La Salle County State's Attorney Karen Donnelly never believed in capital punishment until she ran into Carl Lenard.
"Looking into his eyes, there was something missing. Someone like him cannot be rehabilitated. If Illinois had the death penalty, I would have sought it for him," she said.
The Times recently sat down with Donnelly to review her first year as the county's top prosecutor. Lenard murdered Damaris Lopez Pacheco Alvarado in rural Streator five weeks into Donnelly's term in office, giving Donnelly a "baptism of fire," as she put it. Lenard will spend the rest of his life in prison.
"I visited the crime scene and saw what he did. I'll never forget it. The hard thing about this job is not understanding why defendants do things. I want to ask them, 'What is lacking in your life? What happened to you for you to do this?'" Donnelly observed.
Besides that murder, there have been three other murder cases begun since Donnelly took office and a couple of other cases involving deaths — more than usual for the county.
"Once you're in this chair, you feel the responsibility. It's difficult to tell a family you can't charge murder, but can only go with a manslaughter charge," Donnelly pointed out.
Donnelly added her connection with families "doesn't end with the conviction," as she has maintained contact with victims' relatives.
"You see the worst, but also the best in people in this job," Donnelly said.
She also sees the middle ground.
"We're not here to punish people with drug problems. I'm going to bring us into the new era of treatment instead of punishment," Donnelly vowed.
To this end, Donnelly hopes to have a drug court in place by August, presided over by Circuit Judge Cynthia Raccuglia. The court would bring together prosecutors, defense attorneys and social workers to help offenders address their drug issues, using a collaborative, rather than an adversarial approach.
A mental health court, to be presided over by Associate Judge Michael Jansz, also is in the works. Mental health court would be similar to drug court.
However, Donnelly said much of her time in the past year has been spent cleaning up her predecessor's anti-drug program — the now-disbanded and discredited State's Attorney's Felony Enforcement unit, also known as SAFE.
In this regard, Donnelly said several people recently took court action to retrieve a total of $250,000 seized from them by SAFE officers.
Apart from these duties, Donnelly pointed out she'll step in to do whatever needs doing in her office, from typing up documents to answering phones.
"I've done every job in this office. It probably stems from my years as a secretary in a law office," Donnelly said. She added her other experience as a defense lawyer helps her to "out guess" the defense in criminal prosecutions.
After a year as top prosecutor, Donnelly said she has come to see the job exacts a toll.
"I didn't realize the emotional effect. It goes home with you. I'll have more gray hairs by the time I'm done here."
Donnelly added with a chuckle the gray hairs she already has are not visible thanks to the work of the stylists at Studio 718 in La Salle.
Apart from her hair, Donnelly has acquired a thicker skin, because of the general criticism any state's attorney draws, but also because of Facebook jabs at her "looks and makeup," criticisms she said would not be leveled at a man in her position.
Despite the brickbats, Donnelly noted the state's attorney's office is "where I was meant to be and I'm humbled to be here."