HAZARD – John Hansen voluntarily left the Perry County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office after one six-year term in 2007, the last half of which he called a “remarkable success” in addressing drug related issues in Perry County. Now, after spending the past five years as a private attorney, he is embarking on a new run for public office.
Hansen said though he enjoyed his job as commonwealth’s attorney, ensuring that his children received a college education played a large role in his decision not to run for re-election in 2006. His children were getting ready for college at the time, he noted, and he could not afford to send them to college on a state salary.
“My goal was to get out and make sure those two got out of school with as little of financial aid debt as possible,” he noted during an interview this week.
He instead planned to delve back into private practice, and also made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Hazard.
“A lot of people wanted me to run for something,” he said.
While he thought he could do a good job as mayor, Hansen said he thought winning the mayor’s race in 2006 against longtime Mayor Bill Gorman wasn’t likely. But at the same time, he added, he wanted to show the people that he was willing to continue to work for them.
“I knew I’d probably lose the race, but I also wanted to send the people a message that I’m willing to serve you guys in any capacity, and also to let them know that I’m the still same guy coming out as I went in,” he said. “I wanted to take on challenges as well.”
As this year’s May 22 Republican primary for commonwealth’s attorney approaches, Hansen is preparing to face off against fellow Republican Cordell “Buddy” Williams. Hansen said Perry County’s Republican voters have a clear choice in this election to vote for a lifelong member of the GOP. Though he didn’t mention his opponent by name, Williams did run as a Democrat in the 2006 race for commonwealth’s attorney.
“Real simple. Right now, in the primary, I am the better Republican candidate because I have never had to change my party,” said Hansen. “I’ve never had to change my ideas or my politics, for whatever reason. I’m just me, and being Republican is me.”
Hansen won his first elected office in Perry County in 2000, defeating the late Steve Tackett for commonwealth’s attorney. He was sworn in the following year, and said for the first three years his office was met with a lot of official resistance from the judicial administration at the time. Former Judge Doug Combs presided over the Perry Circuit Court then, and would later resign in 2004 amid allegations of corruption.
“My first three years, my staff and I just decided to fight whatever came our way,” he said. “We didn’t bow down to any political pressure, we didn’t engage with the corruption that was going on. We did our business.”
His final three years in office, from 2004 to 2006, Hansen said that he and his office saw a great deal of success in tackling crime in the area, claiming that drug traffickers in the county were going to prison for the first time, and any instance of a drug dealers being “coddled” before “was no longer happening.”
“We didn’t have drugs like we do now,” he said.
In Kentucky, drug overdoses have overtaken motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths. In Perry County specifically, some law enforcement officials have estimated that the vast majority of criminal cases are in some way drug related. Hansen said that addressing this issue as a prosecutor has to be done on a case-by-case basis by reviewing the facts of the cases, and not making assumptions about the defendant’s motivations.
“You simply take some time to look at the person’s record, instead of assuming,” he said, adding that if a defendant has a long criminal record of crimes such as burglary or theft dating back 15 years, then likely drugs aren’t the problem.
“Long records usually mean there is not a drug problem,” he continued. “We’ve got a lot of criminals that simply like to do crime.”
Hansen went on to note that issues with the drug problem can be tackled in District Court through County Attorney John Carl Shackelford’s office, where Williams currently serves as assistant county attorney. He pointed to one of Williams’ radio ads claiming that for the past few years little has been done to turn the drug problem around. Hansen noted that to the contrary, he believes that several people in Perry County have worked to address this issue.
“The main defense for small time drug users, which is pretty much in Perry County all we have, you can tackle that through district court, and I want to correct Buddy right now, the drug problem is being tackled by Judge Stephens, the drug problem is being tackled by Bill Engle.”
Along with a large amount of drug cases, commonwealth’s attorneys must also deal with a handful of cases making their way through the circuit court system that involve other serious felony crimes, including assault, rape and murder. In the instance of the latter, Hansen sought the death penalty only once during his previous term, though he said he considered it in one other murder case. He said there are several factors he would weigh in any future case in which he would consider seeking the state’s ultimate penalty.
“Brutality, the viciousness, the absolute ignorance that the person you have done these horrible things to had any rights whatsoever,” he commented as to when he would consider it prudent to seek the death penalty. “The fact that you’re willing to put your own, either necessity for revenge or just plan adrenaline feeling for hurting somebody and watching them suffer in pain, and you let that override another person’s dignity.”
Ultimately, Hansen said he feels the office of commonwealth’s attorney is indeed a serious one, and one which carries the burden of representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky on behalf of Perry County every time a felony case makes it way to the judicial system. And that’s one charge, he said, that he does not take lightly.
“That burden, I honestly believe, is a burden you have to take seriously,” he said. “The whole weight of the county is on your shoulders with every decision you make. If you don’t understand that, you should not seek the office. The whole attitude for me is, you do what’s right by Perry Countians.”