No consensus between prosecutor candidates

October 20, 2018 GMT

WESTVILLE —The two candidates for La Porte County prosecutor squared off again this week at a candidates’ forum and again disagreed on who is more qualified, and how the office should be run.

The League of Women Voters of La Porte County and the Better Government Study Group hosted a candidates forum Wednesday at Purdue Northwest in Westville, where candidates took part in a Q&A session with the public.

Democrat John Lake and Republican Christina Espar, candidates in the most talked-about race in the county this election season, again took the opportunity to highlight their differences.

Lake said Espar’s lack of jury trial experience makes him the more qualified candidate.

“I think this is the big distinction between Christina and I,” he said. “I look at the elected prosecutor as the trial attorney for the county. You need someone with experience, someone who has tried cases. You don’t want to give this to someone who has never tried cases. I think another thing that’s important is the amount of investigations you’ve handled.”

Lake noted that his opponent has never handled a criminal case that has not involved juveniles.

“I think that’s an important distinction,” he said. “People really need to think about whether or not experience is important.”

Espar explained that her lack of jury trial experience is due to devoting her career to the juvenile court system.

“I’ve had no jury trial experience because jury trials do not exist in the juvenile court,” Espar said. “We do have trials, however, and the procedures, the laws, the burden of proof is exactly the same. So while I don’t have jury trial experience, where I (prove a case) to a group of 12 La Porte County residents, I do have experience with trials under the same rules as in the adult court, but I have to face a judge, who is fully versed in the law.”

She further defended her position by saying, “Jury trials may be a benchmark of success for a trial attorney, but a benchmark for success from a prosecuting attorney would be a reduction in crime and aggressive prosecution for those who commit crime.”

The two also have different interpretations of what is expected of the prosecuter’s office. One of their major disagreements – touched on in past forums – is whether the prosecutor should have only full-time staff working for them.

Although Lake said he would be committing full-time hours to the position, he finds it unnecessary to insist current staff hold up to the same standard.

“Well first of all, I just want to make it clear that I will be a full-time prosecutor, if elected,” he said. “The problem we have in the Prosecutor’s Office is the turnover rate. When we went to full-time, the turnover went to over 100 percent of deputy prosecutors. It creates a problem for staffing trials, and police officers don’t know who to call.”

Espar said she did not agree with Lake’s reasoning and plans to take a different approach to staffing.

“The people of La Porte County should not have to question the loyalties of their prosecutors, and you can only ensure that by having a full-time dedicated staff,” she said. “I have to rebuke what my opponent said, there is absolutely no basis to support that a full-time staff is the reason for high turnover. I’m not going to sit here and explain the reason for high turnover — I’m not your currently elected prosecuting attorney.

“What I can say is that with a full-time staff, which was what the office was in this last administration, we have a 90 percent increase in jury trials compared to the previous administration, which was a part-time staff,” she said. “So, to address the issues in our county, these pervasive issues that aren’t going anywhere, we need a dedicated staff to do it.”

The candidates said they want to approach the office differently.

Lake explained his intention to expedite justice by utilizing his own expertise in jury trials,

“I’m going to be a trial attorney. We need to get back to trying cases,” Lake said. “Under the Constitution we are supposed to be doing justice speedily, and we haven’t been doing that. We can’t have cases pending. If it hasn’t been appealed, you should be able to try a case within a year.”

Espar elaborated on her approach to change the department from within.

“This is an administrative position, and to lead the office takes initiative,” she said. “From day one in the juvenile court, I have shown that initiative. I have redone that entire court from the beginning stage to the disposition stage of a case.”

Espar called out the varying intentions in her closing.

”John couldn’t be more right about one thing, and that is that we stand with two very differing positions. He wants to take the office back to when the elected prosecutor was the trial attorney, and that I believe is the fundamental difference between the two of us,” Espar said.

“I don’t want to take the office back, I want to move the office forward. I don’t want to sit back and wait for murders and rapes to happen so that I can try the most serious cases. I want to prevent these things from happening and prevent the commission of further crime, and that is the difference between the two of us.”