All prosecutors have to deal with venom from occasional defendants or their associates, but for State’s Attorneys-including Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons-it’s just part of the job. “Serving the public sometimes includes withstanding hateful attacks, dangerous threats, and even personal assault. It’s a job you’ve got to love, and I do,” he said.
Lyons was elected Peoria County State’s Attorney in 1988 and re-elected in 1992, 1996, and 2000. Prior to his election, he was in private practice and served as assistant public defender.
Lyons received his Doctor of Jurisprudence law degree from Drake University Law School, where he served as clerk to the Attorney General of Iowa, writing appellate briefs for the Iowa Supreme Court.
He served for 10 years as a member and school board president of District #265. Lyons has also served as chairman of the Illinois State Bar Association’s Committee on Prisons, is past chair of the ISBA Criminal Justice Council, a former president of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, and a member of the Board of Governors of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor. He serves as the Illinois delegate for the National District Attorney’s Association.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I was born in Peoria and raised in Hanna City, attending school in the Farmington school district. I have one brother, Calvin, and a foster brother, Jim, and we all attended and graduated from Judson College, a Christian college in Elgin. Our parents each worked for more than 30 years for their respective employers: my mom for Illinois Bell Telephone and my dad for Caterpillar. They worked hard so their kids could achieve and do as they wanted and, hopefully, impact a part of the world. It was of great benefit to us to be raised in the small town of Hanna City. No stop lights and no Wal-Mart-just nice people and teachers who cared about you.
Who or what influenced you to study law?
My parents never encouraged me to pursue any one career. Instead, they always made it clear to “do whatever you want to do and be good at it.” While they were the epitome of hard workers, rarely missing a day’s work in 30-plus years, my brother and I knew they wanted us to go to college and follow our hearts when it came to work.
Although I always loved watching lawyers on TV, I’d never met a lawyer until I was 20 years old and did odd jobs for a wonderful family in Elgin. For one year after college, I lived in southern Illinois and quietly cared for my grandmother, who had come to need a caregiver, so she could stay in her home. I took the admission tests and applied to various law schools without telling my grandma, as I didn’t want her to think of me leaving. So most of my thoughts of practicing law were digested alone in my head, as are many of the decisions I make today. Gather the facts, think it through, do the right thing, and move along.
You’ve recently been elected to your fifth term as Peoria County State’s Attorney. What are the responsibilities of the Peoria County State’s Attorney?
This is a wonderful job. I think of it as a legal emergency room. While I try to plan, budget, anticipate, and create a good office with superior employees, crime is never carried out by appointment. So, as I’ve said before “Tonight I watch the 10 p.m., news, and tomorrow, that’s what I do.”
The State’s Attorney is elected every four years in every county. In Peoria, I have 25 to 30 full-time attorneys who serve as assistant state’s attorneys and are assigned to prosecute criminal cases from traffic to misdemeanor to juvenile to felony. Just as important are the attorneys who serve as gatekeepers by deciding what and when to charge and distinguishing between cases of meaningful substance and cases of meaningless attitude.
The State’s Attorney also represents the elected countywide officials, including the sheriff, treasurer, coroner, clerks, administrators, and the members of the Peoria County Board. We advise the County of Peoria on matters of tax, civil liability, elections, zoning, and the various other matters attendant to local government.
What is a typical day like for the state’s attorney?
It’s never ever boring. Our day is impacted by whomever decided to commit a crime last night. This occurs in addition to our regular commitment of jury trials, bench trials, urgent phone calls, complaints, questions, and needs.
I try very hard to schedule my attendance only at meetings that have specific objectives and time frames. Meeting for the sake of meeting means I won’t be there. I don’t like the thought of being predictable, and, therefore, I’m rarely in the same place very long. I speak at luncheons, cruise through courtrooms, return messages, decide issues that have bubbled up to the top, and become versed in case facts and potential problems on the horizon.
Of course, some of my duties are confidentially conducted until such time as the public or the court can be apprised of certain matters. Because of the wide variety of responsibilities of this position, most days you’ll find me working on the same issue for no more than an hour at a time-usually much less. Life goes on.
What’s one of the most common requests of the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office?
It’s a toss-up among the following: Can you get me out of jury duty? Can you help me with (fix) my traffic ticket? Is there a law…? Can I come to court on a different day? If I get stopped for DUI, should I blow in the machine?
