Prosecutor says move to defense makes sense

Barsanti will do more of what he likes - 'lawyering'

Sean D. Hamill

With "John Barsanti for the defense."

It's a quote few in Kane County's legal community ever thought they'd hear.

But for the last two weeks, it has regularly been heard in criminal courtrooms, after Barsanti, Kane county's most experienced and successful criminal prosecutor over the last two decades, decided to leave the state's attorney's office and take a job with a prominent private practice that specializes in criminal defense work.

"It still sounds weird-'John Barsanti for the defense.' We were kidding him about it this week," said Assistant Kane County State's Attorney Christine Hathaway, Barsanti's co-counsel in the last criminal trial he prosecuted.

The list of people he has helped put behind bars makes up a who's who of infamous crimes in the county since 1979, including Brian Dugan, Ed Tenney , John Markiewicz, Calvin Green, Marvin Reed and, most recently, Lorin Womack.

It was the success and the passion he brought to the job-marked by his closing arguments- that convinced many Barsanti never would step across the aisle.

But Barsanti said people have misread his passion for the law and for "lawyering" for a passion only for prosecution.

"People say, Isn't that going to be hard for you? Didn't you like being a cop (putting criminals in prison)? But what I always liked about it wasn't being a cop, I always liked being a lawyer," he said in an interview in his new office in Elgin. "Once a case was over, it was always hard for me to get up for sentencing, because the main point was over with. I was more interested in beating down an insanity defense rather than putting a guy in the joint. I never could build up the antagonism for the guy."

That might sound like a pragmatic statement from a prosecutor who turned private defense attorney after his former boss, David Akemann, lost his re-election bid. For those closest to him, it makes perfect sense.

"I think he knew it in his heart where he was going," said Dawn Barsanti, his wife of 17 years.

"After eight years working largely as an administrator and taking on only a case or so a year, he wanted to get back in the courtroom, "she said.

He's going to get a big jump start on that.

In addition to joining Camic, Johnson, Wilson, a law firm that specializes in criminal defense, Barsanti this past week was named a "conflict counsel" by Kane County judges to replace John Peterson, who chose not to reapply. Conflict counsels are appointed to represent indigent defendants who have co-defendants already represented by the public defender's office.

By taking over for Peterson, Barsanti gets a full case load that already is rolling through the courts. Several are murder cases, including one of the eight defendants accused in a triple homicide in Elgin last year.

"For two-plus decades he's been interviewing people and figuring out the strengths and weaknesses in a case. The job (of a defense attorney) is no different. You just change who you're an advocate for."

Over the last eight years, Barsanti has made forays into other areas, including a run against Akemann for state's attorney in 1992. Five times over the last three years he has tried and failed to win a judgeship in the county, and he has considered administrative offers from the state's attorney's offices in cook and DuPage counties.

But again and again he returned to where he ended up- a route so fortuitous that Dawn Barsanti told him when he finally accepted the offer to become a private defense attorney: "I think you planned this all along."

Reared in Cicero by a father who was a computer operator and a mother who was a key punch operator, Barsanti, 48, still retains the short, clipped accent picked up in the suburban Chicago's western border.

A graduate of Morton East High School in Cicero, he was intent on going to college and getting a good education. He ended up at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., where the thought of going to law school wasn't on the agenda until he finished his junior year.

"And there I was a senior in college and I didn't want to get a job," he said. So he went to law school, ending up at Chicago Kent College of Law.

Law school itself was uneventful. There was no spark of inspiration and Barsanti ended up taking the first job that came his way- working as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor in Chicago.

Perhaps his best decision then was deciding to live in Aurora, where he fell in with a chummy group of young assistant state's attorneys, public defenders and private attorneys who had a regular game of touch football every weekend.

One of those was current Kane County Judge James Doyle, who then was an up-and-coming Kane County assistant state's attorney under then-State's Attorney Gene Armentrout. Barsanti complained one weekend to Doyle that his job at the labor department "was like death" and that he was thinking of trying something else.

