Michael Waller said he’ll walk out of the Lake County state’s attorney’s office Monday with his “head held high” as he begins retirement after more than two decades on the job.
The soon-to-be ex-top prosecutor said he’s going out on his own terms.
“I’ll be 65 years old next March and, honestly, this is a stressful job,” he said. “I have been state’s attorney for 22 years. It’s time to move on.”
Part of what Waller will leave behind is a good measure of the controversy that has dogged him and the office for two years.
Since 2010, four high-profile felony cases have been overturned because of evidence of wrongful prosecutions and false confessions, casting a shadow over the office.
The fallout has been significant: innocent men have spent decades behind bars, lawsuits potentially leading to multimillion-dollar payouts have been filed, and the need to rebuild trust in the office was the top issue between candidates vying to replace Waller in the Nov. 6 election.
The cases also threaten to smudge the professional legacy of a man who supporters hail as a great teacher of young lawyers and someone who defined the role of state’s attorney.
Waller remains resolute.
“The duty of the state’s attorney is to seek justice,” he said. “Obviously, there were four cases that received a lot of publicity that took a turn, but I don’t regret the way they were handled.”
The most notable of the overturned cases involves Juan Rivera, now 40, who was freed from prison after spending 20 years incarcerated for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan in 1992. Rivera was released after being convicted in three separate trials by three separate juries. DNA evidence exonerated him, and Rivera became a free man last January.
Jerry Hobbs spent five years in Lake County jail after police charged him with killing his 8-year-old daughter, Laura, and her 9-year-old friend Krystal Tobias in 2005. Hobbs confessed to police, but hours later denied any involvement in the girls’ deaths. He was freed from jail in August 2010 after DNA evidence pointed officials to another man.
James Edwards was cleared of the 1994 slaying of Waukegan business owner Fred Reckling, 71. DNA evidence led authorities to another man, and murder charges were dropped against Edwards in May. Edwards remains incarcerated on an unrelated armed robbery charge in Illinois, but also faces a murder charge in another case in Ohio.
And, rape charges were dropped in May against Bennie Starks, 52, of Chicago, for a January 1986 attack on a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine. Starks was also cleared by DNA evidence.
Rivera and Hobbs have since filed lawsuits that named the state’s attorney’s office and Waller as defendants. Those lawsuits, Waller said, prevent him from commenting on the cases.
While advancements in DNA evidence testing led to all four cases being overturned, he said, his office and prosecutors did the right thing at the time with the evidence they had.
“I don’t think we could have handled it differently,” he said. “I never prosecuted anyone unless I believed they were guilty.”
In a state’s attorney’s office newsletter where he penned a reflection of his time on the job, Waller wrote, “doing the right thing is not always easy to do. It means basing your decision on the evidence and the law without regard to criticism from the media or single interest groups.”
He added his office has handled more than 90,000 felony cases and 340 murder cases since he took over in 1990, and he has witnessed and approved of significant changes in forensic science and criminal investigations.
“In three of our four controversial cases, DNA evidence was developed and presented after the defendants were convicted and in the other, after the case was investigated and charged,” he wrote. “In all four of our cases, the DNA evidence was examined in light of the other evidence in the cases. In all four cases, there were plausible, alternate explanations for the presence of DNA.”
In addition, he wrote “in three of our controversial cases, the defendants confessed. All three gave signed written statements and two also gave videotaped statements.”
There are critics who believe Waller’s explanation is oversimplified and lacking.
One is Waukegan criminal defense attorney Jed Stone, who represents Starks, and says if it was as simple as DNA evidence righting a wrong, he could understand the mistake.
However, Stone said, the state’s attorney’s office continued to pursue charges and jail time despite overwhelming evidence clearing the suspects.
For example, Stone said, despite having DNA evidence proving Starks did not rape the 69-year-old woman in Waukegan, the state’s attorney’s office continues to prosecute Starks on aggravated battery charges for the same crime.
