WHERE THEY STAND: Former judge sets sights on prosecutor position

Editor’s note: Republican Lance Hamner is one of two candidates for Johnson County prosecutor, the top law enforcement position in the county. A Where They Stand interview with Hamner’s opponent, Republican incumbent Joe Villanueva, will be in next Saturday’s Daily Journal. The Q&A below includes answers by Hamner in his own words. It has been edited for length and grammar.

A former county prosecutor and superior court judge for the last three decades is running for prosecutor again, challenging the incumbent who was selected via caucus in 2019.

Lance Hamner resigned as Johnson County Superior Court 3 judge last month to run for prosecutor. He previously served as Johnson County prosecutor from 1991 to 2008.

He is disappointed at how the prosecutor’s office has fared in recent years, and its mission to fairly and effectively prosecute criminals is not being accomplished, he said.

Hamner waited until the end of the filing period so he could finish several important cases that were assigned to him, he said.

Prosecutor Joe Villanueva is running for his first full term in office. He was selected via caucus after former prosecutor Brad Cooper was removed from office due to his felony conviction. Villanueva, who was chief deputy prosecutor at the time, won the caucus against five other candidates.

He was caught off guard by Hamner’s decision to run for prosecutor, he said.

Villanueva has spent his entire 22-year career at the prosecutor’s office. He has taken steps over the past two years to work more closely with law enforcement, including having prosecutors at every major crime scene, having regular meetings with police administration, providing numerous training seminars and legal updates and doing “ride alongs” with officers, he said.

His team has won 16 of the last 19 jury trials, and 36 of the last 40 bench trials, he said during an interview March 1.

Why do you want to serve as Johnson County prosecutor? What makes you the best person for the job?

There are things in the prosecutor’s office that need to be fixed. They need to focus more on training and advocacy and winning cases that go to trial. They need to have better communication with victims and victims’ families; let them know what’s going on with their case, keep them informed and help them understand how the process works. There are a number of places in the budget that can be cut and trimmed so that they’re utilizing tax dollars in a more efficient way. I’d like to see more training for new deputy prosecutors. I would like to help them know how to better present cases so they can win. When you’re protecting the public, failure is not an option.

It’s not often that someone of your rank steps down from the bench to do this sort of work again. Walk us through your thought process as you were making this decision.

I saw a number of cases being lost in a short period of time – serious cases – and decisions that were made that I thought were not well thought through and that should have been done differently. I had a lot of people – police officers, members of the public, members of the legal community – come to me repeatedly over the last year and a half and ask if I was anywhere close to retirement, and would I be willing to step up and run for prosecutor. I had no intention of doing that. I had four more years of my term (as judge) and I intended to complete it. I really enjoyed being a judge, and I felt like I was making a difference. But deep in my heart, I knew that I could turn the office around. I remember my dad always used to say when I was growing up: “If not you, then who?” So I thought, either finish off and retire as a judge in four years, or step up and run for prosecutor.

You stated in your campaign announcement the prosecutor’s office has lost credibility and integrity over the last several years, and the Brad Cooper scandal is one example of that. What is your specific plan to ensure that the prosecutor’s office regains the level of integrity that the people of Johnson County deserve?

Important cases need to be overseen directly by the elected prosecutor, and decisions need to be more circumspect. When search warrants are submitted to courts in important cases, they need to be overseen directly by the elected prosecutor.

You also stated in your campaign announcement: “Like many people in Johnson County, I have been disappointed at how the Prosecutor’s Office has fared in recent years. Fairly and effectively prosecuting criminals is vital to the safety of our community, and that mission is not currently being accomplished.” – What do you mean by that? Can you give examples?

In the past year and a half, I’ve seen an unacceptably high number of losses at trial.

What is the prosecutor’s office getting right, right now?

Most of the cases that are brought into the prosecutor’s office by law enforcement are filed and processed as they should be.

What is the prosecutor’s office getting wrong?

An unacceptably high number of cases are being lost at trial. Some of that has to do with how the case is analyzed and filed. Some of that has to do with trial preparation. And some of that has to do with advocacy. There needs to be more training. There also needs to be reorganization in the office so the people who are best qualified to try the cases are trying the cases.

You said you’ve spoken to law enforcement officers about their concerns. What are they?

Lack of communication. They’ll turn in a case and not hear back about anything that’s going on with it. A lot of officers have told me they’re afraid to complain because they’re afraid of offending the prosecutors, and that will have a negative impact on their ability to work cases with them in the future. Officers have told me they’ll file for a search warrant and when the search warrant was rejected by the court, they never got any feedback about what they could do to fix the problem. The only reason a judge wouldn’t sign a search warrant is because the probable cause affidavit failed to establish probable cause, and it’s up to the prosecutor to review the applications and help officers make sure they can meet the probable cause standard.

Do you have a good working relationship with all agencies in the county?

Very good. When I was prosecutor, I put on periodic training for the law enforcement agencies in our county on constitutional criminal procedure, search warrant preparation, arrest law, witness preparation, interrogation law. Those are all big issues they teach in the academy, but need to be augmented and updated. Most of the law enforcement agencies in the county, including the sheriff’s office, use my book on constitutional criminal procedure: Indiana Arrest, Search and Seizure Courtroom Manual.