Doyle suggested he try prosecution and told him to come by the state's attorney's office the next day.

He did so and was told when he got there to head to the Village Squire restaurant in West Dundee, where he found Armentrout sitting alone in a booth.

Barsanti sat down for what he thought would be an in-depth interview of his legal experience, only to spend an hour talking about sports with Armentrout-a conversation that ended with a job offer.

"We never even talked about the law," Barsanti says with a laugh, acknowledging that Kane County was quite a different place in 1979 than it is now.

The very next day, Barsanti showed up in Kane County for his assignment in juvenile court and quickly was asked what he was doing there. "Mr. Armentrout hired me," he replied.

A sarcastic round of applause followed, led by two assistant state's attorneys who were glad to encourage the young attorney so that they could move out of juvenile court and prosecute felony cases.

He quickly got his first lesson from then-Public Defender Judy Brawka, who told Barsanti before the first case was called: "I'm going to object to hearsay."

"Well," Barsanti recalled with another laugh, "I didn't even know what that was."

Brawka, now a family court judge in Kane County, doesn't recall that moment, in part, she said, because "I don't actually remember John ever not knowing what he was doing.

He would quickly learn about hearsay and everything else, starting in juvenile court- an assignment he had during a more tranquil time in the county's history that included mental health evaluations and child-abuse and neglect cases. Now what Barsanti himself did at the time is done by six attorneys because of the crush of cases.

But even in that first year, Barsanti had yet to find what it was that later would drive him.

That is, until friend Doyle asked him to be his co-chair on a felony trial case in which an elderly couple had been brutalized in their home.

Barsanti was Doyle's willing gofer on the case, lining up witnesses, digging into case law, preparing questions. He threw himself into it.

It quickly became apparent that Barsanti was born to be a trial attorney, Doyle said. "He was comfortable before a jury, and could think on his feet-and that's the key right there," Doyle said.

At the end of that first case, the man accused of the crime was found guilty by a jury, and the intense effort and resultant rush of winning had a profound effect on Barsanti.

"I thought, '...this is fun,'" he said.

Then, after Barsanti helped Doyle on another case- gaining the conviction of Marvin Reed, the then-warden of Stateville prison, in a complicated stolen car case that involved other state employees- Armentrout, Barsanti said," Said I could do whatever I wanted."

That meant a permanent move from juvenile court to felonies- a double promotion in an office that usually requires a stop in traffic and misdemeanor court first.

It was from there that Barsanti's reputation as a tough prosecutor able to make a case out of the slimmest of evidence took shape. Soon he was given many of the county's most high-profile murders and other cases headed to trial.

"He is as good a trial attorney as you ever came up against," said Tim Mahoney, a prominent Kane County defense attorney who has tried five murder cases against Barsanti over the years.

"He can take a good closing argument and bury you," Mahoney said. 'He could take the evidence and seize on a piece of it and raise the jury's emotion...whereas others would be dry and can't ignite a jury. He had the best finish, and that's something you're born with."

As an example of Barsanti's love of lawyering, as he calls it, he cites as one of his most memorable cases one he eventually lost.

It involved a James Eliason, a man who got into a bar fight in East Dundee and stabbed and killed another man.

Eliason was defended by Mahoney and another attorney who contended that Eliason didn't intend to stab the man. Though there were several witnesses, as in many bar fights, "everyone saw something different," Barsanti said.

It was Barsani's task to navigate jurors through the different versions to what really happened, something he managed to do during the first trial. But Eliason appealed his conviction, the case was reversed and a new trial was ordered.

In the meantime, one of Barsanti's key witnesses committed suicide and his prior testimony couldn't be used at the next trial. Eliason's attorneys also decided that this time that Eliason wouldn't take the stand in his own defense. The strategy worked and he was found not guilty. "But we did the best we could," Barsanti said.

He said he can see himself defending people in large part because he always has believed in justice, which can be served both prosecuting and defending.

"With good lawyers on either side, if you believe in the craft, it shouldn't matter which side you're on," he said.