What are the statistics of crime in Peoria County? Compared to state and national statistics?
The crime rate for the City of Peoria has declined each year since 1994. The crime rate for the full county (including the city) has nearly always been higher than the national average. While this can be wildly impacted with only one or two cases-for example, an offender once burned a house which killed nine occupants, hence, nine homicides-we also understand that metropolitan and urban living, while providing citizens a broader life with more choices, also carries with it a bigger melting pot with a variety of cultures, work ethics, and demographics.
Even here, most local residents clearly see differences between living in Tazewell and Peoria counties, even though they’re connected by bridges and merely separated by a river. While Peoria has a growing and vibrant downtown and riverfront with entertainment nightlife, three major hospitals, Bradley University, Caterpillar’s world headquarters, and an enviable skyline, some people may see Tazewell County as more sedate. That may tip their decision to live in Tazewell County. For others, it may bring them to Peoria. But we know where there are more people and where there’s a more complex mix of residents, differences that are often embraceable are sometimes not embraced by everyone.
An indicator of crime and complaints usually is found in the number of arrests made during the year. Peoria’s arrest rate has declined each year from the year 2000, when 4,500 felony arrests were made and 6,500 misdemeanor arrests occurred. In 2001, felony arrests numbered 4,200, and misdemeanor arrests totaled 6,100. The trend downward continues even today, where we anticipate having fewer than 4,000 felony arrests and under 6,000 arrests for misdemeanors this year.
Quality-of-life issues often are impacted by neighborhood pride and home ownership. Like most cities, Peoria has an older center that, hopefully, doesn’t become abandoned by landowners and homeowners and, instead, will continue to capture the city shine that comes from reinvestment. I think the Peoria City Council works very hard at embracing its inner neighborhoods. The members have notorious differences on approach and spending, but, as a whole, it’s evident the city council is proudly attached to the interests of the inner city. That’s a good thing for law and order in an urban setting.
What’s the most celebrated case you’ve been involved with in Peoria County?
The case of Joe Miller, a serial murderer of six women-and most likely 13-is widely known. I tried him in Springfield on a change of venue, and he was sentenced to death. It was commuted to life in prison by former Gov. George Ryan. Enough said.
The murder of Peoria police officer Jim Faulkner is a case I also tried in Springfield, and the killer was sentenced to life in prison without parole. I will not, and neither should Peoria, forget the chilling impact this murder had on this community, Jim Faulkner’s wife and five children, and his wonderful siblings and parents. I get emotional just thinking about it.
Willie Enoch was hours away from execution when the supreme court forced me to do further DNA testing. Others screamed his innocence, but the tests showed Enoch was, beyond all doubt, guilty of murdering Kay Burns, and he died a lonely, middle-aged man in a prison cell in Pontiac.
I’m so very privileged to represent the surviving family members of those murdered by Jimmy Ray Pitsonbarger and Johnny Lee Savory. The 1977 murder of Bradley religion professor Dr. Dominic Volturno left behind his wife, Betty, who then raised their three small children alone in the same house. Although these killers were convicted at trial before my election as State’s Attorney, their cases remain active with constant post-trial pleadings of this and that. I’d set myself on fire before I’d give one ounce of leniency to these murderers.
You’ve been passionate about countering domestic violence. How has the law changed in the past decade regarding prosecution? What further steps are needed to improve the conviction of abusers?
Domestic violence is a quiet killer of the heart and soul. The good news is that society’s tolerance of this tragic behavior is lessening, but not fast enough. Jurors are unsympathetic to a female (usually) who, by the time of trial, testifies that it was she-and not he-who was to blame. Jurors are baffled as to why a woman so obviously battered by her mate would not only stay with him, but now poison the very case that police and prosecutors have amassed against him.
The state legislature has strengthened laws that allow for greater recognition of out-of-court statements. The congress has provided millions in funds to focus on this family-wrecking crime. I’m pleased to have done very well in corralling more than our share of funds available to create the new Peoria County Family Justice Center across the street from our office.
The Center for Prevention of Abuse here is a national model at sheltering victims, protecting their rights, and preserving their self-worth. The creation of the Family Violence Coordinating Council was the genesis for a fine system here today to make a bad problem much better. And victims of domestic violence couldn’t have a finer friend than in Martha Herm, the longtime director of the Center. Her patience with me when I was a new prosecutor and her vigilant steering of the Center made a believer of me that domestic violence cases were winnable, and she’s right.