You also said in your campaign announcement the prosecutor’s office should be run like a top-notch law firm. Can you explain that? What changes do you plan on making to the office, including personnel? What would be your first move?

The most qualified, hardest working people should be at the top. Responsibilities and compensation should be based on merit, not longevity.

Are you an experienced trial attorney? Do you plan to carry a caseload and try your own cases as the prosecutor?


There’s a perception that the law doesn’t apply equally to all in Johnson County, and the way Cooper’s removal was handled, from a delayed arrest to the sentencing, could be considered an example of that. What do you have to say about that?

I think my record speaks for itself. No one with political or economic advantage escaped justice when I was prosecutor.

Under what scenarios would you seek a special prosecutor to handle cases? How would you be involved in that process?

When there is any perception that I couldn’t or wouldn’t be fair and impartial in evaluating the merits of a case.

Should a special prosecutor be sought any time local law enforcement personnel are accused of a crime?

Not necessarily. The people need to have confidence that their elected prosecutor is enforcing the law in their county.

Should the public be informed of the details of the crimes that are committed in the county? What level of transparency would you guarantee?

There are times during the process of an investigation or in preparation for trial when too much information could impede a prosecutor’s ability to investigate and prosecute. Other than that, there’s no reason any of it should be hidden from the public.

How do you view the local drug problem? Are the drug roundups solving it?

Local law enforcement’s drug enforcement efforts are effective and efficient. There needs to be more effort in the prosecutor’s office to concentrate on punishing high-level dealers and getting treatment for people who have become addicted through no fault of their own, or through some fault of their own. I’m very much in favor of treatment for addicted persons. We’ve made a lot of strides in the last couple of years. We have two drug courts. Johnson County Superior Court 2 has a program called reentry court, which when I was judge, I used to send the people who were in my charge to. Judge Peter Nugent has done a remarkable job keeping people motivated in recovery, and has a fantastic success rate for getting people out of the downward spiral of drug addiction. I have stacks of letters that people wrote to me, as judge, thanking me for giving them a chance to go through the program and turn their lives around. Simply throwing them in prison and keeping them in prison would have kept them from becoming productive citizens.

Now, the prosecutor’s office is also partnering with agencies on sex trafficking roundups. Do you plan to continue that effort? Why or why not?

Absolutely. I agree with our former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who said, “Defeating human trafficking is a great moral calling of our time.”

You chose to leave your position as prosecutor mid-term for something different, and you have now done the same thing a second time. You also threw your hat in the ring fairly late. What would you say to the people who suggest uncertainty or non-commitment from you?

When I left the prosecutor’s office, I felt that it was in good hands and I could make a bigger difference as a judge. I would’ve never left being a judge if the prosecutor’s office was doing the job right. I intended to stay where I was. I was asked to come back and fix it. When I announced I was going to do that, I was approached by a number of victims who felt like they had been ignored by the prosecutor’s office and revictimized, and I knew the decision I made was the right decision. Who would leave a comfortable position, where I did feel like I was making a difference, to have to put my family through a campaign and go back and reorganize another office unless it needed to be done? The mission of the prosecutor’s office is to protect our people. That means some cases require extra effort, and if those cases aren’t getting the attention they need, then something needs to change.

You’ve made public your disapproval of Villanueva’s handling of a recent murder case. How might have you handled the Marcus Salatin case differently?

I don’t think the case was adequately handled. The investigators worked hard to put that case together. Sometimes a case, even if it’s difficult, needs to be tried and needs to have its day in court.

In 2005, there was a plea deal in a murder case you handled – Pedro Marcelino – which resulted in a conviction for voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 40 years. The job of a prosecutor is to follow the law and evidence, even when it results in having to make an unpopular decision. What is your response to that?

That’s like comparing lightning to a lightning bug.

Mr. Villanueva, in his pre-caucus interview, named you as his top influencer. You were his mentor, a role model. “I’ve always looked up to him and how he conducted himself and handled difficult situations. I go to him with legal questions,” he said. “He’s a great mind, a good person, and someone who is not afraid to say to me, ‘Hey Joe V., what are you thinking on this?’” What happened?

Surprisingly, we had almost no conversations about how to improve the office or how to solve a problem. I wondered why. I was always willing.

Who are your top influencers?

I’m old-school. When I first became prosecutor in 1990, I had been working for Marion County Prosecutor Stephen Goldsmith. I remember one time there was a debate going on among the high-level people about how to solve a specific problem, and my boss said, “what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers?” Someone in the meeting pointed out which was the better option for the public, and he said that’s what we’re going to do. I was so impressed with that that I resolved that would always be my question: What is in the best interest of the public I serve? That’s going to be the answer to what we do. It’s governed my decision-making throughout my entire public career. As a trial lawyer, I always watched people who I thought were top in their field and tried to emulate or adapt their techniques and tools. And my parents for simply teaching me the principles of right and wrong.

What is your plan if you lose the prosecutor race?

Before I became a prosecutor, I practiced law in a private law firm. This is how I learned how to properly operate a law office — where promotions and responsibility are based on merit and work ethic, not on a good ol’ boy system. If I were to be unsuccessful in the primary, I would return to private practice. I would also continue training lawyers and law enforcement officers as I have done for the past several decades.