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Retiring Johnson County prosecutor reflects on 31 years in office
Her early work on women’s rights influenced her law career
IOWA CITY — Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness started out fighting for women’s rights, attempting to get the Iowa Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1980 and becoming a field organizer with the National Organization for Women to get the final states needed to ratify the amendment.
The amendment failed but “it whetted my appetite for political organizing,” she said during an interview in her office in late November. She worked in DuPage County, outside Chicago, organizing people to contact their state lawmakers to pass the amendment because Illinois was one of the target states.
Lyness said even though it failed, it was an “exciting” time as she also spent months in Springfield, Ill., helping with a large march and lobbied for equal rights. During this time she also worked on domestic violence, sexual assault and civil rights issues. She had an undergraduate degree and decided to go back to law school and pursue civil rights litigation.
She altered her career path, but she never stopped fighting for women. While doing an internship under then-Johnson County Attorney Pat White, she had the chance to work on six jury trials and learned she could still help women by prosecuting domestic violence and sexual abuse cases.
“I had no thought of doing this work (prosecution) before the internship,” Lyness said. “But once I was in court arguing on behalf of victims, I was hooked.”
Lyness, 63, reminisced about her 31 years in the office and her last 15 years as the elected top prosecutor. She joined the office in 1990. She decided earlier this year not to run again. She will retire at the end of December.
Rachel Zimmermann Smith, her first assistant prosecutor, ran with her blessing and was elected in November.
Too much to do
“I have way too much to do before leaving,” Lyness said as she was preparing to go to trial the next week for an arson and attempted murder case. “This one has been lagging a year and a half. It will be my first trial since the pandemic. The others have pled out.”
Lyness didn’t get her last trial because it was bumped to January.
However, a few days later she wrapped up one of her bigger cases, the second-degree conviction of Roy Browning Jr., 70, who fatally stabbed his wife, JoEllen Browning, 65, April 5, 2019. Browning killed his wife because she was about to learn from a banking official that he had taken out risky high interest loans and emptied one savings accounts without her knowledge.
Lyness wanted to make sure that case was resolved before leaving office. She didn’t want to comment on any specifics, except to say it a “brutal murder. JoEllen was stabbed and left on the bed to die slowly. JoEllen was well liked and respected. It’s so sad she never got to meet her two grandchildren (born after her death).”
Lyness said the domestic abuse homicide cases have been “one of the most painful parts of the job.”
“We have had four murder suicides of a domestic nature with women always being the victim. Additionally, we have had several women murdered by their current or former partner.”
Lyness prosecuted one of the higher profile cases that involved a former mall security guard, Alexander Kozak, 23, of North Liberty, who fatally shot 20-year-old Andrea Farrington of Cedar Rapids, after she broke off their monthslong texting relationship June 12, 2015. Kozak shot Farrington in the back three times, killing her as she worked at the mall welcome center for the Iowa Children’s Museum.
Cheryl Farrington, Andrea’s mother, said earlier this year that she and her family were grateful to Lyness for helping them through the court proceedings and always making time to listen to their concerns or frustrations throughout the case.
Zimmermann Smith, who takes over the office in January, told The Gazette that Lyness’ “positive impact” on the justice system and the community will last beyond her years in office.
“She took the role of the prosecutor beyond just trying cases, and managed to make the system more protective of victims and more equitable for everyone, Zimmermann Smith said. “Johnson County is better off because of Janet.”
Sixth Judicial Associate District Judge Deb Minot, who has been friends with Lyness for 31 years and colleagues for 15, said during Lyness’ retirement reception that “this was the end of an era.” Lyness also was her boss for four years out of 15 years that Minot was an assistant prosecutor.
“I learned so much from Janet,” Minot said. “I remember watching her train and mentor countless law student interns — including Rachel (Zimmermann Smith). I remember watching her meet with victims of domestic abuse and other crimes and treating them with respect and compassion.”
Minot said Lyness spent her career fighting for “the least among us — the poor, mentally ill, addicted, abused, children, victims, and yes, the defendants.”
Assistant Johnson County Attorney Susie Nehring said Lyness is a “fantastic leader, mentor and friend. We are all lucky that she has been willing to serve in that role for the last 16 years.”
Lyness said she learned early on from her days being an advocate for sex abuse and domestic violence survivors that they weren’t always “pleased” about the prosecution of their abuser and Lyness’ interest in pursuing justice might not be important to them.
One screamed at her for an hour, telling Lyness she was ruining her life. The victim blamed herself and “how dare I go forward with this case,” Lyness said.
Lyness also pointed out that so many victims were appreciative of their efforts. Even the woman who initially screamed at her, wrote a letter a few months later and thanked Lyness.
She said she is also proud of the things she accomplished while in office — setting up diversion programs for possession of marijuana and driving offenses with emphasis on getting people help, instead of jail time and fines that most can’t afford.
Lyness also worked with social services and law enforcement on lowering jail population and reviewing those cases to see how long they had been incarcerated. She tried to get some into treatment programs.
Lyness wanted to retire this year to spend more time with her dad but sadly, he died in August. She won’t start another career but she plans to do some volunteer work, possibly teach at the University of Iowa College of Law and do some traveling. Her brother moved to England and she plans to visit him.
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