How many minors have been tried and convicted as felons in Peoria County? What would you change, if anything, regarding the prosecution of minors?
Until the year 2000, we averaged a transfer of about 15 minors (under age 17) per year to felony court for adult prosecution. This number has declined over the past several years to be about eight to 10 transfers per year. Only one case comes to mind where the trial of the minor in adult court resulted in acquittal, and it involved multiple defendants. So the transfer of a minor to adult court occurs only sparingly and only after careful prosecutor and court review.
I don’t criticize the ever-increasing need to criminally prosecute persons whose age alone would make others think they were “children.” The 1950s are over, Ozzie & Harriet have long ago left the air, and the violent youthful offender is rarely committing crime during his five-minute break from singing in the Baptist choir.
Until prosecutors and courts can be validly persuaded that violent youthful offenders sent to “rehabilitation” are actually being rehabilitated, it’s the duty of the criminal justice system to protect others from their repeat violent performances. The ages of persons who can be tried and convicted as adults have been lowered by legislatures for the past decade for good reason: younger people are committing more violent crime.
It doesn’t appear that printing more money so it can be thrown at the latest juvenile “cure du jour” is producing meaningful results. Until parental responsibility improves and reigns in the criminal behavior of young offenders, the criminal justice system should do what it must. And, regrettably, what it must do in many cases, is incarcerate violent persons of youthful age who have no regard for discipline in the classroom, on the street, or even in their own life.
What can be done in our community to keep it safer?
It’s an axiom that people like to go where people feel safe. Well-lighted downtowns with clean sidewalks, proud merchants, and purposeful happenings will promote safety. Compare that with dimly lighted streets, junk-filled yards, and trash talking thugs, and safety is defined by chest thumping dudes who think they’re invincible. They aren’t.
Neighborhood associations are the eyes and ears of an area. Their activism promotes city safety. Neighborhood police officers everybody knows will always allow a neighborhood to feel connected with authority and enhance safety. Landlords unconcerned about the caliber of persons that rent their houses are a neighborhood scourge.
What, if any, changes have occurred in your office since September 11?
The State’s Attorneys offices have become increasingly more secure from year to year. It’s safe to say that accusing people of crimes certainly brings about its share of enemies. We have bulletproof windows, puncture-proof walls, and keycoded card access with ingress and egress recorded by computer. Two full-time investigator detectives are employed by our office, and they’re armed with firearms at all times.
All prosecutors have dealt with venomous hate from occasional defendants or their associates. Serving the public sometimes includes withstanding hateful attacks, dangerous threats, and even personal assault. It’s a job you’ve got to love, and I do.
You served as school board president of District #265. In your opinion, what would help relations between District 150 and the school board?
My 10 years as a school board member were among the most fun and educational years of my public life. I can name every board member and superintendent with whom I served during that period, and I think of each one with great affection. They were models for civility, and they respected the chain of command.
The board president when I first arrived was Philip Melville, a farmer with a sharp mind and a kind heart. On occasion, he would tolerate some meandering complaints from the audience about this and that, but he would, at some point, say, “This is a public meeting, but it is not a meeting of the public.” This phrase could well serve any number of public bodies.
I would encourage board members to say less out loud. It isn’t productive to broadcast every internal thought across the airwaves; it generally just serves as ammunition for a counter assault. Board member positions can be effectively conveyed without articulating every molecule of thought and anger that swim inside your head at any given moment. Believe me, I know this from experience, and I often fail to heed my own advice.
It isn’t usually difficult to know the right thing to do. It’s somewhat harder to do the right thing in the face of a collection of observers who want to knock down others to make themselves look tall. When an elected person can become comfortable in his own skin and feel best about doing the right thing, public service flourishes.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What’s the most challenging aspect?
I love working with the people I’ve hired. My chief criminal assistant, Nancy Mermelstein, stares down killers in the courtroom and never blinks. Our office administrator, Nancy Honings, stares me down and never flinches. She’s the manager of a large budget office of many personalities and needs. The public is well served to have these people in their employ, and I’m grateful to have them and my fine staff as my office colleagues.
