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Wyandotte County prosecutor driven by accident

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Physical pain and a passion for justice -- two constants in the life of Christopher Mann -- stem from the same horrifying instant on a January morning 11 years ago.

A speeding drunken driver that day shattered Mann's body and his dream career as a police officer.

But that dark moment in his life as a young man transformed Mann in a way he never could have imagined, The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/YPBumT ).

First as a volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and now as an assistant district attorney in Wyandotte County, Mann is dedicated to putting "the bad guys" in jail and preventing others from going through the emotional and physical suffering he's endured.

Mann's experience as a law enforcer, prosecutor and victim provides him with a rare insight into how the crime affects innocent people.

"It's something I'm passionate about," Mann said. "It's important that people know what happened to them won't go unpunished."

Outside the courtroom, Mann has shared his story with legislators to push for tougher DUI laws and has taken a leadership role with MADD in Kansas.

"I have nothing but the greatest admiration for Chris," said Karen Housewright, Texas-based director of field relations for MADD in a seven-state region that includes Kansas.

It had been several years since MADD had a strong presence in Kansas before Mann joined the group as a volunteer, she said. He recruited and organized a new state advisory board and is now state chairman for MADD Kansas.

"He spearheaded the entire effort," Housewright said.

As the kid of a cop, Mann said it just seemed like a natural fit to follow in his father's footsteps.

He achieved that goal in 1998 when he was sworn in as a Lawrence police officer.

Like most men and women who wear a badge, he saw the devastating carnage wrought by drunken drivers. But Mann concedes that he never truly appreciated just how serious of a crime it is until a speeding vehicle driven by a drunk plowed into his patrol car.

"That's the point I got it," he said. "People are affected by this crime and can be affected for a lifetime."

It was around 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2002. Mann was on patrol with an officer he was training. They pulled over a sport-utility vehicle with no taillights. It was just a routine traffic stop, like so many others he had conducted, until Mann's eye caught the flash of oncoming headlights.

He was walking in front of his patrol car when it was struck from behind by the speeding vehicle. The impact pushed the police car into Mann, who was pinballed into and over the car he had stopped. He landed unconscious in a crumpled heap on the pavement, 30 feet from where he had been standing an instant before.

When he came to, he tried to stand up, but his leg didn't work.

It was five days before he could walk. He underwent physical therapy and tried to go back to work.

"I was young," he said, "and thought I was invincible."

The driver who hit him eventually was convicted, but Mann was unable to continue his police work.

The injury also ended his burgeoning interest in running marathons and halted his pursuit of a position with the FBI.

Giving up his police career, Mann said, was the hardest decision he's ever had to make.

"I couldn't believe it was over," he said. "It felt like I was losing a family."

He had to find a new place for himself in life. It took several years and a trip to court to testify in an old case from his police days for Mann to realize his future was in the law and putting criminals in jail.

He enrolled in law school at Washburn University in Topeka. After stints as an intern in Douglas County and the U.S. attorney's office and a brief sojourn in private practice, he was hired by Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerry Gorman in March 2011.

Kansas City attorney Kevin Regan was one of Mann's professors at Washburn. Regan invited Mann to work with him after his graduation and recommended him to Gorman.

"He's smart, honorable and diligent," Regan said. "Everything a prosecutor should be."

Mann's job entails handling criminal cases from thefts to murder. But he takes a special interest in DUI cases.

"Being a victim has helped me relate to other victims and where they are emotionally," he said.

Mann said he loves working in the courtroom and trying cases.

But recognizing the value of sharing his personal story, Mann has lent his voice and story to efforts to toughen drunken driving laws in Kansas.

"It's a 100 percent preventable crime," he said.

In 2011, he urged the state Legislature to require ignition lock devices for all drivers convicted of drunken driving. The state has recorded a precipitous decline in alcohol-related fatalities since then.

And earlier this year, Mann once again spoke to legislators about a proposal that would allow prosecutors to charge drunken drivers with aggravated battery when they are involved in injury and fatality traffic crashes. Under a previous ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court, prosecutors could not charge aggravated battery for the act of driving under the influence unless there was another element of reckless driving, such as speeding.

"This is contrary not only to the legislative intent in criminalizing drunken driving, but also contrary to common sense," Mann told lawmakers. "As a victim, I urge the passage of common sense legislation to punish offenders who hurt our families, our friends."

And for Mann, pain is the enduring legacy of what a drunken driver did to him.

It's a part of his story that he doesn't like to talk about or dwell on.

But physical pain in his hip and lower back -- ranging from mild to debilitating -- is a daily fact of life for Mann. And it's also a motivation for his desire to fight drunken driving.

"It gives the injury a purpose," he said. "A meaning beyond just hurting."