Interview by Jennifer
Photographs by John Bragg
IMM: What TV crime show
do you think
is the most realistic?
SN: Law & Order is
realistic. Except if I were the D.A. in an office that had that many
unusual horrific cases, you'd have to commit me to some kind of
The unrealistic thing is that all of those unique cases don't happen in
one jurisdiction, thank God. The other unrealistic thing is the
of the D.A. Here [in Indy] we have a prosecutor, I like to think, who's
a little more fierce and fearsome than the D.A.s on that show who are
looking for a way out of a tough situation - always looking to plea
everything, or avoid political or public obloquy. That depiction of a
as a cowardly politician is a little discouraging.
IMM: After the 9/11 attacks, many Americans spent time
on their heroes. Growing up, who were the people you looked up to?
SN: Growing up, my hero was my mother, who raised my
and me on her own, held a job and was completely devoted to us. She was
a true hero. Andy Griffith was also a hero to me. Andy Griffith helped
raise me. I learned a lot of what I learned about being a man from him.
I'm still totally in love with that show. One of the most exciting
of my life was when I went out to dinner with my family and there in
the lobby of the hotel was Don Knotts. I marched
up to him, introduced myself and told him he was the funniest
guy in the world. He stood up and shook my hand and seemed to be
moved that a kid my age worshiped his comedy.
IMM: What is it about Knotts that makes him funny to
SN: Maybe it's the aspects of him I see in myself and
people that I work with. There's something funny about the assertion of
authority that doesn't quite get it. It isn't quite as strong as it
to appear to be. It's funny to me because I'm an authority figure. I'm
probably one of the principal authority figures in this community. At
you hear yourself, and you think you're giving the Barney Fife lecture
about the rock. "Here at the rock we have three rules. The first rule
to obey all rules."
IMM: You mentioned your mother...
SN: I grew up with a single mother. My parents divorced
I was 3 years old. I had a plain-Jane suburban childhood in the Chicago
area. I got interested very early in short-wave radios. I thought it
exciting to hear news or music from anywhere else other than where I
IMM: What countries did you listen to?
SN: I became interested in Latin American radio stations.
There were hundreds of little broadcast stations in the jungles of
America, broadcasting music. I took an interest in learning Spanish. I
eventually traveled to Latin America as an exchange student. I lived
in Chile for a few months.
IMM: In high school?
SN: Yes, it was 1977. I was 16. Chile was still in a
emergency following a coup d'etat there. There was a curfew
all people. But it was a great experience. I worked on a farm. I
a Catholic school and cemented my knowledge of Spanish. In subsequent
that has proven useful.
When I moved to Indianapolis in 1986 there was
a tiny Hispanic population. You had to get out a magnifying glass to
them. Nothing like the influx we've seen in the last five years. There
have to be 60,000 to 70,000 despite what the U.S. census says, which is
33,000. That's way off.
IMM: How has law enforcement adapted to this change?
SN: Like everybody else in the system, we were completely
and we're still completely overwhelmed by the needs and our inability
communicate. There are a lot of people who say, "Why don't they learn
language like everybody else?"
IMM: And your reaction?
SN: The fact is, they do want to learn our language and
are learning our language, but in the meantime there are people being
people being robbed, women who are victims of domestic violence,
who don't speak English who are witnesses to serious crimes. We need to
service those people. That means we need people who can speak Spanish.
We need materials printed in Spanish. We're just way behind in doing
IMM: You performed in the Indiana Repertory Theater's
show the last few years. Are you a closet actor?
SN: Every year, the IRT does a show to raise money where
celebrities like myself take roles and perform on stage. Like many
lawyers, I'm a bit of a ham. Getting up in front of a camera, getting
up in a courtroom full of jurors and the public. There is definitely a
public persona to it, but privately I'm pretty quiet.
IMM: Does the Indianapolis media provide an accurate
of local crime?
SN: They do a decent job of scratching the surface. But
hard for them to convey a deeper sense of what the problems are. The
media do a better job, just by their very nature delving more in-depth.
TV stations try to be a little more than "if it bleeds, it leads."
13 recently did a forum on criminal justice problems. So I think
making a good effort. But it's hard when you watch the nightly news to
really understand what we deal with on a daily basis.
IMM: How could they do better?
