Tom M. Henning, Stark County State’s Attorney, submitted his resignation to the Stark County Commission effective Feb. 1, 2021. Hennings resignation was formally accepted unanimously during the regularly scheduled Stark County Commission meeting on Dec. 29.
"I was not surprised by Tom's letter, I look at it more as a retirement letter because he's has more than 30 years with Stark County and has been talking about retirement for a while," Ken Zander, Stark County Commissioner, said. "He probably would have retired this time last year had it not been for COVID and the loss of an Assistant State's Attorney last year."
Described by those who worked with him as a "compassionate man" who balanced punishment with empathy, Zander said that his time working alongside Henning during commission meetings has left him with a better understanding of the man.
"He's a prosecutor at heart, but he is also very compassionate at heart. He's not the type of prosecutor that goes head over heels for maximum sentences," Zander said. "I think he takes a broad view of the defendants and is more interested in seeing rehabilitation than the old lock them up and throw away the key type of view."
Henning, who graduated from the University of North Dakota, began his tenured judicial service shortly after being admitted to the North Dakota Bar more than 41 years ago, on June 4, 1979. During his judicial service, Henning served as the Assistant State’s Attorney for Stark County and in 1988 represented the State of North Dakota for the first time in a case before the North Dakota Supreme Court.
In 1998 Henning was sworn in as the Stark County State’s Attorney, and his resignation leaves the position to Assistant State’s Attorney Amanda R. Engelstad. Engelstad will be sworn in as State’s Attorney upon the effective date of Henning’s resignation.
Engelstad was admitted to the North Dakota Bar on Sept. 28, 2015, and has been representing the state in court cases before the Supreme Court since 2017.
The journey to becoming the state's attorney varies, but Engelstad said she has always had an interest in the law and enjoys the body of law that relates to the apprehension, charging and trial of suspected persons — the criminal side of law.
She detailed her excitement with being involved with the State’s Attorney Office in an interview in 2017.
"I was very fortunate that I am here because I only really had an interest in criminal law," she said in a previous interview. "I was fortunate to get the job that I did because I do get to work in the criminal area, which is really what I focused on and what my interest was."
"I have full faith and confidence in the abilities of Amanda to assume that position, and I agree with the recommendations of Tom in her appointment," Zander said. "She very astute, careful in her study of the law and will be a great asset for the commission."
During his tenure, Henning witnessed a change in the methodology of handling criminals in the judicial and corrections systems as well as an opioid pandemic brought on by the rapid population growth driven by the oil boom in western North Dakota — a fact that has not diminished since the downturn.
Henning remarked that the number of cases his office has taken since the oil boom began has not changed or diminished, and that meth-related crimes are the most common his office handled during his tenure.
"Methamphetamine use in western North Dakota is epidemic and has been for 10 years," he said. "We're seeing overdoses on a far more frequent basis. Before heroin showed up we had a meth epidemic as far as I'm concerned and that continues, but there must have been a time where methamphetamine was so expensive here that other marketers felt that there must have been a market for heroin."
The ongoing drug issues on the Western Edge will be something that Engelstad and her staff will have to contend with as she assumes the position on Feb. 1.
During his tenure, Henning also was outspoken about the reforms made by the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Following reports that the DOCR had, in the name of increasing "contact" between corrections staff and "residents," begun changing policies and practices, Henning was outspoken about the changes.
He said he believed the reforms wouldn't be successful in the United States, as they were modeled after the Scandanavian system. He said he believed that the move was more of a monetary solution than a corrections-minded one, and bad for the state.
"I completely and vociferously disagree with her manner and method, which is being done effectively and essentially with the goal of saving money because our Legislature is refusing to expand, rebuild or renew a penitentiary because they don't want to spend the money," he said.
Henning’s tenure as State’s Attorney was a positive one, according to former elected officials who cited his service as being beyond reproach.