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Inside The War Rooms: How McLean County’s Prosecutors Tackled An Unprecedented Number Of Murder Trials

Don Knapp in the office
Edith Brady-Lunny
/
WGLT
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp keeps an updated list of hearings for pending murder trials.

From three so-called “war rooms” in the McLean County state’s attorney’s office, teams of prosecutors were removed from their regular caseloads over the past 14 months to work on an unprecedented number of murder trials, most of the effort taking place during a global pandemic that shut down much of the court system.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, pressure and stress anytime we’re doing cases like this, but adding the backdrop of the pandemic really intensified that,” said Mary Koll, who worked on three of the 11 murder trials held since 2019.

In 2020, the office handled five murder trials, and so far in this year, three defendants have been convicted of murder. Three more murder cases are pending.

Mary Koll speaks
Ryan Denham
Prosecutor Mary Koll speaks at a press conference in 2019.

Like other judicial circuits in the U.S., much of the in-person legal work in McLean County was reduced to a handful of hearings in felony cases starting in March 2020, as COVID-19 rules were put in place. Remote hearings became the norm for a majority of cases.

To help staff avoid the burnout that often plagues employees forced to juggle added workloads, State’s Attorney Don Knapp set up the concept of “war rooms,” said Koll, that allowed teams to be secluded from their regular responsibilities and focus on a specific murder case. When Koll was assigned to the double murder trial of Hammet Brown last year, other lawyers took over her domestic violence caseload.

“Knowing that we have each other’s backs and then we can all help lighten each other’s load when it’s our turn to be up on a major case, really helps us focus and helps with the burnout issue,” said Koll.

In mid-2020, court officials resumed trials as three murder cases were set on the June trial docket. With masks and social distancing for lawyers, judges and jurors, trials took place in courtroom 5A, the most spacious of the county’s 13 courtrooms, and the jury assembly room on the 5th floor of the Law and Justice Center.

In three separate trials completed between June 11-19, 2020, Leila Jackson, Christopher Harrison and Scotty Allen were convicted of murder in three unrelated incidents.

McLean County’s unusually high homicide rate in 2018 left the county with 10 new murder cases, in addition to several pending from previous years.

The record number of murder trials put the state’s resources to the test, said State’s Attorney Don Knapp.

“This office is budgeted to do one murder trial a year. We used every possible resource–from IT staff, to the sheriff’s department for access in and out of the buildings for trial prep to our support staff,” said Knapp.

With 26 attorneys, the state’s attorney’s office is the second largest law firm in McLean County, behind the legal department at State Farm Insurance Cos. Staff retention isn’t always easy, said Knapp, as attorneys move on to private firms where the salaries top the $52,200 starting wage for his office.

So far this year, the county has added three homicide cases to the court docket. Koll credits the cooperative effort of the state’s attorney’s office and local police agencies to aggressively track gun-related crime as a major factor in the lower numbers.

“It waxes and wanes,” Koll said of gun violence, “but a lot of the prolific shooters from this community are locked up right now.”

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