SN: I'm not sure they can, given what the public wants.
public wants stories about horrible and shocking things. And I'm the
way. But, for example, we have a whole section of the office called
IMM: Which does what?
SN: These prosecutors are assigned to neighborhoods
of courtrooms. They work with neighborhoods and police to tailor
crime reduction solutions to each area. That's a whole new paradigm of
what a prosecutor can do. We've gotten national attention inside the
justice industry for the work we're doing in this area. But we've
almost no local media coverage because the media doesn't know how to
something like that.
Instead of just dealing with murder and robberies, these
are dealing with a lot of the low-level nuisance crimes that just
the quality of life in a neighborhood. That can be prostitution,
thievery or car smash-and-grab and petty drug dealers. How do you cover
that? There's no TV show called Law & Order: Community
because it doesn't make very entertaining TV.
On the Eastside a local pastor and the community prosecutor
me on a prostitution issue. Together we created a new program called
Red Zone, which targets people who patronize prostitutes. When they're
caught, as part of their sentence, they come to a face-to- face meeting
with the community. It takes the anonymity out of the prostitution
they pick up trash for the next six hours. They take a syphilis test
fill out a questionnaire for the health department. For many of them
an experience they don't want to repeat.
IMM: How do these prosecutors get connected with the
SN: The first thing we did was put them out in the
instead of giving them an office in the City County Building or the
We're out in the community going to meetings, introducing ourselves to
neighbors, going to events and hearing what the community has to say.
what the community is saying often is not "Help us with our murder
Or "Help us with our rapes." It's "My kids are coming home from the bus
stop and they’re walking past prostitutes.
IMM: What are the results?
SN: Out of about 100 people who have been through the
maybe one or two have been re-arrested for patronizing a prostitute in
the last two years.
IMM: What brought you to Indy?
SN: I decided I wanted to go
to a city where I didn't know anybody, to see if I could make it on my
own. I'd heard a lot of bad things about the justice system in Chicago,
the whole thing seemed like a cesspool. I interviewed in Milwaukee,
and Indianapolis. I was in Indianapolis dropping off a resume when I
Steve Goldsmith. He struck me as a sharp guy and not a political hack,
a person of substance and smarts. And Indianapolis struck me as a
town in terms of being welcoming to outsiders, where if you worked hard
and distinguished yourself, you could do well.
IMM: Why run for county prosecutor?
SN: I'd been a deputy prosecutor for a few years. Then I'd
a federal prosecutor for almost six years. I wanted to get back in the
local court system in a way I could make a difference. The only way to
do that was to run for prosecutor myself. I didn't think the prosecutor
who was the incumbent Jeffrey Modisett was doing a very good job.
I didn't know what I was getting into. I had no concept of what it was
like to run against an incumbent who had a million dollars in the
bank account. It was a horrible experience. Fortunately, I was blithely
ignorant. I kept myself upbeat by not reading the newspaper or watching
TV or listening to the radio during most of the campaign. My opponent
ripping my lungs out in TV commercials. But I was bopping along in a
mood because I never watched any of it.
IMM: This was in 1994?
SN: Yes. And I was lucky in a couple of ways. First, it
a terrific year for Republicans, probably the best year in my lifetime.
Some people think if a trained monkey ran that year as a Republican, he
would have been elected. And some people think that's what happened in
my case. Second, you had a moderately unpopular incumbent in the
office who made the mistake of being called out by me in that campaign.
I attacked him early and often to try to show people there was a
in the prosecutor's office.
IMM: How did he react?
SN: He made the huge mistake of coming after me instead
me. He made me a household word by attacking me and saying my name in
commercials. People sat up and took notice of that race. I had a
situation in '95 where a guy attacked me harshly. I learned from
what Modisett did in '94. I ignored my opponent and just told people
I had been doing for the last four years, and that was enough to have a
powerful victory. The third thing that came together in '94 was crime
really cresting. The crack cocaine epidemic was upsetting people, and
so. Everyone was paying close attention to the prosecutor’s race. My
had not defined himself strongly during his four years in office. ... I
was able to edge out a victory.
IMM: You've opposed plea bargaining during your term in
why is that?
