Name: Mike Nerheim
Position You’re Running For: Lake County State's Attorney
Age/Birthday: 39 years old
Current job: Criminal defense attorney in private practice handling felony, juvenile, misdemeanor and traffic matters, including complex civil litigation and municipal law. Attorney for police commission. Partner in Lake County law firm. On faculty at Columbia College of Missouri teaching DNA and the laws of evidence. Former Assistant State's Attorney.
Hometown: Gurnee, Illinois. Lifelong resident of Lake County.
Family: Married with three children.
Outside of your work, what do you enjoy doing? I enjoy spending time with my family and outdoor activities. I am proud to be active in the community and have served as a Teen Court Judge in Warren Township for the past eight years. In addition, I am Vice President of the Lake County Bar Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Lake County Bar Association. I also serve on the Advisory Council for the Staben House which provides transitional housing for homeless women and children.
Why do you want to be the State Attorney for Lake County? I believe the role of State's Attorney is among the most important in government because it has the power to ensure that everyone in the county—victims, witnesses and defendants--is treated with the justice and fairness to which we're all entitled. A prosecutor's job should not be to merely obtain a conviction—a prosecutor’s job is to seek justice.
I am not a political insider. I am beholden to no person, group, party or special interests. I am a hardworking, experienced trial lawyer dedicated to justice, with deep family roots in Lake County. I have proven strong leadership in law, business and the community. I am running to protect my family... and yours. As State's Attorney, I will work to ensure our streets are safe, justice is served, and that waste and inefficiency in local government is eliminated.
What unique perspective will you bring to position? As a lifelong Lake County resident, I have extensive experience working across all criminal divisions of the State's Attorney's Office. As a prosecutor, I personally handled every type of criminal case, including thousands of serious felonies. I have conducted hundreds of trials. I'm well respected by federal, state and local law enforcement, and have received the endorsements of the Fraternal Order of Police Waukegan Lodge 5, the Waukegan Police Benevolent & Protective Association, the Lake County Sheriff's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 66, as well as the personal endorsement of Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran.
In addition to being an experienced prosecutor, I bring years of experience as a defense attorney in private practice as a partner in a local law firm that handles criminal and civil cases, as well as municipal law. I have represented numerous defendants to ensure that their rights were upheld.
I also have been appointed by the Lake County courts to investigate post-conviction issues pursuant to the Illinois Post-Conviction laws. I've argued post-conviction petitions on behalf of indigent defendants in defense of their constitutional rights. I also have served as a court-appointed conflict counsel for indigent defendants.
I've used DNA as a prosecutor and defense attorney, and teach DNA and the laws of evidence. My experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney gives me a unique and fresh perspective from which to bring new ideas and change. I will provide strong leadership and direction by focusing equally on the rights and needs of victims and fair treatment for those accused of crimes. I have the experience and the independence to make the tough changes that Lake County needs to restore public trust and confidence in the State's Attorney's Office.
Do you have any experience as an elected official? I have not sought public office before now.
Lake County has been under attack nationally in the past for its mistreatment of DNA evidence and a “alarming number of wrongful convictions” (according to a New York Times article from Nov. 25, 2011). How do you plan to regain the public’s trust in the State Attorney’s Office?
I am committed to justice and bringing change, openness and accountability to the office of Lake County State's Attorney. Preventing wrongful convictions is one of my top priorities and my platform has been clear from the day I announced my candidacy more than 15 months ago, about the importance of forensic sciences, as well as improving training for prosecutors and law enforcement.
Throughout the campaign, I have been meeting with law enforcement, the legal community, victims, victims' rights advocates, civil rights leaders, the faith community and all community members that this effects—sharing perspectives to address the most common causes of wrongful convictions.
I am the only candidate to call for a fully independent Case Review Panel to review old cases and convictions, and to develop protocols for the prosecution of cases with forensic evidence, including DNA, going forward. Wrongful convictions harm innocent people, leave the perpetrator on the streets and can cost taxpaying citizens millions of dollars.
While the Lake County State's Attorney's Office already has a conviction integrity unit to look at past cases and actively seek DNA testing to ensure the validity of convictions (which is similar to the proposal by my opponent), one of the key differences of my proposal is that the Case Review Panel that I propose will be independent of the State's Attorney's Office and will bring a fresh perspective and different set of eyes. My panel will include diverse members of the legal community and other leaders including from outside Lake County. I have already lined up an incredible pool of talent to take on this important role, at no additional cost to tax payers. While having an in-house panel may work in much larger cities, I do not believe that for an office the size of the Lake County State's Attorney's Office where most prosecutors know one another and may socialize together that an in-house approach is effective and unbiased.
