(Posted Feb. 24, 2021)
By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
When Steve Pronai retired on Dec. 31 of last year, he did so as the longest serving prosecuting attorney in Madison County’s 210-year history.
The legacy he leaves following 24 years in office is that of a mentor, skilled mediator, and someone who treated everyone with dignity.
“As a young prosecutor, you need a mentor to not only teach you how to try a case but also to remind you that your job is to seek just results,” said Madison County Common Pleas Court Judge Eamon Costello. “Steve instilled in me that it’s not just about having competitive instincts; it’s also about excellent ethics and justice first–not win at all costs.”
Costello first met Pronai in 1993 when they were both working for the Greene County court system. Pronai was a docket attorney for common pleas, and Costello was fresh out of law school, working for the juvenile court.
Costello’s first impression of the person he would go on to call his “absolute mentor” was that of a “very relatable guy with a good sense of humor who was grounded in how he assessed cases.” That made it easy to say “yes” when in 1996, shortly after Pronai became Madison County prosecutor, Pronai called Costello, asking him to come aboard as an assistant prosecutor.
From that vantage point and later as a judge, Costello got to see Pronai’s skills in action‑in particular, his diplomacy.
“What people might not know and appreciate is how good he was at helping to resolve conflicts before they became problematic,” Costello said, referring to disputes among stakeholders in the county. “The common denominator was that everyone–people on opposite sides–would go to him and bounce stuff off of him. That’s a really valuable asset that seems to be in somewhat vanishing supply.”
Raised in Centerville, Ohio, Pronai graduated from Centerville High School in 1973. He grew up watching crime and court shows on television and, from those, thought being a trial attorney would be exciting.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Wright State University and his law degree from Ohio Northern University. He was accepted to the Ohio Bar in 1984, the federal bar in 1985, and to practice before the United States Supreme Court in 1998.
Pronai served as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Madison County from 1985 to 1992 and held the same position in Greene County from 1993 through 1995. He practiced law in Madison County with Tanner, Mathewson & Hansgen in 1995-96, before taking office as county prosecutor.
About his career, Pronai said, “I looked forward to going to work every day because I always knew something new or interesting was going to happen.”
Pronai represented the state in thousands of criminal and civil cases in all courts in Greene and Madison counties. He also argued cases before the 12th District Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court.
Among the cases that stand out, he said, is one in which the death penalty was awarded, the only time in Madison County history that has happened. The trial took place shortly after Pronai took office as county prosecutor. An inmate at Madison Correctional Institution had led other members of the Arian Brotherhood in taking over the prison’s juvenile wing and stabbing to death a 17-year-old African American inmate.
“We tried five of the six, got the death penalty for the ringleader, and 30-to-life for the rest,” Pronai said.
Another standout case was the homicide of a teenaged girl whose body was discovered in a West Jefferson cemetery in 1991. Jim Sabin, former Madison County sheriff, worked the case. Seventeen years later, The Ohio Bureau of Identification and Investigation got a DNA hit, linking the evidence to a suspect located in North Carolina. The man was extradited to Ohio and found guilty of the murder.
About the case, Pronai said “seeing how forensics works and the importance of it in criminal arena” made a lasting impression.
Outside of the high-profile cases, Pronai was just as dedicated to the more day-to-day operations of the county.
“To me, being the county prosecutor is about helping law enforcement, helping the county stay safe, and helping the people in the county stay safe,” he said. “On the civil side, the county sits to the west of Franklin County and Columbus and is in a position to grow, which could cause issues for the county. It was interesting to help county officials prepare for orderly growth.”
He praised leaders in various positions across the county for making a serious effort to work together in the name of safety and responsible growth.
He also thanked voters for their support.
“It was an honor to serve the people of the county, and I appreciate that they elected me all those years,” he said.
About his decision not to seek re-election last year, Pronai said, “Twenty-four years is a long time. It’s time for new blood and new thoughts on how to run the office. It was a good run, but now it’s somebody else’s turn.”
That somebody is Nick Adkins who was elected as county prosecutor in November and took office on Jan. 1. Adkins served as assistant prosecutor under Pronai for several years.
“When (Costello) became judge, I looked for my next assistant prosecutor. I settled on Nick pretty quickly. He’s a good debater and showed real aptitude for the trial work,” Pronai said.
About passing the torch to Adkins, he added, “He is trained and ready to go, so I felt good about stepping down and moving on.”
In a write-up about his former boss, Adkins noted that Pronai always treated everyone with dignity and humanity, including the people he was prosecuting.
“He was known to give defendants a cheeseburger or handful of mints during long jury trials,” Adkins wrote. The defendant in the Arian Brotherhood case even shook Pronai’s hand after being sentenced to the death penalty.
“Integrity was key to his leadership,” Adkins continued, noting that Pronai often reminded his staff that “they wear the white hats and should always act like the good guys.”
Prior to Pronai, the county’s longest serving prosecutor was Forrest Sidener (1941-1961).
Pronai’s affiliations included the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, National College of District Attorneys, Madison County Bar Association, Ohio State Bar Association, Madison County Township Association, and the National Organization for Victim Assistance.