CHARLESTON — He calls himself his “own harshest critic” and wishes he had more hours in the day to do the job he’s done for 20 years.
But Steve Ferguson also says he thinks his time as Coles County state’s attorney has been marked by a willingness to prosecute difficult cases, including if they didn’t turn out in his side’s favor.
“I’ve not been afraid to lose,” he said. “I just try to do the right thing for the right reason to the best of my ability.”
A Mattoon resident, Ferguson has spent nearly all his life, personally and professionally, in Coles County. He was elected to five terms as state’s attorney, first in 1992, and often explained his reason for running for the office as it was what he felt he needed to do.
So, since he didn’t seek re-election this year, does he feel differently now?
“Probably so,” he replied. “The last time I ran, I felt that way but not quite.”
Ferguson’s term actually ended Friday, though new State’s Attorney Brian Bower won’t be sworn in until Monday. Ferguson, a Democrat, faced election opponents every four years and said he’s grateful for voters’ support, noting that the county often favors Republicans.
“I appreciate their forgiveness for my failings as well,” he added.
Again, though, he thinks the office was aggressive in prosecuting cases during his tenure. What some people don’t always understand is that that’s based on “the facts and the law,” he added.
Ferguson said there were “a number of successful prosecutions” over the years. Still, a murder case that caught widespread attention and came at a time when the death penalty was a topic of much discussion in state will always be tied to his time in office.
He mentioned it himself, the 2003 conviction of Anthony Mertz for the murder of Eastern Illinois University student Shannon McNamara two years before. Mertz received the death penalty a few weeks after then-Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all prisoners on death row at the time.
“If we’d had our trial earlier, the sentence would have been commuted,” Ferguson noted. That did happen later, however, when current Gov. Pat Quinn commuted the state’s death sentences, including Mertz’s, to life in prison.
One memorable part of the Mertz case was how the prosecution tried to tie him to other crimes while trying to convince a jury to sentence him to death.
That included showing similarities between McNamara’s death and the murder of Charleston resident Amy Warner two years before. During the trial, Ferguson wouldn’t say if he thought Mertz did, in fact, commit that crime, but he’ll answer the question now.
“The evidence points that way,” he said.
The last two decades also saw what many call an “epidemic” of methamphetamine use and production, something Ferguson described as a “scourge on society.” Changes in state law helped, he noted, but he also gave credit to local authorities.
“I attribute that to the training of police officers,” he said. “I think it’s going on in other counties but not being recognized.”
He also praised Circuit Judge Mitchell Shick for leadership in implementing the county’s drug court program and its oversight for getting people off the cycle of drug use.
It so happens that Shick is the only person to beat Ferguson in an election. That was when they both ran for the judge’s position 10 years ago.
Other than that, Ferguson said, he’s never really thought about doing anything else. He said people have approached him about other work “but they did not feel right to me.”
He also said he didn’t really plan to stay in his home community for nearly all his professional life but “I was very glad I did.” It meant he and his family were able to spend time with his parents, he said.
Ferguson’s immediate plans are to take time off and relax. After that, there’s “nothing concrete,” though he’ll probably do some kind of work but he’s “not in a hurry.”
He mentioned some personal interests that will get his attention, “serious pleasure reading,” volunteering, gardening, music and among them.
Ferguson said he didn’t want to talk too much about his religion, but did say it’s what drove his career, a “desire to help others.”
“I felt like doing something socially worthwhile and worthwhile to my community,” he said. “I’ve tried to do that and enjoyed doing that. Now, it’s time to find a way to do that in a different capacity.”
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