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Should top prosecutor be in court or in the office?

Candidates discuss role of state’s attorney

Lee County state's attorney candidates Anna Sacco-Miller (left) and State's Attorney Henry Dixon debate Oct. 22 at the Sauk Valley Media office in Sterling. The amount of time the county's top prosecutor should spend in the courtroom has become an issue in the campaign.
Lee County state's attorney candidates Anna Sacco-Miller (left) and State's Attorney Henry Dixon debate Oct. 22 at the Sauk Valley Media office in Sterling. The amount of time the county's top prosecutor should spend in the courtroom has become an issue in the campaign.

DIXON – Candidates for state’s attorney often promise to roll up their sleeves and spend most of their time trying cases.

But they often end up serving in a managerial role, directing their assistant prosecutors.

Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer is known for working cases. These days, he is the lead prosecutor in the Nicholas Sheley murder trial.

Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon, on the other hand, has taken more of a managerial role, generating questions about the role of state’s attorney.

In a newspaper column during his 2008 campaign, Dixon wrote: “I will be the chief prosecutor, and I will aggressively try cases. I will be in the courtroom trying cases and not in a police car carrying a gun and doing police work.”

That was a reference to a practice by his predecessor, Paul Whitcombe, whom Dixon defeated in 2008.

But shortly after being elected 4 years ago, Dixon changed his mind about his role.

The issue came up in a recent Sauk Valley Media debate with his Republican opponent, Anna Sacco-Miller.

Dixon said that when he took over in 2008, his priority was to organize the office and tackle the backlog of pending cases from the previous administration.

He noted that state’s attorneys have other roles – such as hearing mental health cases and providing advice to the County Board and other county offices.

“Do you want the state’s attorney to simply try cases and not take care of the County Board, not take care of the backlog I faced when I walked in?” he asked.

But he said he has “a hand” in every single criminal case, even if his assistants actually try them.

The issue of his office’s workload came up in a July 2011 hearing. At the time, Andrew Bollman, a defense attorney and a former Republican hopeful for state’s attorney, was seeking to show that prosecutors unnecessarily delayed a case. (The judge in that case ended up siding with prosecutors.)

In making his argument, according to a transcript, Bollman sought information on the office’s structure.

In the hearing, one of Dixon’s prosecutors, Brian Gerken, questioned his colleague, Jonathan Watson, who was testifying. (Both have since left the state’s attorney’s office.)

Gerken asked Watson how many full-time attorneys were in the office in 2010. Watson listed himself, Gerken and Al Williams. He said Peter Buh worked part time.

There was no mention of Dixon in the answers to that question and to two others about office personnel.

“Was there one other attorney that you’re missing?” Bollman finally asked.

“Mr. Dixon,” Watson responded.

Watson added that Dixon handled the County Board, zoning, Freedom of Information Act requests, and mental health and prison cases.

“So he doesn’t do any of the felony call?” Bollman asked.

“No, he does not,” Watson said. “We run the cases by him. Pursuant to office policy, certain cases get run by him, and then he, along with us, determine a course of action on those cases.”

In an interview, Sacco-Miller said she would be “fully involved” in prosecuting cases. She said her opponent had tried only one case before a jury since he started as state’s attorney in December 2008. Dixon confirmed that statement.

Sacco-Miller said Dixon had been promoting his decades of experience as an attorney.

“But the county is not benefitting from that experience because he’s not in the courtroom,” she said.

Dixon begs to differ.

“I’m in a mentoring role in every felony case and a number of misdemeanor cases,” Dixon said. “When an assistant is assigned to a case, we have a sit-down and discuss the direction we want to go and the moves we want to make.”

Dixon said not taking felony cases is a matter of efficiency and using the resources of his staff. He points to his record of eight felony convictions, including a first-degree murder, a second-degree murder and two drug-induced homicides, to show his office has been successful, despite the number of times he has tried felony cases. He also is the chief prosecutor for the theft charges against former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell.

Sacco-Miller said state’s attorneys must balance their responsibilities. She said she is looking at different ways to handle the County Board duties.

But she said she wants to personally handle issues involving the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts, “especially since the attorney general has criticized the state’s attorney’s office.” She was referring to three instances in the past couple of years in which the attorney general has issued opinions against the county on such issues.

“I believe in our Constitution and the fact that this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” she said. “If you don’t give people information to have informed input, then we’re not having that kind of government.”

Whiteside County state’s attorney candidates Trish Joyce and Pat Liston agree that a state’s attorney is elected to be in the courtroom trying cases. Both admitted a passion for trial work.

“I think the people of Whiteside County, if they elected me, would want me to be in the courtroom on any major or important case,” Liston, a current assistant state’s attorney, said.

Brian Towne, the La Salle County state’s attorney who is running unopposed this election, conceded that a state’s attorney’s role can be more administrative or hands-on, since the duties of the job are vast.

La Salle County, which borders Lee to its southeast, has 113,924 people to Lee’s 36,031. He said he has his assistants advise the county board and handle labor negotiations, so he can prosecute the county’s more serious felony cases.

“It really depends on the size of the county, size of the office and the types of issues germane to that county,” Towne said. “Bottom line, you want your county to be safe and things to run smooth fiscally and personnel wise.

“There are a number of state’s attorneys in larger counties that don’t try cases, or never try cases, because that’s where their expertise is needed. In mostly the smaller counties, everyone expects you to be the person [trying cases].”

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