116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Rachel Zimmermann Smith realized her passion for criminal law when she landed an internship at the Johnson County Attorney’s Office in 2002 and had the chance to go into court and try misdemeanor cases, which no other law students were doing.
Two years later, in 2004, she was hired by then-Johnson County Attorney Pat White and tried her first murder case with Janet Lyness, then the office’s first assistant and now the Johnson County attorney.
Lyness is retiring this year, and Zimmermann Smith, 50, a Democrat, has announced she will run for the county attorney’s job in November.
Zimmermann Smith said she has great respect for Lyness and learned a lot from her in the courtroom and about how to help victims and their families.
Lyness appointed Zimmermann Smith as the office’s first assistant in 2018. Lyness will retire at the end of the year after working 31 yeas in the office and being county attorney for 15 years.
No one else has announced plans to run for the office. The job’s annual salary is $160,192.
Zimmermann Smith was born and reared in Solon and Iowa City. She said she and her husband, Dan, remained in the community to raise their two children, now in high school and college.
She grew up in a family with lawyers, including her father, Jerry Zimmermann, and her uncle, Rick Zimmermann, both retired defense lawyers. Her father, she said, jokingly refers to her as the “black sheep” of the family because she became a prosecutor.
Zimmermann Smith said she’s taken the lead in the county attorney’s office in pushing for programs that make the justice system fair for defendants and for victims and their families. She received the Pat Meyer Vision Award in 2016 for her work to support survivors of domestic violence.
She said she focused on domestic violence cases to help the most vulnerable and was involved in bringing a new system to the county that helps law enforcement determine a domestic abuser’s risk to reoffend.
She also has worked with others on reducing the jail population because the Johnson County Jail was regularly overcrowded, and taxpayers have repeatedly turned down bond issues to build a new justice center.
The group, including law enforcement, defense lawyers, prosecutors, probation, a judge meet every week to decide if any inmates can be released — ones convicted of less serious crimes — without causing public safety issues.
Among the more challenging trials Zimmerman Smith had led or assisted on:
• Lamar Wilson, who was convicted of fatally shooting 22-year-old Kaleek Jones and seriously injuring two others Aug. 27, 2017, on the downtown Ped Mall in Iowa City. This case was difficult because Wilson claimed a “stand-your-ground” defense that was just enacted a month before this shooting.
• Carlos Hivento, convicted last July of repeatedly sexually assaulting a woman who was incapacitated and video recording the attack in 2018. He was sentenced to 34 years in prison.
• Jorge Maldonado, convicted last September of sexually abusing two children, ages 9 and 12, in 2019. He is serving a life sentence without parole.
• Reginald Little, convicted last November for fatally shooting Kejuan Winters during a drug robbery April 20, 2020. He is serving life in prison without parole.
Zimmermann Smith, who received the Merit Award from the Iowa County Attorney’s Association, said the trials stay with her because of the victims involved but working with the child victims is especially challenging, and rewarding.
“They are brave enough to tell their story to a group of strangers — jurors, a judge and the lawyers,” Zimmermann Smith said. “It’s hard to watch but so inspiring because they are still scared but they do it anyway. It’s about getting them justice.”
Zimmermann Smith said, if elected, she looks forward to engaging the community and sharing the accomplishments of the office’s dedicated attorneys and staff.
“I want to work hard every day to reduce crime and support vulnerable communities and make sure the justice system works for everyone.”
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