One month in, the new Johnson County Prosecutor says he’s set the ball rolling to live up to his campaign promise of making the office stronger.
Prosecutor Lance Hamner was elected for a second stint as prosecutor last year, ousting incumbent Joe Villanueva in the Republican primary. Running on a campaign saying the prosecutor’s office lost an “unacceptably high” number of cases at trial. Hamner won with 58% of the vote.
The Daily Journal sat down with Hamner last week for an interview about his plans for the office and what changes he’s already made.
Calls for service
Hamner’s family has been in Johnson County since 1822 — before it even was a county. A Johnson County native, Hamner moved around for a while as a kid and young adult before returning to Indiana, he said.
Back home, he applied to work at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, but was not chosen. So, he left again to become a police officer in Utah. He eventually returned to Indiana for a final time to go to law school. When he graduated, he worked for an Indianapolis law firm.
“I was thinking, ‘I like this. This is good. It’s interesting,’” Hamner said.
Then he had a conversation with his old law school classmate Sheila Carlisle that changed everything. Carlisle had told him she was trying her third murder case in Marion County, and Hamner was immediately jealous, he said.
“I thought, ‘She’s living my dream,’” Hamner said. “That’s my dream and she’s living it.”
So he quit his private practice job and joined the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office to get trial experience. He eventually decided to return to Johnson County to run for prosecutor in 1990, Hamner said.
Hamner won that election and his subsequent reelection bids, serving as the county’s top prosecutor for 18 years from 1990-2008. He decided to run for Superior Court 3 judge in 2008, serving for 13 years until early 2022.
By early 2022 though, Hamner had been mulling another run for prosecutor. However, he was initially hesitant because he didn’t want to have a contested campaign.
But as a judge, he saw concerning things that he believed showed the prosecutor’s office was not handling cases as well as they should have been, especially in front of his bench, he said.
“I thought they’d lost their way,” Hamner said.
He had also been asked by several people to run again, he said.
Changes begin to materialize
Since Hamner took office at the start of January, he has already restructured the office and its 15 deputy prosecutor positions — including chief deputy prosecutor. He merged the office’s domestic and sex crimes divisions into a single division, and moved another prosecutor from regular felonies to the new division, he said.
“We merged domestic and sex crimes because there are so many things that are just related,” he said.
The office will also focus heavily on training and mentoring, Hamner said. Along with hosting training sessions at the prosecutor’s office, Hamner plans to occasionally send prosecutors for advanced training in other states, he said.
The goal of mentoring prosecutors is to help younger lawyers become great trial lawyers, Hamner said. In the ads for the position, Hamner encouraged people to apply by saying the prosecutor’s office would be a great place for those who aspire to be great trial lawyers.
“That’s what we intend to do, make our people into the best of the best,” Hamner said.
On the public’s side, the prosecutor’s office is planning on redoing their website and launching a new Facebook page, Hamner said. The previous page stopped posting at the end of December.
‘Want to see results’
Between Hamner being selected by voters on May 3 until shortly before he took office at the start of January, he has been recruiting some of the best trial lawyers in the state for the office’s 15 deputy prosecutor positions — including chief deputy. He plans to run the prosecutor’s office like a law firm where employees would be promoted based on merit, he said.
His criteria for prospective employees were lawyers who had a good work ethic, lots of trial experience, good speaking abilities and good legal acumen.
“I want to see results. If somebody says, ‘I’ve done 30 trials’ or ‘I’ve won three,’ I’m not interested,” Hamner said. “Anybody can lose. I want people who win trials, and so I picked people who have a lot of trial experience and a track record of winning their trials.”
Among Hamner’s hires is his old classmate Sheila Carlisle, a former Marion County judge. Carlisle, who was Hamner’s chief deputy prosecutor at the prosecutor’s office in the 1990s, is now the office’s chief trial deputy, taking part in major trials and training attorneys in trial matters.
As a prosecutor, she has tried numerous murder and high-profile cases, including a case in 1991. This was the first murder conviction under Hamner’s administration in the 90s, he said.
Another deputy prosecutor Hamner hired was Brandon Robinson, who is notable for his work on a serial rapist cold case in Shelby County. The suspect in the case, Stephen Hessler, was sentenced to 650 years in 2021 for the string of home invasions-turned-sexual assaults that occurred in the 1980s.
Hamner also hired former county prosecutor Stephanie Caraway, defense attorneys Carrie Miles and Ranissa Dycus and former Marion County deputy prosecutors Bryan Smith and Matt Kubacki, along with Center Grove-area attorney Brittany Carroll.
Hamner did offer the former administration’s staff the option to apply for employment under him, but very few did so, he said.
As prosecutor, Hamner plans to release more stories to the public about the importance of what the county’s criminal justice system does and why they are doing it. This includes stories about how the different parts of the system — including the prosecutor’s office and local law enforcement — are working together to keep people safe, he said.
It will also include their efforts to keep crime from Marion County entering Johnson County.
“We want to keep crime from leaching from Marion County to Johnson County,” he said.
He also has a message for all of the citizens of Johnson County, whether they elected him or not, about what he plans to do as a prosecutor.
“I want this prosecutor’s office to be the best prosecutor’s office, bar none. Again,” Hamner said.
Some of these goals could be challenged by a lack of funds as this year’s budget was slashed by Villaneuva last year. To get certain line items that are underfunded back up to a normal operating level he will come before the county council next month.