Prosecutor Tom Smith (left) makes a point at Candidates Night on Feb. 6, while candidate Andy Wick listens.

Courtesy | LeAnne Gompf

During the 21-minute question/answer session devoted to the prosecutor’s race at the Morrow County Candidates Night held Feb. 6, there were several differences which stood out in the answers of incumbent Tom Smith and candidate Andy Wick.

In a written question, the Candidates Night Committee asked each man why they were running for the Republican nomination in the upcoming March primary.

Wick said he is “running because he was asked to run by citizens who weren’t able to get answers from the prosecutor due to his frequent absence and lack of response to messages. Members of law enforcement who are frustrated by a lack of prosecutions with no communication as to why, also asked me to run as well as victims of crime and loved ones who feel victimized by the current office due to lack of compassion, information, and the appearance of not caring.”

Smith said he is “running again because I love serving the people and county in which I was raised. I like working with the wonderful men and women in law enforcement to keep the county safe. I enjoy tackling complex or obscure legal issues brought to me by county officials and drafting opinions to guide them in the execution of their duties.”

Smith added, “It is priority to stay up-to-date with changes in the law and to promptly reply to requests for an opinion from both law enforcement and local officials.” Another priority for Smith is to make sure child molesters and child pornographers are punished, and victims are treated with kindness and respect.

A notable difference between the candidates was a contrast in the willingness to take criminal cases to trial,l and the importance they place on answering legal questions for officials.

The first question from moderator Pat Drouhard was how “the County Prosecutor’s Office has a dual responsibility of prosecuting criminal cases and providing civil legal counsel to county and township officials. Please discuss the differences between those two responsibilities, noting an acceptable balance provided to each given the limited resources of the office.”

Wick said he would be assigning some of the “day-to-day operations” and some questions from officials to an assistant prosecutor, although he would also be available to officials in the office, and he would keep in communication with the assistant. On criminal cases, Wick said he would be directly involved in trying cases. He has had experience in trying murder cases and said that in contrast, Smith had his assistant sign the offer letter on the plea deal in the Brian Lee murder case.

Smith said he is “involved in all cases.” His assistant, he said, was involved more with the victims in the Brian Lee murder case, so his assistant signed the plea offer letter for that case. Smith said the prosecutor can’t prosecute every case. He is on call with his cell phone and available for assistants to contact him 24/7. He added that he meets weekly with commissioners and is available to township trustees because “most officials don’t want to hear only from an assistant.”

“I am involved in criminal cases from beginning to end, including reviewing cases for grand jury, presenting them to grand jury, and making plea negotiations,” Smith said.

Smith emphasized he is available by his cell phone to county officials and assistant prosecutors, whether he is at home or in the office.

A second question from moderator Mike Patterson to both candidates was how they would address the problems at Hidden Lakes Campground.

Smith said the “team approach” was used involving the sheriff, the county health department, and his office. A first step was in working with the health department to have Hidden Lakes’ license revoked. They will now be prosecuting individual property owners rather than the campground in enforcing health rules and violations.

In addition, Smith pledged to work with the sheriff and law enforcement to get those dealing drugs and committing other criminal acts in jail and behind bars. He said they have already begun to get some of them off the streets and plan to continue to do so.

Wick agreed the team approach is something he would use in handling problems at Hidden Lakes. He said he has spoken with County Treasurer Jim Jahn and liked his idea of having a temporary assistant prosecutor assigned with working with the treasurer on property foreclosures.

Because there are young people there in Hidden Lakes who are classified as homeless in schools, Wick believes child protective services should be involved so those classified as homeless would have some place to go. He doesn’t want to cause homeless dispersal out into the county which could invite further crime in the county.

A question to Wick was if facts show the prosecutor’s office had only a 23.1% conviction rate, does that mean 76.9% of accused felons went free?

Wick answered, “Yes, the record shows 76.9% of felony cases or counts tried by a jury were dismissed or withdrawn after trial by the prosecutor’s office. That’s coming directly from the (Morrow County) Clerk of Court’s website. … They went free or were sometimes convicted on other matters.”

Drouhard’s question for Wick to put the statistics in perspective was what the conviction rate was in Richland County and Licking County where Wick has worked as assistant prosecutor. When Wick worked in Richland County, he said the conviction rate was 100% last year. For a comparable murder case to the Brian Lee case where Lee got 23 years, Wick cited the trial he helped prosecute where the defendant had 17 counts against him for aggravated murder, and he was convicted on all 17 counts. He will be serving a life sentence without parole. He said he was not aware of the conviction rate in Licking County, but he would find out and post it on his website.

Drouhard’s last question was about Wick’s suggestion that Smith’s office has allowed too many “soft deals” and asked what he meant by “soft deals.”

Wick answered that by a “soft deal,” he meant Smith allowed Brian Lee, who had murdered two, attempted to kill a third and shot at a fourth, to have a deal of the minimum sentence of 23 years. Wick pointed to former Prosecutor Howland’s policy of “no free murders” where murder cases’ sentences ranged from 30 to 40 years.

“What I am saying is there are cases which should have not been dismissed, such as a child kidnapping/rape case,” said Wick, who believes this case should be priority one.

Smith responded that Wick was not privy to the underlying facts of cases. He said sometimes a victim would be more damaged if they went to trial with a case and put a victim on the witness stand. Sometimes the evidence just isn’t there to try a case. Each case must be weighed according to the facts and evidence in the case.

“We have to strike a balance between what is the maximum sentence and what is reasonable in these circumstances,” said Smith, who added Wick is not aware of the circumstances of the negotiations in the Brian Lee case.

Voters in the March 19 primary election for the Republican nomination for prosecutor will decide who ultimately wins the race since there are no Democrats or Independents running for the position.

Alberta Stojkovic is a correspondent for The Morrow County Sentinel.