SN: There are plea bargains and plea agreements. We have
have plea agreements for the simple reason that we prosecute 40,000
cases every year. And we have roughly 15 criminal courts. Those courts
can't handle 40,000 trials. If everyone demanded a trial on their case
the system in Marion County would collapse. So there's a place for plea
agreement. We've developed a principled, strong approach to it, which
almost every case is to demand a plea to the lead or most serious
That's one of the first things I did when I took office. So we're not
dumbing down our cases just to move them through the pipes.
IMM: What was the result?
SN: Everybody said the system would run off the rails. The
National Law Journal called me the kamikaze prosecutor. But none of
that happened. And I think we restored strength and integrity to the
justice system, which has given people some faith.
IMM: When you talk about dumbing down a sentence, what
SN: In the business it's called charge bargaining, or you
drop a lead or more serious charge for a plea to a lesser charge just
keep the cases moving through the criminal justice system. The problem
is, if you keep doing that, the batterer looks like a mischief maker,
the murderer looks like someone who was merely reckless. You create
a self-sustaining system of dumbing down punishment and manufacturing
persistent criminals, who think they can get away with anything. The
time that person gets arrested and the judge looks at their record and
tries to figure out what kind of bond needs to be set or how they need
to be handled, it creates a false impression of the danger that person
represents. That situation continues to repeat itself until you get a
who really hurts or even kills somebody. Then a news reporter finds out
this person has killed or raped before and gotten by with it. That is a
system that's broken.
IMM: What cases or criminals stand out in your memory
SN: Probably the most depressing case I was involved in
the triple murder of the three children on Hamilton Street. There was a
2-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 14-year-old that were murdered by their
estranged stepfather and grandfather, a guy named Walter Dye. It was a
tough case. It was all circumstantial. No one saw Dye go in or out,
the three victims. To solve the case and prosecute it effectively meant
using just about every employee the crime lab had. We had blood,
DNA, we had hair and fiber, we had every imaginable physical evidence.
By the end, I felt I had crawled around every inch of that apartment
wallowed in physical evidence for months to get to the point where the
Supreme Court said the evidence was overwhelming.
It was a very ugly crime scene. The 2-year-old and
7-year-old were piled
into garbage bags and thrown in the alley. The unwrapping of those bags
had to be presented to the jury on video. It depressed me for many,
weeks, although we did put Walter Dye on death row.
The other one I just
can't shake were the Mathias murders. Fred Mathias was the pastor at
Presbyterian Church. It was approaching Christmas, and a couple of guys
came into their house and buried an ax in the back of Cleta Mathias'
while her husband watched. Then [they] buried the ax in his head. It
was the most
horrific case I have ever seen. I was terrified that case was not going
to be solved. And it wasn't solved for a year. I'm pleased the two
responsible went to prison, but I'll never forget that crime. It was
IMM: In those two cases, what sentences were handed
SN: Walter Dye was sentenced to death. Paul Brightman and
Rich got 65 years and 55 years if I remember correctly [Rich actually
IMM: Has Dye's death sentence been carried out?
SN: No, his death sentence was temporarily vacated by
Gifford. It was revealed on post-conviction petition or habeas
that one of the jurors had lied about her background. And Judge Gifford
set the death sentence aside. I think it was an incorrect ruling and
the death sentence to be restored. He'll be executed, oh, probably a
or two after my death [laughs]. With the system as it is today, most of
the people I put on death row will outlive me.
IMM: What factors do you consider when selecting
SN: You can win or lose a case in jury selection by the
you establish with them. I don't have any set formula. I don't use
I've always done well with juries when I've used my instincts about
I'm afraid if I use an expert or a consultant, they'll just mess with
instincts. I don't want anybody, frankly, too offbeat or too quirky. Or
anybody who seems like they won't listen. My side has to get all 12 of
them to agree. And it is very difficult today to get 12
Americans from every walk of life to agree to anything, let alone
a reasonable doubt. This is not a country that really values
It's a country that has elevated deviance to a large degree, as well as
disagreement. We don’t value civility.
IMM: It's hard enough getting two grownups to decide
go to dinner.
IMM: What is your take on the death penalty?
SN: I favor it. And I believe it's my duty to support
it. Primarily because the Constitution presumes it. And the people of
have endorsed that by adapting it as the law of the state. I don't have
the life-or-death decision, but I do have the decision whether to
somebody to that penalty by a jury or a judge. And so it's my job.
