It didn’t take long for things to get weird when Jay Magnuson started work as a Sangamon County prosecutor.
“ ‘I’ve got a doozy for you,’” Magnuson recalls a Springfield police sergeant saying during a wee-hours phone call on Mother’s Day in 1996, just five months after he arrived in Springfield after two decades as a Cook County prosecutor. “I thought it was a three-o’clock-in-the-morning joke.”
But this was no case of cops playing pranks on the new guy. John McCreery, convinced that Satan was after him, had told his family that he wanted to commit suicide. And so McCreery, his wife and the couple’s three children bought five knives, one for everyone, to carry out a suicide pact that didn’t go as planned.
John McCreery was the only one who ended up dead in a Springfield hotel room. His son Shannon stabbed his father to death at the elder man’s request and then, like the rest of his relatives, had second thoughts. The clan called 911. It was the definition of open-and-shut.
But Shannon McCreery didn’t go to prison. Magnuson, after reducing the charge from first to second-degree murder, joined the defense in a successful argument for probation and says today that he would support clemency for a defendant whose victim held inordinate sway over an entire family. This, he told reporters shortly before sentencing, was no ordinary murder.
“It was out of affection more than anything,” Magnuson told the State Journal-Register.
It was an unforgettable case in a career that ended Oct. 31 with the retirement of a man who for 17 years was the face of murder prosecution in Sangamon County. Magnuson’s handling of the McCreery case bespeaks his dedication to a prosecutor’s duty, according to former colleagues and courtroom adversaries.
“We all say that all along: The prosecutor’s job is to see that justice is done,” says Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt, former state’s attorney who was once Magnuson’s boss. “Jay is the living embodiment of that.”
That Magnuson was more interested in justice than gaining convictions is not to say that he was soft. While he may not have collected pelts, he certainly kept track. His office on the fourth floor of the courthouse remains as he left it, complete with bulletin board festooned with mug shots, news clips on courtroom victories and the number 3,416 in big black block numerals. That’s how many years in prison defendants in Magnuson’s crosshairs received. Even with time off for good behavior, it’s considerably more than a millennium.
“He was a tough prosecutor,” says defense attorney Jon Gray Noll. “He was a vigorous and unrelenting adversary.”
In cases large and small, Magnuson was known for finding a way.
Along with the rapists and murderers and robbers on Magnuson’s bulletin board is a photo of Mani, a red-tailed hawk filched from the Henson Robinson Zoo in 2005 by two young men who set the creature free. Magnuson didn’t screw around – he charged them with felony theft and burglary, with the latter charge coming after he found a case from the early 1900s in which a chicken coop was deemed a building and therefore could be burgled.
The case dragged on for more than two years before Magnuson reduced the charges to misdemeanor trespassing under pressure from zoo officials and members of the Springfield Park Board who urged mercy. He doesn’t sound too happy about it: Criminals who target zoos, museums, libraries or cemeteries are a special breed, he says.
“The public is the victim,” he says.
While in Cook County, he won national attention for winning murder convictions against three officials with Film Recovery Systems after a Polish immigrant without work papers or protective gear died of cyanide poisoning, going into convulsions while working around vats where the deadly chemical was used to recover silver from used x-ray slides.
During closing statements at the bench trial, Magnuson scoffed at the notion that his was a novel legal argument, even though a corporate official had never been found guilty of murder in a workplace death. This, he argued, was a timeworn story.
“It is the story of the uneducated versus the educated,” Magnuson told the judge. “It is the story of the privileged versus the underprivileged. It is the story of rich versus poor. It is a story of those who want something out of life versus those who want everything out of life at any cost.”
Although their murder convictions were later overturned, two of the three officials eventually served time after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Another pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and got probation. By then, Magnuson was in private practice. But not for long. After two years away from criminal law, Magnuson was hired by former state’s attorney Pat Kelley, now a Sangamon County circuit court judge, to handle violent felonies, particularly murders.
“I couldn’t believe he wanted to come down here,” Kelley recalls. “He kind of became my consigliere. I routinely consulted with Jay on matters far afield from his original purpose, everything from management issues to police-prosecutor relations to how to handle particular cases.”
Magnuson, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, said he that he has seen people get away with murder, but that’s rare in Sangamon County, where the jury pool is different.
“In Cook County, you’d ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I’m between jobs.’ ‘When was your last job?’ ‘Ten years ago,’” Magnuson said. “You’ve got a lot of common-sense people here.”
“People down here have a stake in their community.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.