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Clark County prosecutor stepping down after 25 years

December 30, 2014

After serving as the Clark County prosecutor for 25 years — the longest term of a prosecutor in the county's history — Steve Stewart is moving on to new challenges.

Stewart joined the office in 1983 and served as chief deputy prosecutor for six years. In 1989, two days before his 36th birthday, he was appointed to lead the prosecutor's office by then-Gov. Evan Bayh.

Stewart, 61, was subsequently elected prosecutor for six consecutive four-year terms. He decided not to run for re-election this year.

"I can remember the days when I was the fair-haired, young Superman going into office. I was one of the younger office-holders, and, now, I am one of the older office-holders," he told the News and Tribune . "So, yeah, things have changed a little bit, but I can't remember a time when I didn't enjoy what I was doing."

Stewart is also one of the longest-serving prosecutors in the state but says the time has finally come for him to move on to something different.

"It just felt like it was the right time to go," he said. "I never liked the idea, what happens to so many office-holders, of hanging on past the time that they should go, and it results in either bad performance or defeat at the polls. I didn't want to be one those people."

Stewart's not sure what's awaiting him in the next chapter of his career, but said he is exploring a teaching position that would allow him to share his legal knowledge or working as trainer of law enforcement officials and less-experienced prosecutors.

"I have enjoyed my time here. You want a job that you enjoying getting up and going to every day, and I always did," he said. "For the most part, I just want to scale it down, the amount of work, the stresses and everything else."

Stewart proudly said his family recently welcomed its first grandchild.

"I am happy in the position that I am. My private life, which I normally keep very private, is as good as I could expect," he said. "I have been married for 42 years. I have two great daughters that are adults and have families of their own now."

For more than 30 years, starting as a prosecuting attorney in Louisville in 1980, Stewart has committed himself to bringing justice to victims and their families who have often suffered unspeakable crimes.

What Stewart calls the "unusual nature of the job," is him having come face-to-face with heinous and heartbreaking inhumanities, which a prosecutor must confront, investigate and have linger in memory for the rest of his or her life.

"I've had cases from 25, 30 years ago that have stuck with me; seems like they happened last week," he said. "Just about any homicide case sticks with you forever, especially, when you're intimately involved in the investigation and prosecution of that person."

Stewart, a Democrat, said he doesn't mark the milestones of his career by his long series of successful campaigns or the many accolades he's received for his service, but by the comfort and closure he has brought to those in the community who endured tragedies and turned to him to deliver justice.

He recalls attending the autopsy of a 10-year-old child who had been fatally shot; prosecuting a 21-year-old mother who had drowned her two toddlers; investigating a woman who used a handgun to kill her mother and 4-year-old son who was found with gunshot wound cleanly left between his eyes; and prosecuting a Chicago man who put a series of gunshots into his young son while at a Memphis truck stop because "he didn't want his son to live the miserable life he had."

Stewart said prosecutors don't easy compartmentalize the stress of such cases from other areas of their lives.

"Each one of those cases stays with me, and maybe that's it," he said. "Maybe I've just had my share of those that just put me over the edge, I don't know. Maybe."

The challenge of becoming up close and personal in the pain and sadness of others is why many prosecutors burn out, Stewart said, long before the years of service he has given.

While Stewart is thankful for the opportunity to fight for justice, he said not all facets of the job are as rewarding.

"I will not miss being a personnel manager and a budget director, which gave me more headaches than everything," he said. "The budget part of it, since 2008, it has been a nightmare. I have no budget. Everything except salaries is zeroed out, and I have had to struggle to find new sources of income just to stay afloat."

He said being the leader of an office, where he has supervised more than 50 deputy prosecutors and nearly 150 staff members, "cuts both ways." He is praised for the office's achievements, but receives blame when things do not go as expected.

Stewart has spanned three decades as an elected official, but said he always minimized the political nature of the job as much as possible.

"I knew the job, and I enjoyed the job. That was enough. I figured if I did the job well that the politics would take care of itself, and it did," he said. "I have always tried to avoid politics playing any part in the operation of this office."

Stewart said he values the relationships he has built over the course of his long career more than any other aspect of serving as prosecutor.

"It was always fun seeing a young person, a young prosecutor, watching them grow, become a trial lawyer, and see them go through some of the same things I went through years ago," he said.

Clark County Circuit Court Judge Joe Weber said he and Stewart befriended one another in 1986, after he had been elected Clarksville Town Court Judge.

"The county has been lucky to have Steve," Weber said, adding that Stewart has approached the office's duties with diligence and an impressive level of professionalism. "Steve is a fairly serious person, and I sometimes tease him about his stoic personality, but I think that is part and parcel with being a good prosecutor."

Weber said he knows Stewart to work hard on the cases he prosecutes and be an exemplary figure to the deputy prosecutors below him.

"He is a caring person, but he keeps an appropriate distance and distinction between himself and the public at large," Weber said. "Steve understands that the prosecutor's job is to seek justice, not to just prosecute."

Clark County Chief Public Defender Jeff Stonebraker briefly worked alongside Stewart in the Office the Clark County Prosecutor before he became a public defender in 1987.

"I think we are lucky to have Steve for so long," Stonebraker said of Stewart's years of service.

On paper, the men are natural adversaries, but Stonebraker applauded Stewart's discretion to pursue offenders considered threats to public safety and showing leniency to those offenders who had simply made a poor decision.

"He has been in a position of great power, and unlike so many in similar positions, he has always had the wisdom to recognize the public he served could be best served by not always wielding that power," Stonebraker said. "That's what you want in a prosecutor.

"I can trust him to recognize that discretion."

As far as Stewart's ability to endure the pressures of the office for so many years, Stonebraker said, "He's a stronger man than most to do the job this long and as effectively."

While Stewart will be handing over the office's leadership to Clark County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jeremy Mull, who won election in November as a Republican, he said he still has a passion for courtroom battles.

"The trial work and the lawyer work is great, and if my job could be confined to that, I would still be doing it, but inevitably, it can't, " Stewart said.

With the benefit of hindsight, he's confident that if given the chance to do it all over again, he would walk exactly the same path.

"I have always said it's the best job that a lawyer can have, being able to use all your energy and efforts to assist crime victims and fight on behalf of truth and justice," Stewart said. "I always knew it was not about me, but it was about the people involved in the cases."

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