Thayer County Attorney Dan Werner never expected to be in public service this long and said he will not be refiling for the office to serve another term.
Werner originally ran for the position in 1982 and took office in January of 1983.
“I was a defense attorney and said I want a little more jury trial experience than I’ve had. I thought that was a good way to do it,” Werner said. “I got to like wearing the white hat, and I slept pretty well.”
He’s faced some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the state, including at least two right here in Hebron.
Joe and Ben Murray are tremendous in their abilities, he said.
The fact people searching for an attorney think they can find a better one in the cities is nonsense, he added.
“They do a great service to their clients,” he said.
His client is the state and it has allowed him to diversify, where the law is concerned. Werner has represented county matters to speeding cases to homicides. He recalled several, but pointed out one common misconception is cases are tried “off the cuff.”
“It’s stressful, the preparation for jury trials, particularly. If I have a jury trial that’s expected to last a week, I figure three days of preparation for each day of trial,” he explained.
He wants his witnesses to come off as professional, like law enforcement officers. He’ll meet with officers before cases are tried, even if it’s on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s important the officers he happens to be working with understand what Werner will ask them in the courtroom.
He was a young prosecutor when the infamous case of 9-year-old Danny Stutzman began with Chuck Kleveland finding the child’s body off the highway on Christmas Eve.
“The problem was we could never prove the cause of death. We had to prove the death was unlawful,” Werner said. The boy’s father, Eli Stutzman faced misdemeanors in Thayer County and was convicted.
Werner said he was flown to Texas when Stutzman was tried for the shooting death of his roommate.
“We speculated that was the reason he would have killed his son. His son was a witness, but could I prove it? No,” he said. Texas prosecutors had the option of letting the judge sentence Stutzman, or giving the decision to the jury.
“We opted to give it to the judge because the jury had already made the difficult decision to convict him,” Werner said.
Stutzman was eventually released from prison and that was a surprise, Werner said.
Another case landed Werner on Court TV. Vernal Ohlrich was convicted of manslaughter for shooting his wife. She was in a lot of pain and Ohlrich thought she had cancer.
“We found at the time of sentencing she didn’t have cancer. I can remember they wanted us back on Court TV and I said I’m not doing it, I’m going to my daughter’s basketball game,” he said.
His most difficult cases are child sexual assaults. In one of them, Werner used the evidentiary rule to bring a witness who was previously sexually abused by the defendant into court to testify. It worked, the man James Humphrey of Davenport, was convicted in 2015, and sentenced to prison. He is currently in the Tecumseh prison. At the same time Humphrey was sentenced, Werner had Harold Stone of Davenport arrested. He was charged with child sexual assault in the first degree, and eventually convicted of five felonies. He is in the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
The job doesn’t come without unwelcome drive-bys in the middle of the night or the bomb threat he received at 2 a.m.
“I can remember getting my daughter a glass of water during the night and the phone rang. I immediately picked it up, and he said there is a bomb in your truck. My telephone line was being monitored, but we weren’t able to track the call,” Werner said. “I think I know who it was.”
He tried cases with Joe Murray, including a minor in possession trial he distinctly remembers lasting all day.
Murray and Werner met with the judge for jury instructions and suddenly, Murray said, ‘That guy just said something to my client. He’s on the jury!’
“We didn’t know what it was. Joe had just looked out the door and happened to see it,” Werner said. “He moved for an immediate mistrial.”
The juror had asked Murray’s client who was buying the beer that night.
“The next day Joe and I were talking and Joe said we could find something for the client to plead to,” Werner said. “I said we’re not retrying this case again. I dismissed it.”
It was a learning curve for both of them, and he and Murray became more conscientious of the cases they tried.
Spanning a career of 40 years in public service and his priviate practice before that, also came with changes in the technology world. Werner chuckled.
“I had the first computer in Thayer County. It was an Apple. The entire memory was 256K,” he said.
Technology progressed from typewriters to the small Apple screens for attorneys, who are currently required to e-file readable pdf documents.
“We have different line spacing requirements. We cannot take a piece of paper up to the courthouse and file it,” he said.
In another part of the law, he remembers being skeptical of drug court.
“If you look for the statistics, 80 to 90 percent are still drug free after five years,” he said about the defendants. He doesn’t think driving under the influence would be more successful with its own court because defendants are sentenced to treatment in nearly every case.
“When I first began, DUI’s weren’t a big thing. Typically, there would be a fine and nothing else. Now we have much more severe penalties,” Werner said.
Prison time isn’t always the answer, but after four or five repeats, it’s sometimes necessary, he added.
“They have driven under the influence thousands of times without being caught,” Werner said. That includes truck drivers, who are aggressively prosecuted in Thayer County.
He doesn’t have regrets serving the public, but he does have other clients for probate. His private practice has served clients from around the nation.
“They call us county attorneys part time, but it’s not necessarily a part time job. It’s part time to the extent you’re not required to devote full time and can have a private practice,” Werner said.
He prefers to relax a bit, spend more time with his children and grandchildren, and do some fishing.
“My son and his wife had triplets,” Werner said, and told another compelling story about his daughter-in-law, who is from the Philippines.
He also spoke about one his hobbies — woodworking.
A new county attorney would take office in 2023. No one has filed.
It isn’t unusual for county attorneys in rural areas to serve for decades, and across the southern tier of Nebraska, there aren’t many to choose from.
“New attorneys don’t want to move here. They don’t see the opportunity. There are a lot of good people here. You get to know people very well. That’s just a plus. It’s been enjoyable and I’ll enjoy my time in private practice. I can’t hang up the shingle completely,” he said.