Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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New Northern District U.S. Attorney: Saving lives is the goal

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Some prosecutors think of their mission as bringing criminals to justice.

Justin Herdman, the new U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, wants to save lives.

“The No. 1 directive that I have given our folks and that I feel most personally invested in is identifying areas where we can reduce or eliminate people who are dying as a result of criminal conduct,” Mr. Herdman said. “That is the one number that motivates me every single day.”

His focus: national security, narcotics, and violent crime, in that order.

His approach: working with his state and local counterparts to investigate and prosecute individuals whose conduct requires tougher penalties that federal laws may offer.

“We work best when we're at the table with police officers, with county prosecutors, with sheriff's department representatives, and with federal agencies,” Mr. Herdman said during a recent visit to Toledo. “When we forge a true partnership between all those different agencies, we can ensure that each individual defendant is receiving the appropriate amount of scrutiny.”

The recent arrest of Toledoan Mark Alex Simon, who is accused of conspiring with at least three others to produce and sell fake identification cards for payment in Bitcoin, is an example.

“This was a case that was investigated by state authorities, was initially handled by the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office, and, at a certain point in time, it seemed as if it was ripe for us to be able to step in to assist them,” he said.

Jeff Lingo, chief of the criminal division of the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office, said he welcomes the cooperative spirit.

“Competition between law enforcement agencies is not healthy. It causes a duplication of efforts,” Mr. Lingo said. “... I concur with [Mr. Herdman] that this Bitcoin case is a prime example of two law enforcement agencies working together to resolve a criminal matter.”

Mr. Herdman said he has no intention of trying to prosecute homicides and other felony cases that county prosecutors are skilled at, but he will go after individuals with violent criminal histories, prolific drug suppliers who are killing people with fentanyl-laced heroin and cocaine, domestic and international terrorists, even individuals who have a history of violence much closer to home. Increasingly, he said, there is a nexus between domestic violence and homicide.

“I'm a true believer that every one of those cases is homicide prevention ... that whether the person is acting on the person he is abusing or not, it just is an indicator of somebody who is more inclined toward violence,” he said.

Where federal prosecutors can step in, Mr. Herdman said, is in cases where a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or violation of a protection order has a gun. Federal law prohibits possession of a firearm by such defendants.

“We will prosecute those people because that firearm that person possesses is statistically far more likely to be used in a crime of violence than any other firearm,” Mr. Herdman said. “We saw an example of that tragically last weekend outside of Columbus in Westerville, Ohio, where two police officers were killed responding to a domestic violence incident.”

Civil rights violations and child pornography have remained priorities, he said, since he was sworn in in August as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, which has offices in Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. Mr. Herdman, 42, worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney from 2006 to 2013.

When he started his new job, he said, he reorganized the office, specifically creating a violent crime unit to re-emphasize the role federal prosecutors can play.

“We have very good sentencing laws in place, very good strategies for taking down larger networks of violent criminal gangs or associates. and I feel like we've got an opportunity, particularly here in Toledo, to drive that in the right direction,” he said. 

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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