John Tunney discusses 24 years as the D.A. for Steuben County
John Tunney is retiring after 24 years as the district attorney in Steuben County.
Tunney’s office oversaw thousands of cases during his tenure, including several that drew national media attention – perhaps most noteworthy is the case of Eric Smith, who was 13 when he killed 4-year-old Derrick Robie in 1993 in Savona.
Before becoming district attorney, the Cornell University Law School graduate spent 16 years as a criminal defense attorney.
Tunney lives in Corning. He is married to his wife, Michele, and has five children and one grandchild.
As Tunney prepared to leave office, Leader reporter John Zick asked the county’s top prosecutor about his retirement, his career and other odds and ends.
What are your retirement plans?
I don’t have specific plans at this point. On the other hand, I expect to remain active in the legal field. It’s entirely possible that I’ll do some criminal defense work. I did that for 16 years before I became district attorney and am confident that I could make the switch without difficulty.
What’s been your greatest career achievement?
That’s a hard one. I’m not sure I have the perspective to answer that question. It may be that I’ve maintained my interest in the law and a desire to continue to grow, professionally, for 40 years.
Most memorable case?
Another hard one. Certainly the Eric Smith case was particularly memorable, primarily because of the intense national and international interest. Dealing with the national media was fascinating. The hard part, for me, comes from the recognition that the experience was rooted in such tragedy. Sadly, most of our memorable cases share that feature.
What’s the most difficult aspect of being a prosecutor? Most enjoyable aspect?
The answer to both questions is, oddly enough, the same. It’s the challenge. The challenge in every case is to get it right. By that I mean, the greatest challenge and greatest reward – when it occurs – is to figure out what the best outcome is in “this” case and then working to try to make that happen.
That process involves gathering information about the crime, the evidence available, the defendant, any victim, the public’s perception and any other pertinent information. At the extremes, the analysis is often straightforward. Most cases, however, fall between the extremes and, typically, the various factors point to conflicting outcomes.
Once there’s a decision about what’s right, the challenge is to try to engineer that outcome. That involves classic lawyering. It involves evidence gathering, evaluation, analysis, negotiations and, sometimes, trying the case. Of course, typically there’s a defense attorney who’s unlikely to share your point of view and a judge who may or may not agree with your position.
It’s the process of shepherding a case through the system that is the hardest but most satisfying aspect of being district attorney.
What, if anything, has changed most during your 24-year career as a prosecutor?
Much of the process remains the same. Certain details may change. There may be slight procedural changes, but the core functions remain constant because, at its core, the process flows from the U.S. and state Constitutions.
If there has been a change, I’d say it is found in juries. Jurors have come to want science to provide answers. In certain respects, jurors don’t want to make hard decisions in a way that, in the days before DNA and other scientific evidence, jurors did. I understand that they want to get it “right,” just as I do and just as the system does, but television and other media have conditioned the public to believe that science is always available and always conclusive. The fact remains, most criminal cases just don’t have that kind of evidence available. The system just doesn’t have the resources to collect, analyze and present scientific evidence in most cases. That reality leaves jurors in a position to make decisions based on a resolution of old-fashioned issues, like the credibility of witnesses and an assessment of just what the evidence proves or doesn’t prove.
Are there any gaffes or embarrassing moments that stand out?
No. I’ll leave you to determine whether that means there were none or none that stood out.
Are you leaving the DA’s Office in good hands?
Absolutely. Brooks Baker is eminently well qualified to be DA. He’s much more prepared than I was 24 years ago. He’s worked in this office for 15 years or so and tried more than his share of heavy cases. I’ll be watching with great interest and rooting for him and for the office.
If you hadn’t been an attorney, what career path would you have chosen?
Another hard question. NFL quarterback? Not good enough. Pro golfer? Not good enough. Lawyer? Made the cut.
Do you watch any courtroom dramas? If so, which one is your favorite and why?
Law & Order. It captures much of the reality of the criminal justice system. It presents the good, the bad and the ugly, as well as many of the subtleties and ambiguities. It really is an excellent representation of the process.