MARION — In her capacity as a prosecutor for the Williamson County State’s Attorney’s Office, Lisa Irvin is exposed to some of the most destructive elements of society — those that violently take from those around them.
“That’s a whole part of child abuse or sexual assault, the power is taken away from the victim,” Irvin said. "That’s what a perp does. But what I do is make sure that the victims have a voice. And by giving them a say in what happens I give them back some power.”
Irvin said she started out in life wanting to be either a forensic pathologist, or a lawyer.
“I wanted to solve crimes,” she said. “But my mom said she didn’t want me to be a police officer, so I went to law school.”
After graduating from Southern Illinois University with a degree in English, she attended Saint Louis University for her Juris Doctor.
“I came out of law school wanting to be a prosecutor, and wanting to work for the State” she said.
Thursday marked the completion of Irvin’s 30th year of service to Williamson County, but at the beginning, she said, she learned from the best.
“Chuck Garnati was the best mentor in the world," she said. "I learned so much from him. He allowed me to learn, to go to conferences, to go to seminars, to be part of different groups and organizations, so that I could be on the cutting edge of our field.”
Irvin said the current Williamson County State’s Attorney, Brandon Zanotti, has continued that tradition.
“I am trained in child death investigations, part of a task force, and do two trainings a year” Irvin said. “So if there is a child death anywhere in the state I can get called in. I am also part of a DCFS child death review team which reviews deaths of children. I attend as many trainings as I can to keep up on the law because they keep changing it.”
She said Zanotti has given her a lot of responsibilities and has let her continue to run her docket the way she sees fit. ”He’s doing a great job and has not let politics get in the way of serving the people.” Irvin said.
According to Irvin, 30 years ago there were not many women prosecutors, especially ones that prosecuted sexual assault and murder cases.
“I was the only woman up here for the longest time,” she said. “Our chief criminal judge at the time wasn’t used to a female prosecutor being in the courtroom. It took him awhile to get used to me, because I would just tell it like it was.”
Her 30-year career has included some landmark cases, including the very first conviction for the criminal transmission of the AIDS virus in the state of Illinois.
A typical week for Irvin begins Monday when she prosecutes criminal cases, specifically sexual assaults on children, sexual assaults on adults, violations of law which encompasses non-registration by convicted sexual offenders, and murder cases. On Tuesday she works with juvenile delinquencies. Thursdays she prosecutes abuse and neglect cases. “That’s the day I make kids cry,” she says, as sometimes they are removed from their parents as a result of that abuse or neglect.
Wednesdays and Fridays are the days Irvin tries to catch up on the reports which are stacked in rows on the sides of her desk. But her non-court schedule really is determined by the needs of the victims she helps, she said.
When I get a case in,” Irvin said, “usually the case has been through an advocacy center where the victim has been interviewed. After a police officer brings over the reports, I review the file and watch the video. Before I file a case, I call the victim in with their non-offending parents or grandparents, or whoever has custody, and I talk to them.
Irvin said that if they decide to go to trial, she will bring the victim to visit the courtroom where they are allowed to sit in the chair where they will testify. “I try to develop a rapport with the victim and get them used to the situation and some of the questions they will face while in the courtroom. We go over the difference between what is a truth and what is a lie. I try to get them comfortable enough with the situation and with me that they feel safe enough to testify.”
Irvin will also meet outside the courthouse if that is better for the victims. “I might go to their house, we might go to McDonald's, or they might come up here on a weekend. I do my best to tailor my schedule to the needs of the victims.” Irvin said.
Irvin explained that the process of bringing perpetrators to justice and restoring power to the victims is a multi-layered process.
“Many people question the sentences they see, especially in child sexual abuse cases. People will say how come that person only got that much time?” But what the public needs to realize, Irvin said, is that when deals are made between the prosecution and the defense, that parents and the children are always consulted.
“When I meet with them, I always ask ‘what do you want me to do? What do you want to have happen? What is your primary goal?’”
