Community mourns loss of talented attorney

One of the most respected lawyers in the Columbus area has lost her battle with cancer.

Retired Bartholomew County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Kathleen M. “Kathy” Burns died Monday at the age of 66.

“She was the best criminal trial attorney that I have ever even witnessed at work in the courtroom,” said Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash in a written statement. “She was both my employee (for 18 years) and my mentor at the same time until she retired in the summer of 2020 during a COVID wave. And she was my friend. I miss her dearly.”

When Burns retired, Senior Judge Stephen Heimann expressed similar sentiment about Burns, calling her “the best overall trial lawyer I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”

Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin once described Burns as a giant in the local judicial system “who protected and defended the safety of the community without most people knowing it.”

Former two-term sheriff and current county council member Mark Gorbett said while Burns was passionate about her job, she “had a heart of gold.”

“Kathy taught me more about compassion for victims, and to always look at the big picture of how many lives a criminal case touches,” Gorbett said.

A Davies County native, Burns was the salutatorian of her high school class in Washington, Indiana. She received her bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in 1977 before being accepted into law school at Indiana University.

After serving as a prosecutor in Lake and Monroe counties, as well as spending a brief time as general counsel for the city of Fort Wayne, Burns spent the last 25 years of her career working initially for former Bartholomew County Prosecutor Joe Koenig before she was retained by Nash.

While she was known to shun the spotlight whenever possible, that became impossible when she became a victim as well as a prosecutor.

Burns was forced to prosecute Robert Bassett, Jr. twice for the brutal 1998 killings of a Seymour woman and three children. After his 2001 conviction was thrown out by the Indiana Supreme Court, the second trial was held in 2006. Again, Burns was successful in convincing the jury the defendant was guilty.

But prior to the second trial, it was discovered that Bassett conspired with a cellmate seeking to have Burns killed. Investigators said he wanted her dead because he thought another prosecutor would fail to get him convicted.

Bassett, who was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences after the 2006 trial, received an additional 80-years after being found guilty of conspiring to kill the deputy prosecutor.

Burns was also prosecutor during the February, 2015 quadruple homicide trial of Sam Sallee, convicted of murdering four individuals in a home in Waynesville in May 2013. During critical periods of that trial, news accounts stated that Burns and the prosecution team worked close to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

In an interview with The Republic prior to her retirement, Burns expressed regret that her career had kept her from spending as much time with her husband, Michael, and their three daughters – Sarah, Kelly and Emily – as she would have preferred.

But by explaining the good she was trying to accomplish, her children eventually began to feel vested in her work, she said.

“They came to understand my job, and I’d like to think they are proud of what I do,” Burns said.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Jewell-Rittman Family Funeral Home in Columbus.