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Election 2012: Chris Kennedy

Democrat Chris Kennedy is running against Republican Mike Nerheim in the race for Lake County State's Attorney.

Name: Chris Kennedy

Position You’re Running For: Lake County State’s Attorney

Age/Birthday: 44

Current job: Attorney/Owner, Law Office of Christopher M. Kennedy, P.C. 

Hometown: Libertyville

Family: Married for 16 years with three children, ages 13, 11 and 6

Outside of your work, what do you enjoy doing? I enjoy playing with my kids, as well as coaching Little League, playing basketball, and reading.  I also enjoy serving on the school board in Libertyville and working as a member of the Illinois Autism Task Force to help families affected by disabilities. 

Why do you want to be the State’s Attorney for Lake County? I loved being a prosecutor and I believe I can make a tremendous difference for a lot of people in Lake County as State’s Attorney.  For too long, the State's Attorney's office has failed to get the job done. Lake County residents are tired of the never-ending cycle of missteps that have made our prosecutor’s office a national example of what can go wrong. 

The central goal of my campaign is to rebuild a criminal justice system that is worthy of its citizens and of its many law enforcement professionals who are dedicated to doing what’s right. To do this, we need a new perspective and new ideas that will transform the office into something we can be proud of, but more importantly, keep our communities safe.

For more than a year, I have outlined a detailed set of measures that would restore public trust.—an agenda that focuses on protecting the public, not an insider culture. My Blueprint for Justice will implement best practices to ensure that Lake County becomes a leader and positive example for others, including a plan to:

1. Create a Conviction Integrity Unit to review DNA evidence and prevent
wrongful convictions.

2. Enhance the focus on victims and their rights by establishing a Sex Crimes Unit to provide the appropriate attention these cases deserve.

3. Demand accountability and transparency in an office that has isolated itself from the very people it is supposed to serve and protect.

What unique perspective will you bring to position? I have broad, diverse experience and will bring to the office an outsider’s perspective and commitment to serious reform.  Most of all, I have a proven track record of leadership, which is what the State’s Attorney’s office needs most.  Over the course of my 18-year career, I have built a reputation as an accomplished leader, a fair and tough prosecutor, and a tireless advocate for our state’s most vulnerable citizens. These are critical qualities for the task at hand: reforming an office that is nationally known for getting things wrong.

Prosecutorial experience: From 1994 to 1998, I served as a felony prosecutor and lead trial attorney in numerous jury trials, successfully obtaining valid convictions in hundreds of criminal cases.  I moved up the ranks quickly and tried violent felons and prosecuted a wide variety of criminal matters, made charging decisions on felonies, appeared before grand juries, worked in partnership with local, state and federal law enforcement, and supported victims of crime.

Large trials and supervisory experience: After serving as a prosecutor, I then had an opportunity to take over large cases at a firm in Chicago, where I was lead trial attorney in complex civil litigation, jury trials and appeals in state and federal courts, supervising other attorneys and winning big trials.

Running my own business: For the past eight years now, I have run my own law practice in Lake Forest, representing victims of negligence, fraud, and civil rights abuses in state and federal courts.

Independence: In my private practice, I have taken on individuals in both political parties who have abused their position.  I have also worked with members of both parties to pass legislation to protect persons and families affected by disability.

Experience managing taxpayer funds: For the past 5 years, I have served as a member of the Libertyville District 70 school board, managing a budget and administration team that are many times the size of the State’s Attorney’s, all while maintaining a high degree of excellence and AAA bond status.

The victims’ perspective:  My family has been affected by violent crime.  My cousin was randomly abducted and murdered by a career criminal who should never have been free to commit more violent crimes.  I was deeply involved in trying to find her and in the trial of her killer.  That experience not only drives my commitment to making sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else, but gives me a unique perspective of what it’s like to be on the victims’ side of the criminal justice system.  As State’s Attorney, I will be an advocate for victims and will never forget the dire consequences of getting it wrong.

