Pat Condon is far from the new guy at Lincoln's Hall of Justice, where he's been a deputy Lancaster County attorney since 1990.
Thursday, he quietly was sworn in as the county's new top prosecutor, filling the spot left when the U.S. Senate confirmed Joe Kelly as U.S. Attorney for Nebraska.
Condon is running unopposed for the job in November's general election. At a County Board meeting a couple days before his swearing-in, he introduced himself before being sworn in as Kelly's interim replacement.
An Iowa native who grew up on a farm in the Fort Dodge area — one of seven kids during the 1980s farm crisis — Condon still takes vacation time to go back to the farm to help out with the harvest in October and decompress.
"My father used to say when we walked out the door, 'Remember who you are, where you come from and what you stand for,'" he said.
This week, after Condon wrapped up a day in a felony trial, he sat down with the Journal Star to talk about his predecessors, justice reform and the moments that have stuck with him.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Question: Why did you want to study the law?
Condon: It was between law and farming. I had an uncle who was a lawyer out in Arizona and just always kind of fascinated me with the stories he told. Growing up, I liked those kind of shows, "Columbo," those types of shows. So that was just something I always thought I'd be interested in doing.
I knew I had an older brother who was going to be farming. ... I went this way.
It was the farm crisis. My dad went through some real tough times on the farm. He and a lot of other farmers around there (Fort Dodge) had a heck of a hard time with things. That was a kind of life-teaching experience, seeing what they went through.
Q: Have you ever had a Columbo moment?
Condon: There probably has been. I've been doing this for 30 years. There are things that stick out. Times that stick out. With all of the cases that I've tried, probably one of the cases that sticks out most is one that I didn't try. And that was Steven and Carolyn Bailey, who Brandon Crago killed out in the northern part of the county. I remember going to that scene and just seeing a very violent scene as you're coming in outside in the yard and at the door. Then you go around to the kitchen and you see where their coffee cups were and the paper was spread out. You could tell just exactly what they were doing moments before. That's one of the moments that stick with you in this job.
Q: At the Lancaster County Board meeting, one of the commissioners, Roma Amundsen, thanked your wife and daughter for supporting you. You go home and you have all that with you.
Condon: That's big. My wife has been great. My kids have been great. They understand that. ... When I'm down here for trials, if I got home before 9:30 last week that would've been early. The way I look at it, it's kind of like farming. There are two or three weeks where you're working a lot, and then the rest of the time you're working, but not nearly as much as those weeks you're planting or harvesting.
Q: Even when you're not involved in a trial, there are a lot of balls in the air.
Condon: I sign a lot of documents. Death certificates. We're the coroner. Answer calls from police at night. Hopefully next week I'll start appointing some people to chief deputy positions.
Q: Early on, did you know you wanted to be a prosecutor?
Condon: I would say early on I probably, if anything, wanted to be a defense attorney. But then more than anything I knew I wanted to be in the courtroom. This is a great way to do it. You get in the courtroom very quickly. When I got out to Grand Island, I think it was in my first month, I was trying a jury trial on a DUI case. That's more than anything what I wanted. I just wanted to be in the courtroom and this just really fit the bill. I haven't looked back.
Q: County attorneys do things differently. Some are in the courtroom, some focus on the managerial role. Where you do you see yourself landing? Will you still be in the courtroom?
Condon: I hope so. I'll see how it plays out. If I have that time I would like to do that. But I also like the administration part of it. I like to be able to set my goals and see the things that I want to happen get accomplished. I'm looking forward to that.
Q: What do you see as some of your priorities or things you might want to do differently now that you're the boss?
Condon: I don't know about doing things really differently. We have a fantastic staff here. ... They're just top-notch. That makes my job so much more easy just to have those people behind me. It's huge how much relief that provides me. I know I can assign those cases and know they'll get tried and get tried correctly. We'll see what we change. Some of the attorneys have ideas.
The 24/7 Program (a sobriety program that started in South Dakota to target drunken driving), we started that last year. I think that has a lot of potential. I'd like to see us go full-bore on that.
Q: You've worked under three Lancaster County attorneys (now-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican, Gary Lacey and Joe Kelly). Whose style is most like what you hope to do?
Condon: Hopefully I can take something from all of them. Mike liked to be here early and see what people were doing, very involved in the office. Gary was Gary. He was a great boss. He backed you 100 percent. Joe is just the steady hand. He handled this office and everything that came up. Nothing shook him. It was amazing to watch him. Hopefully I can combine all three and then just develop my own style.
Q: Lawmakers around the country and here in Nebraska have talked about justice reforms. Here it's LB605 (aimed at reducing the state’s crowded prisons). Do you think that's going in the right direction? Do you feel a sense of buy-in to that, that something needs to be done?
Condon: I think we need to look at some things. I think we can kinda see what we want to see. A lot of the legislation in (LB) 605 were things where we said let's slow down and take a look at this and see what it really says and it went through anyway. And there's some problems with it.
We hear often that we have the second-most crowded prison population in the country and that's correct, but we're also 39th in the country for population per 100,000. So there are only 11 states that have lower incarceration rates per 100,000. So I think we're doing a good job. I think we're putting the people in prison who need to be in prison. I think we're doing a good job on that.
It's hard for prosecutors. We prosecute the laws that the Legislature gives us. That's what we're assigned to do. That's our job. But if they seek our advice we can give them advice of what we think could be done. I think we're going to have to be different with the post-release supervision (after an inmate gets out of prison). I didn't think it was going to work, and I don't think it is working. The Legislature had to do something, and I understand they had to do something. But I think when something isn't working we need to look at it and say it isn't working. ... The last thing someone getting out of prison wants is to be on probation. I think we could do a rework on that. I don't know if we could do something on the line of a suspended sentence.
Probation is being asked to do a lot, and the counties are being asked to do a lot. A lot of this is being pushed back to the counties. And it's expensive.
Q: It seems so much of this job comes down to discretion. Whether to file charges, what level of charges to file. How will you strive to be fair?
Condon: The thing is, I think it's good to have someone who's been doing this for as long as I've been doing this and having the people around me that I do. We have a lot of attorneys who have been here awhile. Very good to work with. The thing that I strive on is just consistency. I was sitting in this job as a chief deputy, people would run plea agreements by me. To make sure that we're staying consistent with our philosophies on those cases. On the other ones, you kind of get a sense of what is fair and what is the right thing to do. That being said, one of the difficult things is when you have someone charged with a crime. You think you have more than enough evidence to convict them and you've made a good (plea) offer and they won't take an offer. What do you do then? If you have the ability to go to a higher charge, do you do that?
Q: You've been in the office a long time, so you're not a new person to anyone in the courthouse, but people out there maybe haven't seen your name as often as they're going to be. Is there anything else you want readers to know about you?
Condon: The whole election process is new for me. ... I think I will do a good job and continue the reputation that this office has had the 28-29 years that I have been here, which I think is an excellent, excellent reputation. We have a good reputation and I think there's a good reason for it. I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to serve the people of Lancaster County.