Many times, Irvin said, the parents or guardians are shocked that if the case goes to trial, the victim will have to testify, regardless of their age, and that in most cases, that parent or guardian will not be allowed in the courtroom.
“Parents will say ‘I don’t want my child to testify.’ And I say ‘well, that’s not going to happen.’” Irvin continued. “So when the victim is very young, we come up with something that the parents can live with. When the victim is older, maybe 11 years of age and up, I consult more closely with the victim. They are the ones I need to make sure feel vindicated.”
After the victim states their needs, Irvin works to find the best possible solution to those needs.
“I don’t draw the deals we cut out of nothing,” she said. “I tell the parent or the victim, what I think the potential sentence is, and ask them to tell me what they can live with. I let them know what I think we can get out of the defense if they choose to go to trial. If they are willing to come forward and testify, that determines one course of action. If they are not, then I work out something and make an offer based on that situation.”
Irvin says that many times older victims just want the feeling of embarrassment to be lifted. Often, when a deal is cut without going to trial, it is so the victim can hear confession from the perpetrator.
“If we have to go to trial, we go to trial.” Irvin said. “And if you look at my history you will see that I am not afraid to go to trial — I actually thrive when I go to trial — but sometimes the victim just needs to hear that admission of guilt.”
But when she does go to trial, Irvin says she does the best she can to prepare the victim for the experience.
Irvin related that in working with older victims she tells them are going to have to go into detail and explain what actually happened. They will be talked to in front of a defendant, and in front of a jury. They will be cross examined by the defense attorney.
“I try to tell them the angle of what I think the defense attorney is going to go after so they have some idea of what is going to come at them,” Irvin said.
“One of the things the defense has up its sleeve is time.” Irvin continued. “The longer the trial goes on, the harder it is for the victims. They don’t want to remember the pain and the embarrassment. One of the defense attorney’s biggest weapons is drawing it out. There was an attorney around here whose motto was ‘you never go to trial, and you never go to jail’ and they tried to drag out the cases and out-wait the victims until they were willing to acquiesce to what they want.”
Irvin said she does her best to stop that, because that is extending harassment of the victim.
“But I work with what I’ve got” Irvin said. “Ultimately, the victim is the most important person, and I try not to hurt them any more than I have to."
In the face of the parade of horror stories Irvin is exposed to on a daily basis she tries to greet each day and the next victim with a good spirit.
“Nobody will volunteer to do my docket, I’ll tell you that. But I work hard and I rely on my faith. I know that if I do the best I can, and put forth the best effort, the rest is in God’s hands,” she said. “If I do my best, and I do nothing to hurt the victim, and that’s the objective, then I have done my job.”
Irvin also said that she lets all of her emotions come out in closing arguments.
Brandon Zanotti, the Williamson County State’s Attorney general said he has seen her try cases and has tried cases alongside her.
“She has an incredibly analytic and quick mind, which allows her to think through difficult arguments rapidly, effectively, and many times with great ingenuity.” Zanotti said. “She has an almost preternatural ability to see through all facets of both our argument and the defense argument, which makes for an outstanding trial attorney.’
Zanotti says Irvin is also able to keep her cool during the tense moments which occur often during a trial. And in closing argument, he said “she is able to deliver emotional powerhouse arguments for our victims, which she does well as she feels and understands the agony these children are going through. Getting justice for these children is Lisa's primary goal from start to finish in a case. All in all, you're not going to find a better prosecutor who cares more about abused children than Lisa Irvin.”
Betty Caraway, the Assistant Juvenile Advocate and Witness Coordinator, who has worked as Irvin’s right-hand-woman for years, echoed Zanotti’s sentiments.
“Lisa is very professional and very thorough, and she has a huge heart," Caraway said. "She is incredibly caring toward the victims and their families. And she doesn’t give herself enough credit. I have seen her get angry and I have seen her cry because the law only allows her to do so much for the victims and their families. But she follows it through to the end.”