ARUSHA, Tanzania — Attorney Barbara Mulvaney has spent three years prosecuting the accused mastermind of the Rwanda genocide. But her most personal contact with him came only recently, when he casually testified about how he would go about assassinating someone in the courtroom, his cold stare swiveling in her direction.
Col. Theoneste Bagosora, a former military commander accused of overseeing the mass killings of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, was asked to explain how he had issued orders. To answer, he gave a detailed hypothetical illustration about dispatching a killer to infiltrate the tightly guarded war crimes tribunal here.
"If you give an order to someone, for example, to come and kill someone here in this courtroom," Bagosora began, turning his head toward the prosecution table at the far side of the room and locking eyes with Mulvaney.
"That was chilling," the former Playa del Rey resident remembered scribbling on a note to her co-counsel as Bagosora went on to explain how his assassination order would include specifics about the courtroom layout and position of guards.
"It freaked me out," Mulvaney recalled with a nervous laugh.
It wasn't the first time the former soccer mom found herself questioning how she had ended up in Arusha as lead prosecutor in the Bagosora case -- a job she describes as a complete "fluke" -- facing down a man accused of orchestrating a massacre that killed an estimated 800,000 people in three frenzied months in 1994.
To prepare for the case, she had to endure graphic evidence about Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana being raped with a bottle after she was killed. Mulvaney spent hours viewing old news footage of the piles of bodies in the roads, most hacked with machetes in a genocidal rampage that turned neighbor against neighbor.
While deposing one teenage boy about the slaying of his parents, Mulvaney broke down and had to pass the interview to a colleague.
"He was the same age as my child," she said. "It gets to you after a while. Finally I decided I was driving myself crazy. I had to get cable TV so I could go home at night and just watch the Hallmark Channel."
By the end of Bagosora's testimony in November, Mulvaney could no longer stand to look directly at the former military commander, instead watching his testimony via a video monitor at her table. She discovered that touching the screen caused the video image to distort.
"When it got really bad, I kept poking it until his face would disappear," she said.
Her experience at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has not only consumed her professional life and tested her ability to survive as an American woman in a male-dominated, multinational workplace, it also has shaken her long-standing notions about God, justice and humanity.
"This is a process that makes you question the underpinning of everything you thought was correct," she said. "It's going to take awhile to digest this."
To keep her sanity, she plays tennis with fellow attorneys and haggles with black-market tanzanite gem dealers in the tribunal parking lot. When testimony gets too tedious or infuriating, she plugs one ear into an iPod playlist that includes Janis Joplin, James Taylor and Tina Turner.
Her road to Arusha was an unlikely one. Mulvaney grew up on the beaches of Playa del Rey until LAX swallowed her neighborhood, and the family -- much to her disappointment -- moved inland to San Bernardino.
"It was a crushing blow," she joked.
She followed her boyfriend and future husband to Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, and after graduation bounced back and forth between California and Florida, where she worked for then-State Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.
"She was always looking for new challenges," the former U.S. attorney general recalled in an interview.
By 2001, Mulvaney had settled into private practice in New Mexico, raising three children between stints with the Los Angeles district attorney, Miami-Dade state attorney's office and New Mexico attorney general. She says the family's life centered on her husband's job, while she carted the kids to after-school events and pursued her own legal career.
"I jammed in a lot," she said.
A few days shy of her 50th birthday, Mulvaney's life turned upside down. Two of her biggest cases were thrown out of court, including a sexual discrimination lawsuit she had filed on her own behalf against the New Mexico attorney general's office. She claimed she had been fired in 1996 for exposing mismanagement. Her supervisors said she quit after being reprimanded for her management style.
The same week, Mulvaney decided her marriage was over. She returned to Southern California to mull her future.