Katherine Halopka-Ivery tried her first case in middle school.
It either involved graffiti or theft. Halopka-Ivery can’t remember exactly which, but she can remember the affinity she had for trials.
Halopka-Ivery was then enrolled in a program at her school in Medford, a small town in northcentral Wisconsin, that offered a mock trial of sorts in which pretend juvenile offenders were tried before a court stocked with their classmates. Halopka-Ivery was picked to be a prosecutor.
The act of arguing for justice before a jury of her peers — then teenagers like her — made a lasting impression.
“I was the state representing the prosecution and I absolutely loved it,” she said.
Now she’s trying some of the most troubling cases to come before Milwaukee County courts. And although the idea of becoming a prosecutor was planted in her mind early, she has had to trod a winding path to get to where she is today.
As a high school student, she worked as an intern at the Taylor County District Attorney’s Office — while Medford was dealing with its first homicide in 15 years. It was a gruesome case, involving a husband who had killed his wife and hid the body in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin. The office was electric as the staff worked to try the case, she said.
It was that experience that motivated her to go to Marquette University to pursue a career as a prosecutor. During her time as an undergraduate, she landed another internship for David Budde, a prosecutor in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. She was exposed to consequential cases there as well, before obtaining her diploma from Marquette in 2003.
From there, she wanted to go to Marquette University Law School. But it didn’t work out that way. Her application was rejected.
“I was totally heartbroken,” Halopka-Ivery said.
But she didn’t give up.
She stayed in Milwaukee, working as a private investigator, then as a court clerk. Meanwhile, she pleaded her case to Marquette.
“I was so frustrated. This was my dream,” Halopka-Ivery said. “It took, frankly, David Budde and his wife, Lynn. They were the ones that encouraged me to apply and to fight for it.”
Finally, five-and-a-half years later, she got in. Those years of waiting and working in other parts of the criminal justice system, however, helped give her a greater respect for the role every participant in it plays, she said.
Since graduating from law school in late 2014, she has worked her way up through the Milwaukee County DA’s office, first prosecuting OWIs and other cases before being tapped to try high-level felonies, such as rapes.
It’s often difficult work that must be done on a tight schedule — Halopka-Ivery has tried 12 trials this year, she said. But it has been rewarding.
“The main thing has been to persevere,” she said. “There was a period of time where I did give up, and the debt is going to be more than my house. But it’s going to be OK. You have to stay positive. And don’t forget to have fun.”