Do you have any experience as an elected official? Yes.  I am currently serving my second term as an elected school board member in Libertyville District 70. 

In addition to this experience, I have also been widely recognized in Illinois for bi-partisan legislative advocacy on behalf of persons and families affected by autism and other developmental disabilities. My work on these issues resulted in the passage of 16 state laws and programs, including laws to provide additional police training and increased access to health insurance and community services. I also led the effort to create and establish the Illinois Autism Task Force, a multi-agency initiative charged with addressing autism-related issues in our state.

Lake County has been under attack nationally in the past for its mistreatment of DNA evidence and an “alarming number of wrongful convictions” (according to a New York Times article from Nov. 27, 2011). How do you plan to regain the public’s trust in the State Attorney’s Office?

Immediately upon taking office, I will create a Conviction Integrity Unit to correct and prevent the rash of wrongful convictions that have plagued our communities.

This Unit will

  • Independently investigate (without involving any agency or individual who was involved in the prior investigations) and make recommendations on certain challenged convictions.
  • Prosecute cold cases where evidence suggests different, or additional, perpetrators.
  • Oversee ongoing cases, investigations, and training to ensure that evidence is properly collected, tested and evaluated, at the earliest opportunity in every case. 

To run this Unit, I will bring in a senior prosecutor who has no ties to the original convictions or any of the people involved.  This prosecutor will report directly to me and work with a senior investigator, who also has no ties to the cases. The Unit will have a role not only in reviewing past cases, but also in overseeing ongoing and new cases to ensure that wrongful convictions do not occur again.  This unit would additionally utilize the advice of an outside advisory board comprised of leading experts in criminal justice, including legal scholars and former prosecutors, who would voluntarily serve and advise on best practices and procedures. 

It would be highly inappropriate and impractical to have attorneys outside the office review actual cases—my proposal is simply an advisory body as to what policies should be put in place to make prosecutions better and convictions more reliable.  My Conviction Integrity Unit is modeled on other such units around the country, which have proven to be effective; my opponent’s plan is ill-considered, impractical, and has never been considered elsewhere, precisely because it is unworkable.  It is the prosecutor’s job to review and prosecute criminal cases—these difficult decisions cannot be outsourced to others.

What do you think led to the past events in which DNA evidence being, for lack of better term, ignored? The current office is now known nationally, not just for mistakes, but for denying scientific evidence and sometimes even blaming victims to explain away indisputable physical evidence found at crime scenes.  Even the Illinois appellate court said in one case that “the State’s theories distort to an absurd degree the real and undisputed testimony.”

There are many factors involved, not least of which is the predominance of one political party over Lake County and its justice system for 32 years.  I believe that in recent years, the culture of the office has been misguided, a phenomenon fostered by 1) office leadership that has seemed to value maintaining a conviction as an end unto itself; 2) an office atmosphere in which certain cases are handled differently from other cases and where those attorneys who have questions or doubts are either afraid to express them or are ignored if they do; and 3) hiring and promotion practices that have led to stagnation, morale problems and “tunnel vision” among some prosecutors. These problems need to be confronted head-on and this office needs to be cleaned up.  I have committed to doing what it takes to fix Lake County’s State’s Attorney’s office and making it a positive model for other jurisdictions to follow.

Anything else you’d like to add: I believe we have a unique opportunity in this election to change the course of justice for Lake County and make our prosecutor’s office a national model of success and an incubator for best practices that others will follow.  This course can only be changed, however, by starting with an honest, independent assessment of what has gone wrong and having the courage to not only say so, but do whatever it takes to fix it.  I have demonstrated throughout my career a high degree of integrity, independence and commitment to doing the right thing in as effective a manner as possible.  A vote for Chris Kennedy in this election is a vote to end business as usual from the State’s Attorney and face up to past problems so we can protect the public honestly and openly.

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