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Lesch takes the leap into criminal defense

Last Friday, on the day he turned 43, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, put in a final shift in the St. Paul city attorney’s office, where, for the past 15 years, he prosecuted drunken drivers, prostitutes and other misdemeanor-level offenders.

Lesch figures that over that time he’s handled about 10,000 criminal cases — including, by his count, 36 jury trials (with 33 convictions), as well as innumerable bench trials, motion hearings, and arraignments. It’s no surprise that Lesch hankered for something new.

Lesch says he made the career switch for another reason, too. He was tired of juggling his daily duties at the courthouse with his work as a legislator and did not want to give up the latter.

Will his burdens be less in his role as a principal at Lesch & Doren, the new criminal defense firm in downtown St. Paul he launched with Becca Doren, a former public defender?

Other lawyer-lawmakers have struggled to reconcile the demands of their private practice and public office. In recent announcements they would not seek another term, Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, both cited their legal careers as factors in the decision.

While Lesch may be putting his career as prosecutor in the rear view mirror, his legislative agenda for the coming session is rooted in that experience.

One of his top priorities: coming up with a constitutionally-viable “revenge porn” law to replace the state’s old criminal defamation law, struck down last year. And in what looks to be more of a longshot, Lesch wants to push a radical overhaul of the state’s prostitution laws, one which would target johns for continued prosecution but would not criminalize the sale of sex by prostitutes.

On MLK Day, Lesch spoke with Minnesota Lawyer, a sister publication of Capitol Report, about those goals, his career change and why “Making a Murder” — the Netflix documentary — doesn’t make him weep for the state of the criminal justice system. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Minnesota Lawyer: Why are you leaving?

John Lesch: It’s really difficult to be a legislator when you have to cover court calendars. I had arraignments or sentencings or in custody arraignments every day. After 15 years of that, I wanted a little more flexibility. The things I learned in the office were incredibly valuable but I felt a need to put my skills to work in other areas and learn new things.

ML: How long have you been thinking about making the leap?

Lesch: Probably five or six years.

ML: So not exactly an impulse decision.

Lesch:  I started prosecuting in 2001 and started thinking about leaving after about seven years. But then I joined the military [Lesch serves in the National Guard] and for about three years I was doing heavy training during the summer months. It was pretty intense, a lot of long drill weekends. After that, I got married. And then I moved twice, two years in a row. After the last move, I thought, I’m in a position to do this now.

ML: Do you think it will be hard to shift from the prosecutor to defense attorney?

Lesch: There’s no question there will be some adjustments.  As a prosecutor, you are afforded the right to consider, first and foremost, the delivery of justice. My client was the city of St. Paul but, as a prosecutor, I got to decide what was in my client’s best interest. As a defense attorney, you have to work with your client to determine those needs.

ML: As a prosecutor you also get to win a lot more often.

Lesch: Yeah, that’s true. In most instances as a prosecutor, you’re arguing the facts. In St. Paul, you have a 650-person sworn contingent — the St. Paul Police Department — whose whole mission is to get facts for you to win your case. By the time the case gets to charging, the facts are impeccable — at least that’s the expectation. As a defense attorney, you’re arguing the law a lot more, so you’re obligated to know the law particularly well.

ML: It’s no secret the Legislature has fewer attorneys these days. Are there any more prosecutors left?

Lesch: [State Rep.] Deb Hilstrom is an Anoka County assistant attorney and [State Rep] Dave Pinto is a prosecutor in Ramsey County. But there used to be a few more. [Former State Sen.] Jane Ranum was an assistant Hennepin County attorney. [Former State Rep.] Doug Meslow was the White Bear Lake city attorney when I was elected in 2002. He’s on bench now in Anoka County. [Former State Sen] Leo Foley was a prosecutor in Anoka County.

ML: What’s on your agenda for the session?

Lesch: When the criminal defamation statute was struck down last spring, it left a gaping hole for some of these revenge porn violations. I have a working group going, with another meeting in first week of February.

ML: What are the prospects?

Lesch: I fully expect something will pass. Honestly, Minnesota is not ahead of the curve here. More than half the states have passed something that prohibits this type of behavior. I think it’s pretty bipartisan situation. A lot of individual legislators think, yes, this needs to happen.

ML: But the issue of intent is still a point of contention, right?

Lesch: A little bit. Obviously, some folks are walking around the what-if scenarios. But I’m confident.

ML: Any other bills you’re cueing up?

Lesch: I’m proposing that we consider [adopting] a Nordic model for prostitution, where we still criminalize the purchase of sex for money but we decriminalize the sale of sex for money. So it’s different than the legalization models in the Netherlands and Germany. With the Nordic model — Sweden, Norway, Iceland — they just criminalize the purchase and it’s resulted in very dramatic reductions in human trafficking. The statistics are impossible to ignore. While it’s never been done in the United States, we’re going to begin the conversation in Minnesota and see where it goes.

ML: So it’s a trial balloon?

Lesch: It is, admittedly. I introduced it as an amendment at the end of session and then pulled it. But I’ll be dropping another bill at the end of pre-filing in January.

ML: What’s your experience been like in terms of prosecuting prostitution?

Lesch: I think I can say I’ve prosecuted more misdemeanor prostitution cases than anyone else in Legislature. After doing hundreds of them, I thought, there’s got to be a better way.

ML: What were the punishments, typically?

Lesch: For multiple offenses, they’d be looking at 30, 45, sometimes 90 days in jail. And they would just sit there, with no treatment or services, no opportunities to pull themselves out of that life. No education or training. They were all sad cases. Of all the women I prosecuted, I can’t think of a single one where I thought, ‘Wow, she really deserves this sentence.’ They were all sad cases.

ML: What sort of response to you expect at the Capitol?

Lesch: There will be receptiveness. But there will also be a vigorous debate and people who strongly disagree with my direction.

ML: Have you gauged the support within your caucus?

Lesch: I think there might be a little more support among Democrats, but I don’t think this will cut down partisan lines.

ML: Where does it cut, then?

Lesch: The psychology of individual members. Either you do have the capacity to walk a mile in these women’s shoes or you don’t.

ML: Since everybody’s talking about “Making a Murderer” these days, I’ve got to ask: Have you watched it yet and, as a now ex-prosecutor, what’s your take?

Lesch: I’m halfway through. There are some jaw-dropping, absolutely outrageous things happening. I’ve seen some incompetent attorneys and I’ve seen some incompetent judges, but I’ve never seen them all together on the same case.  But I have to think there some things they [the documentary’s makers] are not revealed.

ML: You’ve seen the episode where the one defense lawyer — the guy who looks like William H. Macy in “Fargo” — allows the police to question his client without an attorney present. You can’t put lipstick on that type of lawyering.

Lesch: To me, he did not look to me like a competent individual. He just seemed interested in stepping up to the cameras.

ML: Given the suggestions of serious misconduct by police and prosecutors — and the fact that Wisconsin’s appellate courts don’t seem at all troubled by the very things that has the public in a state — does “Making a Murderer” diminish your view of the criminal justice system?

Lesch: As difficult as it is to watch, it actually amplifies my faith in the criminal justice system. To the extent that everyone is talking about it, I think shows that the American public cares about due process.


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