Lake County state's attorney candidates differ on office reforms

  • Republican Michael Nerheim, left, and Democrat Matt Stanton are candidates for Lake County state's attorney.

    Republican Michael Nerheim, left, and Democrat Matt Stanton are candidates for Lake County state's attorney.

 
 
Posted10/21/2016 5:17 AM

The candidates for Lake County state's attorney are at odds over whether employees should have been fired for their role in several wrongful-conviction cases linked to the previous administration.

Democratic challenger Matthew Stanton, 56, of Gurnee said the "gravity of the mistakes" made in the past should have resulted in staff terminations by Republican Michael Nerheim when he took office in 2012.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"People need to be held accountable," Stanton said. "I don't know that if this were a private corporation, somebody would still have a job."

However, Nerheim, 43, of Gurnee argued "leadership is not about firing people."

While he did not fire any employees, Nerheim said personnel changes were made after he was elected state's attorney. He said the office has seen a 25 percent turnover rate in the last four years, and that 60 percent of supervisors are people he appointed to the positions.

The candidates spoke about issues during a joint Daily Herald candidate endorsement interview ahead of the Nov. 8 election. The discussion included the handling of wrongful convictions that surfaced under former State's Attorney Michael Waller's administration.

Six high-profile cases have been overturned since 2010: murder cases involving Jason Strong, Jerry Hobbs, Juan Rivera and James Edwards and rape cases against Bennie Starks and Angel Gonzalez.

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Starks, Gonzalez and Strong were released from prison during Nerheim's term. Convictions in the other cases were overturned before Waller retired.

Five of the six convictions were overturned due to DNA evidence. Strong was released after new medical and forensic evidence contradicted trial testimony and his conviction.

Appeals are underway in cases involving Melissa Calusinski, who was convicted in 2011 of killing a 16-month-old Deerfield boy at a Lincolnshire day care, and Marvin Williford, who was convicted in 2004 of murdering a man during a North Chicago home invasion. Nerheim's office is fighting the appeals. Williford's case is at the hearing stage, while a judge denied Calusinski's quest for a new trial in September. Defense attorneys in those cases allege their clients are wrongfully imprisoned.

Since taking office, Nerheim established the volunteer Case Review Panel made up of volunteer judges, lawyers and people outside of Lake County, and an in-house Conviction Integrity Unit made up of senior-level prosecutors and investigators that is led by a former public defense attorney, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He said he has also created a training supervisor position to help assistants, and his office is not allowed to deny any request for additional DNA testing on current cases or those that have already resulted in convictions.

"Leadership isn't about firing people," Nerheim said. "If I knew any one of them (assistant state's attorneys) had done anything illegal or improper with regard to any of those cases, they'd be gone."

Stanton said Nerheim has not gone far enough to eliminate what he has termed the office's "culture of conviction." If elected, Stanton said he's unsure if he would outright fire office employees, but he would use "the elected power of the position to decide who should remain working there."

He also said he would create his own conviction integrity unit made up of investigators and attorneys from outside the state's attorney's office, and he would review the work of police investigators on how police interrogations take place. "I think, with that many wrongful convictions and an office with that reputation, you need to make reforms," Stanton said.

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