim and the survivors, his family, was so awe inspiring I was hooked instantaneously.”
As she spent more time in the internship, she found that sort of sense of justice to be exactly what she had been seeking.
“There was this incredible sense of unity and support for victims, and the idea of advocating for justice for someone who has been harmed in some fashion by a team of people who really cared about doing the right thing was inspiring,” she said. “The people I had worked with or for were amazingly kind, generous, smart people who really just wanted to help the community in some way.”
Now, Ryan, a graduate of University of Pittsburgh School of Law, is running as a victim’s rights advocate in her race against incumbent district attorney (and former boss) Tom Hogan in Chester County, positioning herself as the candidate most interested in protecting victims and working with police.
“They’re looking for someone who will be a supportive leader,” she said, something that her friends in law enforcement have told her has been lacking in recent years.
Ryan, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, moved around a lot when she was young, as her family followed her father’s job with General Electric from Massachusetts to Syracuse to Villanova, where they finally settled. Ryan attended Harriton High School and Har Zion Temple before leaving for Boston University. After she graduated law school in 1998, she joined the DA’s office in Philadelphia.
Those were trying but exhilarating days.
“We dealt with so many different kinds of crimes, we had an enormous caseload, and we tried a ton of cases every day there,” she said.
Still, she found the experience rewarding, especially when it came to the difficult work of combating childhood sexual abuse, an area that has come to be her calling card.
In 2002, she had her second child and decided that she would stay at home for a few years. The family moved to Chester County and, for the next four years, Ryan worked part time as the chief operating officer at her mother’s nonprofit, Champions of Caring. The programs she ran encouraged children to become “social entrepreneurs,” creating action plans for bettering their communities and training them in skills like resume writing and public speaking.
Still, the old life called.
“I’m a prosecutor through and through,” she said.
In 2006, she began working at the Chester County DA’s office as an assistant district attorney and spent the next decade rising up the ranks, earning promotions and awards from Hogan himself. In 2016, she started working at the Crime Victim Center of Chester County as the county coordinator for the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, working on a program to eradicate child sexual abuse through education.
About a year ago, her friends in law enforcement began to tell her that she should consider running, a request she first rejected out of hand. They felt disrespected by the current administration, without support, and looked to Ryan as the solution. “I’m not a politician,” she reasoned. But she’d think about it, she told them.
Around then, she visited her brother in Israel, a reporter for The Jerusalem Post.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You know you can do so much good for so many people if you do this,’ and I took that to heart.”
A week later, he died unexpectedly.
Ryan believes that the sense of justice instilled in her by her grandparents, teaching her and her brother to advocate for the marginalized in whatever way they could, still powers her.
“I want to be the voice on behalf of victims and survivors,” she said.
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