Heated Ending to DA Candidates' Final Debate
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — The buzz after Tuesday afternoon's district attorney debate centers on a last-second comment from candidate Judith Knight.
"Andrea, you have so little experience that you don't even know what you don't know," Knight said in her closing remarks.
Andrea Harrington attempted to chime in, objecting to Knight's statement. The two talked over each other as Harrington claimed Knight's comment was a "misrepresentation" of her experience and that she wouldn't stand for it, as Knight continued on. WAMC News Director Ian Pickus put a halt to Harrington's rebuttal and brought the debate to a close.
That was the second time during the hourlong debate that Knight, a former prosecutor, had taken a hard swipe at defense attorney Harrington, and the second time Pickus refused Harrington a chance for rebuttal. When discussing the role of politics in the district attorney's office, Knight hinted that Harrington was not ready when she said the office "needs an adult" in charge.
The attacks played well for incumbent Paul Caccaviello, who got to be the good cop to Knight's bad cop. He kept his message fairly free of attacks, though he did sneak in a jab or two about Harrington's experience as well. The longtime prosecutor claimed Harrington has only litigated eight trials in an attempt to show a contrast in experience.
As the primary election is just a week away, he has intensely focused on pushing his experience in the office.
"That is what my campaign is based on, experience, over 5,000 cases, over 15 murder cases," said Caccaviello, who's spent nearly 30 years in the Berkshire district attorney's office.
While Harrington found herself on the receiving end of attacks, she didn't hold back on her criticism of Caccaviello. She said the office failed under former District Attorney David Capeless, who handpicked Caccaviello as his successor in March, to embrace concepts of a drug court and diversion programs, had focused too much time on "low-level" drug cases and hadn't put in resources to address sexual assault cases.
Because of that, Berkshire County is getting hit harder than elsewhere by public safety issues, she said.
"They really have continued to wage the failed war on drugs," Harrington said.
Harrington has cast herself as the reformer. She has consistently refuted claims of inexperience by citing 15 years as an attorney -- from death-row appeals to civil cases to criminal defense. She said she brings a different experience than Caccaviello -- and many of the attorneys in the office -- who have been solely local prosecutors.
"We get people who are in an office for a long time. It can create calcification. I think that is what we are seeing in criminal justice in Berkshire County," Harrington said.
That is something Knight agrees with.
Knight again cited the decade-old Great Barrington case of young men who were arrested on drug charges, many of them teenagers. She said all of them were brought up on serious charges despite many of sales being for marijuana. She said the community had called on Capeless not to use the mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana sales in a school zone but that Capeless "dug in his heels."
Those weren't handled on a case-by-case basis, she said, as Caccaviello has routinely said he'd do, but lumped into the same court to go after all of them.
"It has been a dark time under former district attorney Capeless," Knight said. "He would not take in information from other people as to how things could be different."
Caccaviello refuted that claim, saying 10 of the 12 individuals charged with just marijuana had the charges dismissed. He said the other cases involved cocaine, heroin, and ketamine -- not just marijuana in a school zone. He further said that the entire investigation was launched at the request of the community.
Caccaviello called Capeless' 14 years in office as "principled and unafraid."
A similar alignment of the candidates was had on a question relating to illegal firearms. Knight and Harrington both went after Caccaviello's record saying the office hadn't handled those cases aggressively enough.
"I have seen this district attorney's office drop gun charges rather than drop drug charges," Knight said. "I think the guns are much more dangerous than drugs."
Harrington said it is the job of the district attorney's office to enforce strict gun laws and her office would be much more serious about it -- particularly when it comes to safe storage.
Caccaviello, however, said not all gun charges are equal. He said sometimes the violation is just paperwork. He doesn't believe that is a jailable offense and that it can be handled with community service, probation, or a fine. He said there are times the office has to drop gun cases because it is a case it can't win.
But when there are serious firearm charges, Caccaviello said the offenders are "diligently prosecuted."
When it comes to politics, Harrington found herself the odd person out. She sees politics as a way to bring change and she feels it is important for Democrats to win races all over the ballot.
But despite competing for a political party nomination, Knight and Caccaviello said there is no room for politics in the district attorney's office.
"It has to be absolutely free of the political noise, local politics, and the bigger picture. It is about doing what is right for this county and being neutral and objective," Knight said.
Caccaviello said when a case needs to be handled, politics shouldn't play any role in it. He said politics is an "ill fit" for the office.
Harrington, however, also took a swipe at Caccaviello saying politics are already in the office as shown when Capeless resigned early and worked behind the scenes to get the governor's office to appoint Caccaviello, thus giving him the advantage of incumbency prior to the election.
Overall, Tuesday's debate revealed little new about the candidates who will compete for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, an election that will essentially determine the new district attorney. The majority of the topics discussed had been asked during previous debates and the candidates stood firm in the positions they've taken throughout the campaign.
Caccaviello has positioned himself as the most experienced prosecutor. Harrington is the candidate positioning herself to bring change to an ineffective office through her diverse set of experiences and vision for new ideas. Knight is finding a niche in the middle, leaning on five years of experience as a prosecutor and 25 years as a defense attorney as the one to bring progressive ideas to the office.
Tags: debate, Democratic Party, district attorney, election 2018, primary,