We’re challenged by the massive amount of phone calls and walk-ins that occur here. However, I’ll continue to refuse the use of automated phone menus in answering citizen calls. Instead, we have two full-time receptionists who receive more than 100,000 incoming calls per year.
When this office is called, a human being answers the phone and, person to person, they converse. People want to ask a question and get the right answer. That’s how it should be. But answering calls and comments from the public all year long is exhausting work. The receptionists in this office are longtime employees, and I couldn’t be more pleased with their ability and their demeanor to others on my behalf.
Have you had a role model in your career?
As a boy, I was captivated by Hubert Humphrey, a former senator from Minnesota and vice president of the United States. I was perhaps too young to fully digest his politics, but I noticed he was a smiling, happy politician who always seemed to be walking on the sunny side of the street. His positive spirit seemed to be his trademark.
Following a long and fatal bout with cancer, Humphrey was eulogized by his longtime friend, Walter Mondale. Mondale told the nation that he had always idolized his mentor’s upbeat demeanor. He said that, throughout his life, Hubert Humphrey showed America that life goes on, and it goes on with joy. Mondale said that Hubert Humphrey had taught America how to laugh and how to love, how to live and how to go on. Even in the end, he said, Hubert Humphrey “taught us how to die.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Let me take this moment to point out that many elected State’s Attorneys, as well as many other elected people, often criticize the person or persons from whom they “inherited” the office. To reduce their own shortcomings, they sometimes harp on the mess left behind by the other guy. That didn’t happen to me.
Instead, I was so pleased to follow John Barra and Mike Mihm, who served as the State’s Attorneys for 16 years before my arrival. I haven’t one bad thing to say about their terms, styles, or policies. They continue today as fine public servants. One is a Republican. One is a Democrat. But both were ethical and responsible officeholders of the highest caliber, and I’ll always be grateful to have followed them here.
How would you encourage someone to enter public office?
I’d encourage the same type of approach one would use to enter a career: find something you love to do and seek to do it. Public service is bursting at the seams with committees, commissions, position vacancies, and elected duties. Find the “appointer” to these positions, and express to them your specialty or interest. Want to be governor but also have an interest in criminal justice? Seek appointment to a task force on crime. Talk with members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and see if you might help improve prisons.
Enjoying watching city council meetings but don’t want to be a council member? No problem. But, by all means, secure a list of open and upcoming spots on the dozens of commissions and boards appointed every year by various mayors, county board chairs, and administrators. Public service will rarely seek out others; rather, those who step forward get noticed.
I also subscribe to the notion that all politics is local. Most Americans are far more impacted by what goes on in their courthouse than what goes on in the White House. Find the area of public service that matches your interest, and you’ll find a need to fill. Remember, though, grow some thick skin first.
In your professional career, what are you most proud of?
It’s very gratifying to see the positive domino effect that occurs with the hiring of prosecutors and staff that have relocated to Peoria from other places. Many see Peoria for the first time when they arrive for an interview. I recognize the weight they carry when deciding whether they should move to this place they’ve never been, often alone, knowing no one, and starting a brand new career.
I enjoy that these people plant and grow themselves here and usually become successful. They may find someone to spend their life with here, they may marry, have children, buy or build homes, and sometimes even move their parents or friends here. This is good for them, good for me, and good for Peoria.
I also enjoy speaking each year to a number of prosecutor and social groups throughout the country. I make presentations that I believe educate and motivate the listener to return to their hometowns and courthouses to become better, and not bitter, about prosecuting crime and making a difference where they live.
Every person in the audience knows where I live because I always tell them that I’m from their hometown-it’s just that mine is named Peoria. The differences between people, however, are very few. Kindness begets kindness, and meanness begets meanness. It’s the job of the prosecutor, I say, to take on meanness while displaying kindness to those hurt by crime.
When I finish speaking and fly home, I love landing back in Peoria. At that moment, it’s the only place in the world I want to be.
What are your future goals?
I enjoy what I do and have no plans to leave. Because of the nature of my elected office, however, I rarely discuss in public any thoughts or ambitions beyond the office I currently hold. One peep about going elsewhere, and lawyers can delay things in the hope of a better result with someone new. One mention of moving along, and a whole host of others begin positioning to take your place. Such is politics.
I’ll admit I have no trouble deciding things. It’s the inability of others to decide things that drives me nuts. IBI