IMM: When is it called for?
SN: I believe that in the worst of the worst cases, it is
just punishment. Some of these cases are so off the charts that we need
to seek the ultimate punishment and show that we're not helpless in the
face of these most horrible crimes. I know reasonable minds differ
that. I don't really think of it as being a strong deterrent anymore
of the way it's carried out or not carried out in our system.
it's almost become a random event when someone actually gets executed.
I think that makes the deterrent argument a lot less powerful than it
IMM: It stands to reason your work would lead to death
How often do you get them?
SN: Probably not as often as people think. Most crooks
prosecutors to do what I do.They don't take it personally. They know
going to bang heads with them and put them in prison and keep them
They present as much, or even more, danger to their own attorneys. If
guys and women don't do a good job, then the defendant feels betrayed.
But I get a death threat three or four times a year. There's a guy in
now who sends me death threats regularly and signs his name and uses
own handwriting. I interpret him to be one of those people who wants to
stay in prison. He sends me these very generic threats. He threatens
He threatens my children, and I don't have any children. So he really
put his heart into the research.
IMM: How do death threats affect how you live your
SN: I take them seriously, but I don't let them
my life much. There are certain times when I have a gun a little closer
IMM: Have you had any challenges as prosecutor you
SN: I went in with my eyes open, so I haven't seen too
surprises. I've seen a lot of situations, more than I expected, that
no-win propositions. The most recent example is that of Michael
an elderly homeowner.
Somebody invades his house, wrestles with him, then
leaves the house. Clements pursues him and shoots him in the back. Now
to me, that didn't look like self defense. It wasn't even a close call
as a legal matter. But as a matter of public sympathy, people were very
angry with me for daring to charge this elderly home-owner who had his
home invaded. I was sympathetic to him, but I knew what the right legal
decision was. That was a no-win situation. If I did the right thing,
public would be mad. If I didn't do the right thing, then I'm departing
from my standard of ethics and integrity.
IMM: Could he have chased him to the edge of his
SN: The self-defense law says you have to have an
of bodily injury to yourself or another person, or an invasion of your
property that's going on at the time. But if they've left the house and
they're down the street, you can't shoot them in the back and walk away
and sit down in your easy chair and let them bleed to death, which is
Clements did. He didn't even call the cops.
IMM: Being a prosecutor is not a popularity contest
being a parent.
SN: It really isn't. I don't think a prosecutor should
to be loved. A prosecutor should strive to be respected.
IMM: Any personal challenges on the job?
SN: The personal challenge that wore me down somewhat was
I'm a politician whether I like it or not. That means many members of
public presume I don't care, that I'm a coward. That I do what I do for
the wrong reasons, or that I want power for its own sake.
IMM: What changes have you seen in your office with
SN: Bart is easy to work with. He's a genuinely nice and
man. That's on the good side. On the bad side, there's been a lot less
collaboration between the mayor's office and the prosecutor's office.
Goldsmith was a hard guy to work with because be was so demanding. And
even though I'd been elected prosecutor, I think he still thought I
for him, like I had in the mid ‘80s. So he was constantly summoning me
to the mayor's office and throwing challenges in my face to do a better
job. That was good for the community, and it made me a better
IMM: As far as drugs -- how are we doing with crack,
which was a
big problem in the mid-l990s?
SN: Indianapolis is still predominantly a crack cocaine
There's less of it than there was, but there's still way too much. When
I took office, close to 60 percent of all the inmates in the Marion
jail tested positive for cocaine. Today, the men are testing positive
about 32 percent, and the women at about 43 percent. That's still high,
but it's been almost cut in half among the male offenders. The greatest
single predictor I look at as a barometer of violence we're going to
have [in the city]
is the level of cocaine in the blood-stream of people coming into jail.
IMM: How is the drug scene changing?
SN: Methamphetamine is starting to make inroads here.
in Indiana heavily but [not so much] in Indianapolis. I think it’s too
much to expect that it won't land here pretty heavily in the future.
we're [testing] at about 2 or 3 percent positive in the jail on
IMM: Indianapolis has had some racial problems between
and the black community. Is that changing?
