Lake County state's attorney candidates clash over 'prosecutor accountability plan'

  • Michael Nerheim, left, and Eric Rinehart are candidates for Lake County state's attorney in the 2020 election.

    Michael Nerheim, left, and Eric Rinehart are candidates for Lake County state's attorney in the 2020 election.

 
 
Posted9/23/2020 5:30 AM

Democratic challenger for Lake County state's attorney Eric Rinehart has released a "prosecutor accountability plan" to address what he described as mistakes caused by failed leadership and overworked prosecutors.

But Republican incumbent Michael Nerheim said the plan shows "a complete lack of knowledge" of what is needed to run the office, and that Rinehart's observations are misguided or in error.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Rinehart, a Highwood resident, is a former public defender who opened his own law firm in 2009. Nerheim, a Gurnee resident, was elected in 2012 and is seeking a third term.

Rinehart said the office has failed its mission to protect communities while doing justice. Violent crime has increased during Nerheim's tenure and "botched prosecutions" are common, he added.

He mentioned four cases that occurred between 2014 and 2020 that involved dismissals of charges he contended highlight poor decisions and lack of quality control in the office. For example, a bank robbery and aggravated battery to a child involved missed speedy trial deadlines, according to Rinehart.

Nerheim noted his office has handled 63,629 felonies since 2012, and there are details and circumstances to consider in the four cases noted by Rinehart.

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In the bank robbery, evidence was thrown out by a judge and the U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute because of insufficient evidence, Nerheim said.

The battery would have been difficult to prove, according to Nerheim, but the assistant state's attorney involved in the case was demoted and suspended.

In a third case, Nerheim personally failed to submit information to justify a warrant critical to a gang investigation and some cases were dismissed, according to Rinehart.

In that case, Nerheim said, an assistant was authorized to present the information and the spirit of the law was complied with. The majority of defendants were convicted and went to prison but a few were released, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's one of those cases I still disagree with. The court was wrong and we've changed our practice," Nerheim said. "That was kind of a technicality nobody could have foreseen."

As part of his six-part prosecutor accountability plan, Rinehart proposes to streamline how attorneys work in the courtroom so they don't waste time.

They should be "preparing for trial, meeting with witnesses, supporting victims and visiting police stations and crime labs," Rinehart contends.

Nerheim countered his office doesn't control the court system. State's attorneys have a responsibility to be in court and when they are not in court, they are meeting with detectives, visiting victims, going to crime scenes or to the lab.

"It just shows a dangerous lack of knowledge of how prosecutors function," Nerheim said.

Rinehart said "tough personnel decisions" need to be made if a prosecutor is making too many mistakes.

Nerheim says prosecutors are disciplined if that happens but the best way to avoid mistakes is through training.

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