“They fought the case against Bennie to the bitter end, and are still fighting it,” he said. “It would be one thing if the state’s attorney’s office said ‘Oh, he’s excluded? The DNA doesn’t match? Then dismiss the case.’ But that’s not what the state’s attorney’s office has done. They have fought it at every turn.”
While Waller may not have been the lead prosecutor in all of those cases, Stone added, the buck stops with him.
“Do I think Waller had intimate, factual evidence in these cases? It’s unlikely that he did. But it’s his office,” he said. “When you go to the (third) floor in the county building, it’s his name on the door, so he is ultimately responsible.”
There are also plenty of supporters who are quick to talk about Waller’s success.
Under his guidance, 16 assistants have been promoted to judge, and he has trained countless others who have gone on to have successful legal careers.
“He’s truly defined the role of the state’s attorney,” said Fred Foreman, chief judge of the 19th Judicial Circuit in Lake County, a former Lake County state’s attorney and a former U.S. attorney. “He should take pride in the legacy that he has left behind.”
Foreman and Waller have been linked throughout their legal careers. It was Waller who gave Foreman his first job in the state’s attorney’s office in 1976.
“I was working in the public defender’s office when Mike came to me and wanted me to sign on at the state’s attorney’s office,” Foreman said. “Then, he left for private practice, and I was elected state’s attorney in 1980.”
Foreman eventually lured Waller back to the state’s attorney’s office. When Foreman was named U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in 1990, he “put in a good word” with the county board to get Waller appointed as state’s attorney.
“He always loved it,” Foreman said of Waller’s role in the state’s attorney’s office. “I think he really enjoyed developing young lawyers.”
Defense attorney Douglas Roberts said Waller excelled at hiring and training young lawyers.
“He has hired some excellent lawyers, and he should be commended for that,” Roberts said. “He has hired really good people, andmade the right decisions when it comes to hiring a staff. Sure, there have been some unfortunate incidents recently in the office with those cases, but I’m not at all certain he was responsible for it.”
Even Stone praises Waller’s overall body of work.
“I think Mike Waller is a decent man, a good, decent lawyer, a good father, and good husband,” he said. “Did he do some good as state’s attorney? Of course he did. He prosecuted many people who should have been prosecuted. He sent many people to prison that should have been sent to prison.”
Waller said he has nothing but great memories of the time he spent in the job to which he was elected five times starting in 1992.
“I really don’t think a lawyer can have a better job than working in this office,” he said. “We are most visible in criminal cases, but there are so many different areas that the state’s attorney’s office has to lend a legal opinion. We work on many significant, countywide legal issues.”
During his tenure as the county’s longest serving state’s attorney, Waller said he has been a proponent of improving investigation techniques, worked on treatment for offenders and helped develop programs to assist victims of domestic violence.
He said he is most proud of helping to create and fund drug and mental health court initiatives, and he has been a proponent of improvements in forensic science and criminal investigation.
Waller wrote in the newsletter that “the advances in DNA forensics, the increased awareness of the phenomenon of false confessions and the requirement of videotaping homicide interrogations make it extremely unlikely that my successor as state’s attorney will have to face the issues that I have faced in these four cases.”
To that end, he said he has held meetings with Mike Nerheim, the former Lake County prosecutor who won the Nov. 6 election and will take over the job Monday.
Waller said he gave Nerheim a “Top 10 Lessons I Have Learned As State’s Attorney” list that he compiled. Included are anecdotes like “Lead by example. Be professional,” and “Be fair. Don’t be afraid to give a deserving person a break.”
“My favorite is the first one, which states ‘The bottom line is always do the right thing,’” Waller said. “I really meant what I said before; I never prosecuted anyone unless I believed they were guilty.”
As for what’s in the future for Waller, it’s unclear. He said he plans to spend more time with family, watch some TV, and — as a die-hard Notre Dame fan — will attend some Fighting Irish football games.
He has refused to say whether he’ll move into private practice.
“There is life after serving as state’s attorney,” Foreman said. “That’s what I told (Waller) and his wife. There is life after the state’s attorney’s office. There will be some challenges, but there is life.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.