SN: The city still has racial problems. From where I sit,
less charged than they were in the mid-'80s. I think the best thing we
can do to bridge that has been community policing and community
I see the racial problem in my job all the time.
I prosecuted a murder case where a young African-American guy
a young white guy to death after leaving Washington High School,
at a Village Pantry across the street. Most of the witnesses were black
school kids. The battle I had to get support from their parents was
racially charged and difficult. I think the feeling was we were only
the case seriously because the victim was white. It was a painful
to deliver those eyewitnesses to the court. I had many people screaming
at me along the way. Moms and dads saying, "my kid is not going to get
involved, is not going to say what they saw." So it's still a battle we
fight in the courtroom.
IMM: What more do you think needs to happen to reduce
SN: People ought to have dinner at each other's houses.
easy to demonize people you don't really know. I'm not big on a big
or the press conferences with local pastors. I think what really counts
are the day-to-day relationships where people get to know each other.
IMM: If you could change or introduce one or two crime
Indiana, what would they be?
SN: It's bad timing for this, but I think our system
have the potential for pretrial detention like we do in the federal
Where if a person has proven by clear and convincing evidence to be
so that no set of pretrial conditions can guarantee community safety,
ought to be able to hold them pretrial until that case is resolved.
now, rapists, robbers, arsonists, bombers - no matter how dangerous
may be, we have to set a bond unless they're charged with murder.
a scary situation. Say I've got an armed robber who has a dangerous
history, and I have to tell the victim two things. One, we have
to let this guy out on bail. And two, I have to give the defense your
address because the system requires me to give that out in discovery.
IMM: And the other?
SN: Not my idea - a district judge in New Jersey thought
this. [The idea] is not to compel the defendant to testify, which you
do under the Constitution, but to compel the defendant to create a
of events submitted to the courts under seal in the early stages of the
case; so that if later the defendant decides to testify, the defendant
cannot tailor his story to what he now knows the evidence to be. The
abuse in the system is that I have to provide all my evidence to the
every scrap of physical evidence, every witness testimony before trial.
So the defense has seen exactly what I'm going to prove, and by the
they hit the witness stand, they can and frequently do tailor a story,
version of events, to fit the physical evidence. That's an abuse.
the Walter Dye case, he found out we had bloody fingerprints on a
table near the body. Well lo and behold, when he takes the stand, he
"I was there, I discovered the body, I checked the pulse, I got some
on my fingers and I touched the table, and that's how the bloody
got there." Well, that was a bunch of hooey. But he tailored his story
to our evidence.
IMM: I want to get to the local jail situation, but
nationally first. From 1970 to 2000, the U.S. population increased 37
while the prison population increased more than 900 percent. Why?
SN: Two reasons. One is more people are crooks today than
in the 1970s because of the same problem of failure of the family. The
second reason is the states have cracked down harder on punishing
That's been a trend nationally, to have longer fixed sentences
crimes. In some cases that has led to the wrong people being in prison
for too long a period of time. But I also have to say I believe it's
to a reduction in crime in this country. It's a blunt instrument, but
has worked to some degree in making this country a safer place to live.
The big problem is at the back end. We had 660,000 people come out of
prison last year in this country. And very little serious work is being
done to re-integrate those people into society. This is not about
prisoners. There's a moral duty in the system to work harder to
anyone it can. Because they're coming out, and they can do a lot of
They can take away all of the gains we've ever made in making this
IMM: What do you think we can do to help those people
to join the community again?
SN: There needs to be a greater emphasis on job
preparedness.Then when they get out, I think you need to keep the
to help them make the right choices.
IMM: Some people say our prison population nationally
large. We're imprisoning our citizens at a higher rate than any other
country. Can you respond to that?
SN: Well it's certainly not a point of pride. I think
point of national shame. But I defy anybody to go into the Indiana
and show me a large number of people who should be let out.
IMM: As far as overcrowding in Marion County jails,
can you provide
some perspective on the problem?
SN: What a lot of people don't realize is that the jail
percent people awaiting trial. The [county] jail is not primarily full
of people serving sentences. People serving sentences go out to state
If the court system gets flabby and it takes more days to get a case to
trial, then you have more people streaming in the front door than are
out the backdoor. Then you have jail crowding even where crime has gone
down. The point is, it's nor always intuitive what causes jail
IMM: Is some of the backlog caused by people
awaiting trial who can't afford bail?
