A Conversation With Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears

You’ve taken some high-profile, progressive stances so far as prosecutor: Not prosecuting marijuana possession under a certain threshold; Not prosecuting those who were arrested downtown this past summer during the protests; Establishing a conviction integrity unit. What motivated those decisions?

I think if you look at those ideas, they all overlap with the same issue, which is equity and fairness. I have one goal in mind: I want to make sure that everybody is getting a fair shake when they come into contact with the prosecutor’s office and the criminal justice system. 

Yet you’ve already pursued the death penalty, which is criticized as violating the Eighth Amendment. How do you square your brand as a progressive with support of that?

I think equity absolutely factors into the death penalty situation. I’ve only made the decision to pursue the death penalty in one case, and the victim was an African-American police officer. One of the things I consistently hear from the community is when the victim is not a person of color, the punishments tend to go one way, and when the victim is, the punishments go another way. Not filing the death penalty in that case would have validated people’s feelings that the lives of African Americans are not valued as much by the criminal justice system. So I thought it was important. 

You’re OK as a progressive politician with state-sponsored killing?

I think it definitely needs to be the rarest choice when you’re making that assessment. When you make a death request, it is just that, a request. We have preserved the right to pursue the death penalty. That doesn’t mean that the death penalty is automatically going to be imposed, and it’s a long road before the completion of this case. As always, we keep an open mind about everything, and we’re in constant dialogue with both the victim’s family, as well as the defense attorneys, and we’re open to other potential resolutions in that case. 

As a county prosecutor, particularly one in Indiana, what do you make of the Trump Administration’s approach to the death penalty in the final weeks of the administration, specifically carrying out a number of executions at Terre Haute’s federal prison? 

I thought it was terrible. It was not something that I think anybody should be proud of, and I was really disappointed in the way that was carried out. I feel like it undermines people’s confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system. In some of those cases, you had the people who actually prosecuted the case come out and say the death penalty was no longer warranted or appropriate. 

I imagine prosecuting the recent Adams Street murders, which claimed the lives of six family members, has occupied much of your time lately. What have gruesome episodes of violence like that taught you about the human condition?

Those cases are incredibly heartbreaking. You just can’t fathom how they could happen. But one thing that constantly amazes me is that, when you meet the survivors going through these awful scenarios, you often see the dignity and grace they carry themselves with. You see the power and goodness of people in awful times. It’s such a great reminder of why we do this: to help bring justice to those people. Even in awful situations, you sometimes get to meet and become friends with people who are just incredible.

Are you more pessimistic or optimistic about people based on what you’ve been dealing with every day?

It’s easy to get down and only think about the bad things. Unfortunately, I’ve prosecuted a lot of homicide cases, and as I’m driving through the city, I see the scenes where they occurred. But again, I continue to be optimistic because of the people I meet. Getting to understand their stories and where they’re coming from renews that optimism.

When running for prosecutor, you defeated Mayor Joe Hogsett’s special counsel Tim Moriarty, who was heavily backed by the mayor’s political machine. How did you pull off that upset?

I decided to be myself and say, “This is who I am, this is what I represent, and this is what is important to me.” And we just tried to outwork everyone else. We got in the car and went to people’s houses. We knocked on every door we could. And having had the opportunity to serve in the office in various capacities before, I felt like I was in a unique position to say, “These are the things that we can do better.” 

You started a convictions integrity unit to reexamine old Marion County criminal cases this year. Why?

We had really thoughtful conversations with the community about why there is this lack of trust with the criminal justice system. Some people felt they had friends or family members who had been treated unfairly in terms of how they were sentenced. If I’m going to sit here and acknowledge that there are systematic issues in the criminal justice system, that needs to affect how we make decisions in the office moving forward. But we also have to be willing to look backwards and say, “OK, if these convictions are not just, if they’re based on something other than the facts and the law, then we need to root out those convictions.” That’s my responsibility. 

Why do you think Mayor Hogsett has been unsuccessful so far in stemming the tide of violent crime in Indianapolis? 

I think part of it is circumstance, and some of the things that are going on are beyond his control. But I do think there has to be a greater emphasis on establishing trust in the community. It can’t be a buzzword. It can’t be the new acronym at a press conference. There have to be concrete, actionable steps that lead the community to believe that you have their best interest at heart and you’re there to help. If the only time you go into a community is when something bad happens, and then you demand information from people, you’re not going to be very successful.

Should the mayor have a public safety director?

I think that’s up to the mayor. A public safety director could certainly be helpful, but ultimately people are only successful if they’re empowered to do the job. The more important question is: Do people have the authority to do things they think would best serve the community? 

A lot of local Democratic insiders see you as an up-and-comer. Have you thought about pursuing a higher political office after your time as prosecutor comes to an end?

I love my current job. I think I’m pretty good at my job, and the reason is because I’ve trained my entire professional career to be the prosecutor. I can have a pretty big impact on Marion County doing what I’m doing here. If I ever became satisfied with the direction public safety is going and thought there might be a different office that could help make the community a safer place, then it would be something I’d consider. But right now, my political focus is on winning the election for prosecutor in 2022.

How do you sleep at night after spending the time that you do examining grisly evidence? Do you have nightmares? 

It’s a lot to deal with. During the week of the Adams Street murders, we were working on the probable cause affidavit. I told myself I wasn’t going to look at the photographs. Eventually, though, I had to look at them as we were working on the final document. It’s horrifying what you see, and it contextualizes everything in a way you can only understand if you see such things. I feel very fortunate because I have a great wife. I have two young kids who kind of help steer away my attention. I hate to use the word compartmentalize, but that’s really what you have to do. When work is done, I go home and have to be a dad to a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, and they have to get the best of me as well. I’m a huge basketball fan. I recently got a Peloton. And I watch way too much of The Office. So between family, sports, the Peloton, and The Office, those are enough things to keep me away from the darkness.