I will promote a culture in the State's Attorney's Office that is open to looking at all different kinds of evidence to ensure the right people are being prosecuted. This is an issue of justice and an issue of making changes in policy, procedures and training, as well as bringing a fresh perspective. In addition, I will conduct a thorough review and evaluation of every employee of the State's Attorney's Office to determine continued employment.
I will work more closely with law enforcement in the investigation of crimes and gathering evidence. The State's Attorney's Office should be involved even before an arrest is made so that there's no question criminal cases are being handled properly from start to finish.
Being State's Attorney is about making tough decisions and one of the toughest decisions a State's Attorney has to make is deciding when not to charge cases where there is insufficient evidence. I have the courage and confidence to make these difficult decisions and stand behind them. I'm committed to being tough on crime and making sure everyone is treated fairly... and that justice is served.
I will create a Public Integrity Unit to investigate and prosecute crimes involving official misconduct, public corruption and fraud. When it comes to government impropriety, there will be zero tolerance.
I will open up the lines of communication between the State’s Attorney’s Office and the public. While I believe criminal cases should be tried in the courtroom and not in the media, the people of Lake County have a right to be informed. I am committed to running an open office with nothing to hide.
Lake County should never have its prosecutorial motivations be in question. I pledge to bring an independent, fresh perspective and new ideas to the office of State's Attorney and to restore its reputation to one in which we can all be proud.
What do you think led to the past events in which DNA evidence being, for lack of better term, ignored?
Not having been part of the State's Attorney's Office since 2007 nor having been involved in any of the cases in question, I cannot guess as to what led to certain decisions that were made or not made in particular cases. What I can do, however, is institute programs, policies and procedures that will prevent those cases from occurring again.
I have done extensive research on this issue. Wrongful convictions that are not the result of misconduct are usually the result of cognitive bias, or "tunnel vision." Prosecutors and law enforcement develop a theory as to how they believe the case occurred. They tend to focus on the evidence that supports their theory. This is human nature and can cause some involved in the investigation or prosecution of a case to disregard evidence that does not fit their particular theory. This tendency is dangerous. A piece of evidence that does not quit fit, could be a key piece of evidence telling you that you are prosecuting the wrong person. This is why it is imperative to have an independent Case Review Panel, comprised of legal professionals with a diverse background of experience, to look at cases in question and bring a "fresh set of eyes" to the case to ensure that the conviction is proper.
As State’s Attorney, I will lead an office that is concerned not with racking up convictions, but rather in seeking justice. The culture in the State's Attorney's Office will be one that is open to looking at all of the evidence and different theories of the case.
I have experience both prosecuting and defending cases. I have extensive experience looking at criminal cases from all sides and will make sure that every ASA is focused on making sure that they are not prosecuting an innocent person.
I will also increase training of all of the ASAs in the State's Attorney's Office to ensure that they are all kept up-to-speed on the latest developments in case law and forensic sciences. The science of DNA as it relates to criminal cases, has developed extensively in the past few years. Furthermore, the time required to conduct a test has been dramatically reduced and the sample size required to conduct a test has also been reduced. In other words, we don't need as much material to conduct a DNA test as we did a few years ago, and that test will be completed much faster.
These developments, combined with a prosecutorial culture that is open to different theories in a particular case, will lead to a reduced likelihood that we will see these situations again.
It is important to note that wrongful convictions are not always the result of issues regarding DNA evidence. We also have to look at our procedures as they relate to the identification and interrogation processes.
Anything else you’d like to add:
My campaign from day one has clearly stated the changes I will make to address our county's critical wrongful conviction issue and handling of DNA evidence, and to make the office one that is respected and trusted to do the right thing. But my campaign commitments go much further. I have shared to date numerous other initiatives that impact everyone who calls Lake County home today and well into the future.
I have announced plans for an Alternative Prosecution Program that would help unclog our courts, reduce overcrowding in the jail, and deliver real and tangible benefits to victims of crime and each and every taxpayer of this county.
I have engaged with national experts on School Bullying to understand the issue enough to make it a priority to stop bullying as a way to prevent crime in Lake County.
I have met with crime victims and victims' rights advocates to discuss improvements for communicating with and counseling victims of crimes, and ensuring the rights of victims are fully served.
I have established a clear priority for working with law enforcement to curtail the huge surge in teen gang and drug violence. Not only have I received the endorsement of Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and numerous local law enforcement organizations, I have also been actively engaged in conversations to ensure that Lake County and our neighboring counties will be coordinated and concerted in our crime fighting efforts.
I have spent the past 15 months doing more than campaigning. I have met with law enforcement officials from across the county to ensure that as State's Attorney, fighting crime and being committed to fairness and the pursuit of justice will be a coordinated effort. I continue to go to court every day in Lake County representing people to ensure they are treated fairly and their rights are respected.
I am ready to work hard to bring change to our county, and I am counting on your support. Vote for me, Mike Nerheim, for Lake County State's Attorney.