Lee County District Attorney Pro Tem Jessica Ventiere is looking to "right the ship" and restore confidence in the Lee County District Attorney's Office after being named to the position by area judges in November.
Ventiere, who was serving as chief assistant district attorney, took over the role after District Attorney Brandon Hughes was suspended following his indictment on eight counts, including using his office for personal gain, perjury and conspiracy to commit theft.
"Ideally, this is not how anybody would want to take over any kind of position, but I am glad the judges gave me the opportunity to take this role over," she said. "Prosecution is important to me anyway, and so it's important to me to have the opportunity to right the ship, to get things back on track, to restore confidence in the office, so I take it very seriously. I understand the weight of having this interim position, what it means to the community and what it means to the people who work here."
Ventiere, a native of Enterprise who has worked in the Lee County District Attorney's Office as a prosecutor since 2012, got her undergraduate degree from Troy State and started prosecuting cases after graduating from the Cumberland School of Law in 2003. Her familiarity with the Lee County DA's office and her fellow colleagues has helped her transition into the role, she said.
"The fact that I know all the people who work here — I know their personalities, I know what good people they are and how important their work is to them — was a big help, knowing the judges, knowing how our own Justice Center works on the inside," she said. "It was something I didn't have to learn and so I could focus my attention on the things that needed to be corrected. Everybody who works in the DA's office has been incredibly supportive and that has been a huge help to know that I don't have to worry about that. Morale is good right now. Everybody's working together really well. Everybody's been really supportive and been patient with me as I figure out the next steps to take."
Ventiere said she is trying to institute some changes to make the DA's office more efficient, like possibly hiring more prosecutors, and trying to be good stewards of the office.
"When you have this kind of cloud hanging over the whole office, it's not going to be business as usual. I have no problem with that. I think rightly so, we're under a little extra scrutiny to make sure that we're doing what we need to be doing right here," she said. "In a sense, it's business as usual in that the people who work here have always done a good job and they've always taken their job seriously, and we've never taken our responsibility lightly. So that's business as usual.
"I think we're understaffed and have been understaffed for a while with prosecutors. I think we need some more people in the office. We're using a lot of the staff that we have already, but expanded roles, absorbing particular work to see where we can basically just be as efficient as we can and make sure every court has as much attention as it needs, that every victim has as much attention as they need, the courts have what they need, law enforcement has what they need, and that nobody is getting shorted any attention that's required."
Ventiere brings a unique and personal perspective as a prosecutor, as she was inspired to pursue a law degree after her grandmother, Verbie Davis, was murdered at her country store on the Coffee County-Dale County line in 1984. The case remains unsolved.
"It was like one of these mom-and-pop grocery stores, and somebody came in and robbed her and shot her and killed her, and it's still unsolved," she said. "I don't know when the first time was I really knew what a prosecutor was, but I can tell you since that occurred I've really not wanted to be anything else. I went to law school with the purpose of being a prosecutor.
"My whole purpose of going to law school was to be a prosecutor. That's all I wanted to do. It was my singular goal."
Ventiere will continue to serve as district attorney pro tem until Hughes' suspension is lifted or the seat is vacated through resignation or conviction of a disqualifying offense. If that happens, Gov. Kay Ivey would then appoint a district attorney to serve until the next election in 2022.
For those Lee County residents whose faith may have been shaken by the indictment and suspension of Hughes, Ventiere said the proof of the office's commitment to justice is in their work.
"I think that people can say a lot of things, they can make a lot of statements, but if you look at our work you would know that we are making the best decisions that we can," she said. "We take our ethical responsibilities very seriously. I can say a lot, but really it's what we do here."