MORRISON – Newly elected Whiteside County State’s Attorney Trish Joyce doesn’t want to be just a titleholder.
The longtime Sterling attorney said Wednesday that being the county’s top prosecutor is a job in which she expects to wear many hats.
“I’m willing to do every type of job that there is available in this office,” Joyce said. “It’s everything from answering the phone if no one is available, to vacuuming, which I did last night, to handling very intensive, time-consuming cases.”
Joyce, 52, took her oath as the new state’s attorney on Friday, 3 weeks after defeating Republican and former Assistant State’s Attorney Pat Liston in the Nov. 6 general election.
She replaces longtime State’s Attorney Gary Spencer, who retired Friday after more than 30 years in office.
Joyce, who ran a private practice for 15 years in Sterling, decided last year to run for office and stopped taking criminal cases to avoid any conflicts if she won.
The week after the election, Joyce quickly tried to wrap up her civil and family cases, referring 50 or so to other attorneys.
Letting go of her practice was difficult, she said.
“It’s still kind of an emotional adjustment, because not only do you become invested in your clients’ cases, but this was a business that I built up from nothing into a very thriving practice, and so it’s difficult to let that go.”
But she’s ready to return to her first love – criminal law, she said.
Spencer kept her up to date on case developments, even before she was elected. He hired her on as an assistant state’s attorney on Nov. 16 and helped her get better acquainted with cases and other issues in the office.
Spencer also introduced her and newly elected Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller to other state’s attorneys and to personnel at the state’s appellate prosecutor office, Joyce said.
His help was “absolutely phenomenal” and made for a smooth transition, she said.
“I told Gary that probably the biggest mistake that he ever made in his career was giving me his cellphone number, because I anticipate using it quite often,” Joyce said with a smile.
Joyce has hit the ground running. She is keeping ASA’s Terry Costello, James Fagerman, Carol Linkowski, and Brian Brim, and she has hired two new attorneys: Jennifer Kelly, a local lawyer who will help out with specialty courts, and Tom Senneff, a longtime attorney who will handle misdemeanors and traffic cases and team with Joyce on civil matters.
She did not invite Liston to stay on.
Joyce said she favors a team approach to cases and expects her assistants to jump in on any cases or court hearings when needed.
She also intends to practice what she preaches. While she won’t count out help from her assistants, she intends to lead the more serious cases.
“The buck stops with me,” she said.
Under Spencer, the assistants took turns being the on-call attorney during the week and weekends.
Joyce put herself into that rotation, too.
“I think as state’s attorney, not only should you be willing to be a team player, but you can’t ask your assistants to do anything that you would not do,” Joyce said.
One of the biggest challenges ahead is the constantly mounting caseload, she said.
Joyce said there is a “hit list” of aging cases that the attorneys will evaluate to see whether a plea agreement can be made or whether the case will go to trial.
“If the defense is the cause of the delay, we need to stand firm and indicate to the court that we’re ready, and hopefully the court will put their feet to the fire and set these matters for trial,” she said.
One of her goals is to establish programs such as a county drug court and mental health court. The first step will be making sure the necessary players – judges, probation and police officers, treatment agencies and the like – are on board.
Once the players commit, they must get training and apply for grants. That could take at least a year to accomplish, but it is something she’s committed to. She also has received offers from Lee and Ogle counties to observe their programs.
Eventually, she also would like to see courts for veterans and more programs for juvenile offenders, she said.
Another priority: Prosecuting Nicholas T. Sheley for the other four Whiteside County killings.
Sheley, 33, is convicted of murdering Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg, and Russell Reed, 93, of rural Sterling. He is serving life in prison for Randall’s death and will be sentenced Jan. 16 in Reed’s death.
Spencer will be involved in the sentencing, she said.
He will be tried for a quadruple homicide in Rock Falls “as soon as humanly possible,” Joyce said.
During the transition period, Joyce and Spencer spent a day going over evidence in the case; he will help Joyce get up to speed but will not be involved in the actual trial, she said. She also has spoken to Sheley’s attorney, Jeremy Karlin.
The community needs this to be resolved, she said.
“I worry more for the victims’ families, because this is just a horrendous process and horrific result in their lives. I don’t necessarily know that this will bring them any peace or healing, but I think it will with this community, because I think that everyone is sick of Nick Sheley.
“Everyone wants this case to be concluded.”