After more than 20 years on the bench, Cook County Judge Evelyn Clay is set to retire in August.

Clay, who won election in 1996 after 15 years as an assistant state’s attorney, spent nearly all of her legal career in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, presiding over high-profile cases, including the murder trials of suburban car dealer Bruno Mancari – who was acquitted – and serial-killer Andre Crawford, who was convicted of killing 11 people.

“You could not ask for a more fair, even-tempered judge,” said attorney Jim McKay, who as an assistant state’s attorney led the prosecution at Crawford’s 2009 trial.

“I’m sorry to hear she’s going.”

Known for her generally reserved temperament on the bench, Clay earlier this month offered a stinging elocution before handing down a life sentence for Helen Ford, whom Clay had found guilty of murder in the death of Ford’s 8-year-old granddaughter.

In an interview, Clay said her handling of a recent case involving a veteran charged with assaulting a police officer was more indicative of her style. Asked to mediate negotiations between prosecutors and defense lawyers over a plea deal, Clay urged them to find a way to let the vet avoid a felony conviction. The case was moved to the county’s Veteran’s Court, which will allow the vet to get counseling and avoid a blot on his criminal record.

“You see so much pain in this building,” Clay said. “Locking folks up and throwing away the key is not always the best way to protect society. People can change. I’ve seen it.”

Clay said she doesn’t intend to enter private practice after her last day on Aug. 1, but is looking a way to become active in “restorative justice.” A native of North Carolina and the wife of a Navy officer, Clay and her family moved often before settling in the Chicago area.

Clay, then the mother of two young children, was inspired to study law by a law student friend whom she met while her husband was studying at Harvard in the late 1960s.

On the family’s next move, Clay enrolled in law school at the University of Alabama, where one of her classmates was the son of segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace.

She finished her law degree at Creighton University. Her daughter would eventually graduate from Harvard Law; her son is a doctor.

“It was a very ‘alive’ time in the ’60s and ’70s, and if you could do something, you did,” Clay said. “With the law, you could do something. The courts were holding things together that had been torn asunder.”