Current Henderson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Herbie McKee and challenger Bobby Norris have both claimed they are the most experienced candidate while criticizing the other’s job performance leading up to the Nov. 7 election for the county’s top prosecutor position.
McKee said he is the only one with jury trial experience in Henderson, claiming that Norris hasn’t taken a case to a jury trial since he’s been working locally.
“In District Court, as far as I can tell, he’s not tried a single case,” McKee said.
As an assistant in the Henderson County Attorney Steve Gold’s office, Norris focuses on the traffic docket, misdemeanors and felony preliminary hearings, which—if evidence warrants—are typically moved to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office for presentation to the grand jury. Norris agreed that he hasn’t had many trials in Henderson.
But Norris in the past worked as an assistant in the Barren County Attorney’s office, and there it was a different story. He said there were a few defense attorneys who never settled and always aimed to get their clients to trial. He worked 35 jury trials in Barren County District Court, he said, which he said is more than McKee.
Norris said he has more overall experience than McKee, including 14 years as a prosecutor—10 in Barren County and four in Henderson County—and 10-plus years as a defense attorney in private practice. He has more experience as prosecutor than McKee’s total attorney experience, and more defense attorney experience than McKee’s total, Norris said.
In a recent virtual candidate debate hosted by the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, McKee—who has been the local Commonwealth’s Attorney for a little over a year—responded that the number of years practicing is “not the same as trying a case and leading an office.”
The race is shaping up to be an interesting one, with several subplots outside of the courtroom.
For one, Norris, a Republican, could be a recipient of straight Republican ticket voters that political observers, especially Democrats in the county, claim have brought victory to other GOP candidates in recent elections. McKee, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said people ought to vote for the candidate and not the party, adding he’s talking to Republicans on the trail who are agreeing with his stances. Norris said the same about Democrats he’s spoken to.
Norris said he knows he’ll be battling his opponent’s name recognition when Hendersonians go into the voting booth. McKee is a native son whose parents, Kass and Herb McKee, were involved in the community for years. His father, Herb, a well-known businessman and politician, died last year.
McKee, 41, said he draws on that same sense of community spirit and that’s another reason why he’s the best man for the job. McKee is a founding board member of the Henderson Boys and Girls Club, a founding board member of the Henderson FFA Alumni and a member of the Lions Club. McKee said he’s not aware of Norris’ involvement in any community organization.
Norris said many people are good at many things, but he’s good at one—prosecuting. And he said that keeping the community safe as a prosecutor is what he can give to the community.
“Prosecuting is my niche,” he said.
Norris grew up in Russellville and first moved to Henderson right out of law school, working for almost a year at local law firm Trimble, Lindsey and Shea, before moving to work in the Barren County Attorney’s office for about 10 years and then a short stint in private practice in Glasgow. In Nov. 2011, Norris returned to Henderson and worked in private practice. In 2019, he started at the Henderson County Attorney’s Office, where he still works.
Norris ran unsuccessfully for the Henderson County Family Judge seat against David Curlin last year. He also ran for commonwealth’s attorney in Barren County in 2006 and lost that race.
In the local court system, Norris said he believes that defendants facing persistent felony offender cases are let off too easily in Henderson. When persistent felony offender charges aren’t a part of a sentence, an offender needs only serve 20% of a sentence before being eligible to appear before a parole board.
“It appears that PFO charges here traditionally are dealt away when they could be better utilized to keep offenders locked up longer,” he said. “If it’s appropriate and in play, I’m not going to deal it away.”
He also said he’ll take more cases to trial. “I would absolutely want more trials,” Norris said.
In the candidate debate, McKee refuted that, saying Norris continues to talk about trying big cases when “we’re the only ones trying big cases.”
McKee is a strong supporter of the Rocket Docket and Drug Court. Norris, however, is a bit more tepid. The Rocket Docket allows for specific cases to skip the preliminary hearing stage and presentation of evidence to the grand jury to expedite the legal process. Drug Court allows for non-violent drug offenders to go to a treatment facility instead of jail. If an offender graduates from the facility, their sentence is commuted.
Of the Rocket Docket, Norris said, “I would probably utilize it.” But he’d want to review so that the parameters and consequences connected to it are strict enough. And he believes there is a place for utilizing Drug Court.
McKee is more enthusiastic. He said the Rocket Docket allows a defendant facing a possession charge to get into treatment much more quickly. And with Drug Court, he said there are 49 current participants, up from 15 in July 2022.
“If we can force them to go to long-term treatment after a short stint in jail, then we can prevent a lot of the unnecessary crimes from occurring,” McKee said, adding it helps the defendant “but it also helps their family, their children and it costs less on the taxpayer.”
McKee previously worked as the Henderson Circuit Court clerk for six years, resigning effective April 16, 2022. Court documents show he was sworn in as assistant commonwealth’s attorney on April 25, 2022, and then appointed by Gov. Andy Beshear as commonwealth’s attorney on Sept. 1, 2022, after the retirement of former Commonwealth’s Attorney, Bill Markwell.
Markwell resigned too close to the general election date in 2022 for an election to be held to fill his unexpired term. The next election—this year’s—is fulfilling that mandate.
An interesting side note is that the race’s winner will fill the year left in Markwell’s unexpired term, so potentially the current candidates could meet again in next year’s race.
Since taking over, McKee said he and his staff have accomplished a great deal, including getting caught up on the backlog of cases leftover from the pandemic and securing guilty verdicts on big cases. He points to large sentences—16 years average—on cases involving fentanyl trafficking. McKee has posted information about numerous guilty verdicts on his Facebook page.
“The stakes are so much higher in felony court,” McKee said. “People are fighting for their lives, not their weekends.”
Norris complained that he has sent strong felony cases up from Henderson District Court to the local commonwealth’s attorney’s office only to have them return to him. McKee called that a “mischaracterization” because a grand jury makes those calls, not the commonwealth’s attorney.
But Norris responded with an old saying: “Any prosecutor worth his salt can indict a ham sandwich.” He added that he believes he’d be able to get those indictments.
A final bone of contention for Norris involves shock probation, a practice he said McKee signs off on too often. Shock probation allows a convicted offender to be let out of incarceration and put on probation after a certain amount of time—from 30 to 180 days—with the idea that jail was so much of a shock to the offender that recidivism won’t occur.
Norris said in interviews, and again in the virtual debate, that McKee signed off on shock probation agreements that allowed offenders of “absolutely egregious” types of cases to be let out on probation. Norris said that has included cases involving drug trafficking and strangulation, as well as one child pornography offender.
McKee answered that his predecessor utilized shock probations often and that he’s getting rid of it.
“That is a process we are phasing out of the criminal justice process in Henderson County,” McKee said.
Both candidates point to their young children—making the community safer for them—as a reason they want the job. Norris has four children, ranging in age from 1 to 7. McKee has two children, ages 4 and 2.
And both believe they’re a head above the other.
“I’ve got proven experience,” McKee said. “Both being tough on crime and being a community leader.”
Norris countered, “I firmly believe I can do the job better than anybody else in Henderson.”