Mark Conte, gifted courtroom teacher, dies.

Mark Conte, former Chester County prosecutor, died earlier this month. "He will be missed," said District Attorney Deb Ryan, a colleague.

WEST CHESTER — When the new leaders of the Chester County District Attorney’s Office were putting together a team of prosecutors in 2012 whose job it would be to teach young attorneys in the office how best to approach the criminal trials they would face, they needed someone who could be what might best be described as a playing manager.

That is, someone who knew his or her way around a courtroom and who could reach out and pass on what they had learned in a way that made sense to the listener, but who was still active in the game and could be seen in action.

They chose Mark Conte.

“Mark was selected to be one of the first trial advocacy instructors because it was widely known that he was one of the best trial attorneys in Chester County,” said Michael Noone, the former First Assistant District Attorney who chose Conte to lead the effort. “He was an excellent teacher.

“He was naturally engaging and charismatic, but he also put a lot of thought and work into being a trial attorney,” Noone recalled last week. “He could provide both the big picture overview of how to present a case, but also the small details that make a trial compelling. His feedback was always meaningful so new prosecutors could improve.”

Sadly, Conte’s advice for attorneys approaching trial will no longer be available to those in the courtrooms of the county Justice Center. Conte died on Thursday, March 12, at his home in Berks County, surrounded by his loving wife, Christine Conte, and members of his family. He was 51.

“Mark’s passing is a tremendous loss and we are deeply saddened,” said District Attorney Deb Ryan last week. “He was an exceptional prosecutor and handled some of the most serious cases in this office. Mark and I were trial partners for many years and I was always impressed by his professionalism and dedication to the pursuit of justice. He will be greatly missed.”

Conte came to the District Attorney’s Office in 1999, after graduating from Millersville University and the Widener School of Law. In an interview in 2015, he said he gravitated to criminal law in school, and then worked his way up the ladder in the D.A.'s office, from handling preliminary hearings on the District Court circuit to becoming a Common Pleas Court trial lawyer, and eventually to the position of deputy district attorney. He served in the office for more than 15 years, but left in 2015 to join with his former colleague Evan Kelly in private practice.

In his years in the D.A.’s Office, Conte tried as many as 35 cases, including high profile murder cases, an escape plot from Chester County Prison hatched by murder suspects, and a bizarre incident in which a drug dealer was shot and wounded during a robbery attempt, in which he prosecuted both the dealer and the shooter, winning both cases. He prosecuted hundreds more.

“In court, he was a natural,” said Kelly of his friend and partner. “He had a commanding presence in front of a jury and a workmanlike approach to his cases. He was smart and an incredibly hard worker. He had an ability to break a case down to a phrase or a theme in a matter of minutes. He really had a beautiful mind. He was very analytical and could make a complicated case or defense very simple for a jury to understand.

“He was one of the few trial attorneys that other lawyers would stop to see in trial even if it had nothing to do with them,” Kelley said. “As a person he was extremely genuine, caring and thoughtful. He would be very selfless with his time.”

Others confirmed that Conte was selfless when spreading advice in a friendly and non-threatening way — on both sides of the courtroom.

“Mark was my very first trial partner at the D.A.’s office when I was brand new and assigned to Judge Ott,” said Andrea Cardamone, the office’s Chief of Staff. “He helped teach me the ropes and continued to be a great sounding board over the years. For most of our career, our offices were a few doors apart. While I definitely enjoyed discussing our cases, even more so, I enjoyed countless conversations about food, vacations, and even country music. He definitely knew how to enjoy life.”

Susanna DeWese, a Chester County assistant public defender, saw Conte first from opposite sides of the courtroom, then side-by-side at the defense table.“Mark was wonderful to work with, both as a district attorney and as a defense attorney.

“He was in Judge (Paula Francisco) Ott’s courtroom when I first started in the Public Defender’s Office, and he taught me a lot when I was new,” she said last week during a brief interview in the hallway outside one of the courtrooms in the Justice Center. When DeWese would suggest a way of resolving one of her client’s cases, Conte would gently explain how that while what she wanted was not technically possible, he knew a way to accomplish something similar that could meet both their goals.

Even though he long struggles to survive the cancer he developed three years ago, Conte continued to be a teacher and supporter of those attorneys he worked with, Kelly said. He loved to help others with their cases or personal problems, even during his battle with cancer.

“He tried every type of experimental treatment that he was eligible for - even electing to drive to New York for experimental treatment when travel was extremely difficult for him because of all the treatment that he had already undergone,” he said.

But whatever places his passion for the law held in his life, those who knew him said without hesitation that the first love of his life was his wife, whom he met when she came to work as an administrative assistant in the D.A.’s office. They married in 2006.

Their romance may have developed subtly as co-workers, but it remained evident throughout the years they spent together that it was as deep as could be. They could be seen arriving for work in the same car, holding hands when walking to lunch from the courthouse, and smiling in photos from whatever restaurant they had visited the weekend before or on one of their regular vacations in Las Vegas.

“He loved and cherished Christine so much,” said Kelly. “I think that his sun rose and fell with her. He would talk about her often and was deeply in love with her. I think that his second love in life was the law. When I think of him I remember what a tremendous lawyer he was, but realize that I was blessed to come to know that he was an even better person.”

Funeral arrangements were on hold because of the COVID-19 outbreak and the limitation it places on large gatherings such as what Conte’s is expected to me. A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for May.

A longtime colleague, Chief Deputy District Attorney Michelle Frei, remembered how Conte reached out to her when she had her own medical challenges after she broke a bone in her leg and had to “shut down” from her normal physical activity.

“I found myself home unexpectedly the month of August recovering,” Frei remembered last week. “For the first time in my life, I struggled with the possibility of never running again or climbing another mountain, which in the greater scheme of things now seems so trivial.

“Mark, however, regularly reached out to me with encouraging words despite fighting his own battle against a terminal illness,” Frei said. “He reassured me that my ‘fighting days’ weren’t over and that I would run again and continue what we always referred to as ‘the good fight,’ for justice.”

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

To contact Staff Writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

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