Eric Leonard specialized in prosecuting child sex abuse cases for much of his 20-year career at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, flexing an unrivaled ability to connect with children in order to put predators and abusers behind bars, said friends and colleagues.
When doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer and gave him six months to live, he beat the odds and lived three years. Leonard, a nonsmoker, worked up to a month before his death at age 55 in November 2017, eventually signing charging documents instead of trying cases in court when his health began to falter.
The county attorney's office recently dedicated its newly revamped children's interview room to Leonard and his work on behalf of child victims.
"Eric just captured everything that's good and important about prosecuting," said Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Dawn Bakst. "Children come into this office during some of the darkest times in their lives. They're victims or witnesses to crime, and the idea of providing some sort of sanctuary for them was something Eric always thought of."
The small beige room where children are interviewed by prosecutors and others in preparation for trial had been around for years. Attorneys would grab crayons, a ball or a book to use as an icebreaker.
But when Leonard's death left the office reeling in grief, his co-workers decided it was time for a change. They wanted the space to physically embody Leonard's "gentle, kind and tender approach" that allowed children to open up.
"He had a way of making children feel like they mattered, their voice matters," said Jill Gerber, assistant director of the office's criminal division. "There are lots of people who are constantly looking at their watches. … But when you were with Eric, you mattered and nothing else seemed to matter."
Leonard was working in private practice when he joined the county attorney's office in 1997. Friends said the University of Minnesota Law School alumnus felt compelled to work in the public sector.
"The pursuit of justice and service to the public meant more to him than the pursuit of a large paycheck," said Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Steve Pfaffe.
Pfaffe and Leonard together successfully prosecuted Gordon Weaver in 2010 for the 1999 murder of his wife, Jean Weaver. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Leonard was instrumental in earning the trust of Jean Weaver's family after her murderer's first conviction was overturned in 2007 due to a procedural error by a different prosecutor in the office.
In 2011, Leonard secured a 76-year prison sentence against Justus Kebabe for killing his wife, Bilha Omare, and two of the couple's three children.
That same year, Leonard successfully prosecuted a then-27-year-old man for luring a developmentally delayed 14-year-old girl into an alley and sexually assaulting her.
"The people that we're dealing with … they don't want to be here, and something really horrible has occurred," Choi said. "Eric had this uncanny ability to deal with all of those issues, and get people to let go of anything that was prohibiting their ability to be fully participating in the case."
'Reminder of what's good'
The office picked local artist Ara Elizabeth Schmidt to redecorate the children's interview room with colorful furniture and pillows and several original paintings, including a message crafted by Leonard's co-workers. An informal portrait of Leonard standing among stars with a heart floating above his open palm hangs on one wall.
Schmidt, who created a popular yard sign in the wake of the police killing of Philando Castile in 2016, worked pro bono. The county attorney's office paid for her supplies and materials.
While the goal was to put children at ease in the room — it has been used since its completion in early September — colleagues have also sought it out. Leonard was a mentor to many in the office.
"Just knowing that it's in this building is like this little reminder of what's important and good, and how we best serve justice and should strive to serve justice every day," Bakst said. "There definitely have been moments … where I just come and sit here for a minute when something particularly rough happens."