When Steve Johnson, longtime advocate for Indiana’s county prosecutors, died unexpectedly last week at the age of 66, I tweeted that the Statehouse had lost “a quiet voice in a place of bombast.”
Lisa Swaim, Cass County’s chief deputy prosecutor, described it differently. For prosecutors, she said, losing Johnson was like losing Superman.
Both are true. For the nearly 15 years that Johnson led the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council – and the 25 years he spent as its research director – he exhibited both the mild manner and man-of-steel qualities admired by so many.
“He was the most knowledgeable man I ever met about Indiana criminal law,” said lawyer and state Senate President David Long. “And his word was his bond.”
Being one of the smartest guys in the Statehouse is impressive. Being one of the most trusted, even more so.
On criminal law Johnson was a go-to expert for legislators from both parties.
As his successor, David Powell, told me: “He didn’t embellish.”
That was Johnson’s value. He was an effective advocate for prosecutors and victims of crime, but he didn’t make his case with hyperbole.
Three years ago, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels named Johnson a Distinguished Hoosier, a high honor given at the discretion of the governor to citizens who bring admiration and respect to the state through their character and accomplishments.
There was some irony in the award. That same year, it was Johnson who helped stop the legislative locomotive that Daniels was driving to slash prison costs and ease the state’s budget woes. Quietly but persistently questioning the bill’s premise, Johnson argued that there had to be a better way to reduce the prison population without endangering public safety.
His work continued even after retirement. Still consulting for the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, Johnson was laboring over a legislative rewrite of Indiana’s antiquated criminal code when he died at home in Hendricks County.
Tears were shed for him at the Statehouse. Some came from a Logansport lawmaker, Sen. Randy Head, who’s married to that Cass County prosecutor who called Johnson “Superman.”
Head said Johnson had to come to his rescue years ago, when as an inexperienced young prosecutor Head was embroiled in a difficult drug case involving a witness threatened with death. Head said Johnson’s expert knowledge of the law helped saved the day.
Years later, as a legislator, Head saw Johnson’s other role – as one of the Legislature’s respected expert witnesses.
“If there was an issue that aroused a lot of passion, if there was controversy and people upset, Steve Johnson always brought calm to the debate,” Head said. “He was able to correct things so people were having a discussion about the issue and not about the personalities.
“That’s incredibly valuable here, where we have a lot of strong personalities and a lot of controversy,” Head added.
Evidence came in the form of Larry Landis, longtime advocate for Indiana’s public defenders, who was one of Johnson’s most trusted partners in the crime-and-punishment debates. Together they illustrated the role of civil debate in our messy democracy.
Johnson loved his work, but he loved his family more. He spoke often of how proud he and his wife of 47 years, Susie, were of their four children and eight grandchildren.
Their loss is Indiana’s loss, too.
“He was such a gentleman,” Head told me, paying his colleague what may be the ultimate compliment. “More people ought to raise their sons to be just like Steve Johnson.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden