Eliason’s attorney working two felony murder casesPublished 8:57am Thursday, March 18, 2010
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
Though he probably wouldn’t be so quick to say so, the career of attorney Lanny Fisher seems to have almost been building up to the point of his recent decision to take on representation of Dakotah Eliason, 14, one of the youngest in the county to be charged as an adult for open murder.
The case has gotten quite a bit of attention and Fisher is preparing for the long haul. With the preliminary examination looming, Eliason’s attorney took a few minutes to talk to the Star about his career and what led him to take on such a controversial case.
‘A lot of parallels’
One thing Fisher doesn’t deny is the parallels between himself and his latest case.
“There are a lot of parallels here,” he said.
His father graduated from Buchanan High School in the same class as Jesse Miles. Fisher rode the school bus with Dakotah’s father, Steven Eliason; they grew up in the same neighborhood and played sports together.
“Then again I imagine in a small town like that (Buchanan) I imagine there are a lot of those (types of situations).”
Following the shooting on March 7, which left Miles dead and Steven’s son in police custody, Fisher said his clients were referred to him.
After they met, Fisher said Steven “was comfortable coming to me.”
“There’s no doubt as soon as I heard about it I know that it was going to be a big case,” he said. Which begs the question – did he hesitate in taking it on?
“I don’t think that I really did,” he said. “The only hesitation I had was am I going to be able to dedicate the time to represent Dakotah?”
‘A different animal’
Fisher doesn’t yet claim to have a specialty. He opened his office in Buchanan just two years ago. He studied at Western Michigan University and graduated from Ave Maria, a Catholic law school formerly located in Ann Arbor, now located in Naples, Fla.
“I think it would be really hard to specialize in Buchanan or in southwest Michigan,” he said. “So I take what really comes in the door.”
That is a “pretty well-divided” amount of criminal and family law.
“Right now I have probably around 30 open cases,” he said. But he’s also quick to point out that some of those cases are divorce cases with time limits attached before they can be closed.
“It’s a different animal, the family court,” he said.
So too, he said, is felony murder. And the Eliason case just happens to come on the heels of another profile case Fisher is working on in Allegan County.
It’s the case of Van Buren Hutchison, of Berrien Springs, who was arrested last year after police, according to the Holland Sentinel, reopened the cold case of the rape and murder of Jeanette Reeves, a 25-year-old Chicago woman whose body was found in the Kalamazoo River in 1993.
“They charged him based on some statements he made while he was incarcerated in the Van Buren County Jail,” Fisher said.
Fisher was referred to in this case as well through another client.
“Essentially they didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he said of his client. “I was as convinced as I possibly could be that he’s not guilty of this and I just couldn’t say no. I felt like he needed an advocate he needed someone to pick up his cause and advocate for him.”
With a cold case law enforcement team working over evidence and interviews and facts of the case, Fisher said on the other side there was Hutchison.
“He didn’t have anybody on his side,” he said.
Fisher estimates the case file is 2,000 pages long.
“(But) I became an attorney because I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to be a part of challenging cases,” he said. “That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
‘On a path’
After graduating from Western Michigan University in 1993, Fisher went to work within for an imaging company that provided various types of images within the health care industry.
Still, he said he knew he wanted to be an attorney and he started law school in 2002 during which he held two summer internships he landed at the Cass County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Obviously, that’s all criminal,” he said of the court. “And that’s when I realized this is something I really like. At that point I started to focus on the criminal side of things.”
He followed up those internships with a clerkship working for Judge Michael Dodge.
“I learned way more from him in that year and a half than I did in law school,” Fisher said.
Calling it a “court on a budget” Fisher said he also had to act as bailiff from time to time.
“I was able to see everything unfold,” he said. “I would even help bring the prisoners in and out of the court room.”
He could observe the neutral status of the court and watch “a wide variety of defense attorneys … every attorney has a different approach,” he said.
And he learned a lot from Dodge himself, who he said “was very good … at taking the time to answer my questions.”
That experience will come in handy as Fisher heads to court on two significant felony murder cases.
“In a way I do feel that way,” Fisher said when asked if he felt his career had led him to this point. “That this is a path that I’ve been on,” he said.
And it’s hard to say whether another case might come up he can’t say no to.
“You can’t predict who’s going to be on the other end of the phone as it rings,” he said. “During the process what you’re trying to do is just cover all your bases and make sure you have all the info and make sure you’re working the case as hard as you can.”
Another lesson Fisher has learned through his career?
“Certainly I think any attorney would tell you it’s probably not healthy to be tied emotionally to the outcome of your cases,” he said. “But it’s really hard not to.”