SN: Part of it. Some of the delays are owing to under
of the public defender's office or the prosecutor's office.
IMM: So if we had more criminal justice staff, we could
cases faster and have less demand on the jail system?
SN: Right. Take the DNA lab. A guy is a serious rape
he's not able to make a high bail. He's sitting in jail waiting for
And the DNA lab has not finished processing the evidence. So the
wants a continuance, and the prosecutor says, "absolutely." So the case
gets continued for 45 to 60 days. That's 60 days worth of a jail bed
occupied because of the crime lab. It's a resource issue for the crime
lab, but it's a jail crowding issue as the system moves forward.
We also need good data as to who is in jail and why the
happening. Our computerized criminal justice data system is good at
the wheels of the system turning. But it's not good at giving us a
of the data we need to manage this problem. That's why creating a whole
new data system that can be mined for the management of the jail
is part of the long-term solution. And we're doing that now. Building
jail space is somewhat helpful but it certainly won't solve the
IMM: Maybe we need to rethink allocating resources
relieve the need to build more jail space.
SN: I've advocated the creation of a public safety
commission. Many cities have these. It's a commission of [people]
the system, [plus] criminal justice experts, some academics, some staff
support to analyze the data, and citizens to make resource choices. The
other answer is building an arrestee processing center, which would
us to triage cases the minute they walk in the door. So in a matter of
hours we'd know if this is a person that should occupy a jail cell or
be held on home detention with electronic monitoring. That's being
at least I hope it will, by the first quarter of next year.
IMM: What is the cost to jail a prisoner annually?
SN: About $25,000 a year in Marion County, [Indiana].
IMM: We've recently learned you've been diagnosed with
When did you begin suspecting there was a problem?
SN: I first suspected a problem three years ago when I
a murder case involving a drug dealer who shot a 6-year-old. When I was
making a point, I slammed my hand down on a table. My hand began
afterwards. And I thought, "Wow, I'm really getting into this." Then I
learned about a year ago I had Parkinson's.
IMM: Can anything be done?
SN: Right now, not a whole lot. There is no cure for
But there's a lot of research going on. And it's a disease that shows
of eventually finding a cure. So I'm hopeful I can benefit from that
I've also started a fitness program to get in the best shape I can be
IMM: How does it affect you right now?
SN: I have classic symptoms. Tremors and rigidity on one
of my body.
IMM: When January rolls around and you step down from
will you take some time off?
SN: I’m planning to take a month off.
IMM: What will you do?
SN: Travel I hope. I hope to take a trip, maybe to the
for a week or two. Sleep a little, write a little. I'm thinking about
kind of a writing project. Something to mine the material I've
over the last 17 years working as a prosecutor. Stop and smell the
for a few weeks. My wife thinks I'm constitutionally incapable of
and smelling those roses for an entire month. She thinks I'll go nuts.
But I'm going to prove her wrong.
IMM: You're going to become a partner at Barnes and
IMM: Why that firm?
SN: I know a lot of people there that I respect.
always made career decisions simply on the people I want to work with.
One of my mentors, Larry Mackey, who prosecuted the Oklahoma City
cases, is a partner there. Another friend of mine, Bob Grand, is the
managing partner. I'll be in commercial litigation. I'm not sure what
niche will prove to be. I'm going to start by doing what I know, which
is trying lawsuits or trying not to try lawsuits; in some cases that's
what you want to do. Over time, I wouldn't mind branching out and
other things. I'd like to develop
some transactional work, which is building things, forming
employing people, the more positive side of the business experience.
IMM: What will you miss about the prosecutor's office?
SN: The esprit de corps. It's a bunch of really
people who work hard and are all in the same boat. And it's a tough
IMM: What won't you miss?
SN: I won't miss being a politician. I won't miss
weight of having people presume I'm not in the job for the right
that I'm a power grabber or a guy who likes to see his face on
Actually, it will be nice to go out in the morning, collect the
and know I won't be in it. And I won't miss the pager going off in the
middle of the night because something horrible has happened.
IMM: Do you think you'll run for public office again?
SN: I doubt it. ||
Content Desk, Indianapolis.
Writing, Research, Creative Development.
Copyright Dec. 2002. All rights reserved.