PITTSFIELD — The three candidates for Berkshire District Attorney squared off Wednesday evening, focusing on the fairness of the criminal justice system, prosecutorial professionalism, handling domestic violence cases and other issues facing the county's top law enforcer.
Before a standing-room-only crowd, debate sponsor Berkshire Democratic Brigades welcomed to the American Legion Post 68 Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington, both private practice lawyers, and interim Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello.
Since all three candidates are Democrats and no other parties have candidates on the ballot for the four-year term, the Sept. 4 Democratic primary essentially will decide the race. The winner will succeed former District Attorney David Capeless, who retired in March after nearly 14 years in office. Gov. Charlie Baker appointed Caccaviello, the first assistant district attorney, to replace Capeless.
The first debate of the first contested Berkshire District Attorney race in 12 years immediately showed the differences, if at times subtle, between the two challengers and the incumbent.
Harrington and Knight not only applauded the state's criminal justice reform bill that eliminated certain mandatory minimum sentences, they advocated that more should be be wiped from the law books.
"They were a mistake," Knight said. "I opposed them when I ran for [Berkshire District Attorney] in 2006, and I oppose them now."
Harrington noted: "They put a lot of power in the district attorney's hands, not giving judges discretion in certain cases."
Caccaviello believes the debate over mandatory minimum sentences is with the Legislature, not his office.
"The district attorney's function is to enforce the law ... like them or don't like them," he said.
As for bail reform, Harrington called for eliminating all cash bail options for defendants, with Knight supporting judges reviewing the accused's ability to pay in determining bail.
Caccaviello noted that the reform bill codifies jurists already doing such bail reviews.
Sticking with the perceived inequities of the courts, especially where the poor and minorities are involved, Caccaviello said he looks at the merits of each case, not the defendant's socioeconomic status.
"Those social ills start before they get to court. They need to be dealt with in the Legislature with solutions before they enter the court system," he said.
Harrington said she felt the district attorney has a role in providing information regarding possible inequities.
"We need data to analyze to see if people are being treated fairly," she said.
Knight said she felt the District Attorney's Office could go a step further, using the drug forfeiture it receives to pay for projects such as a community center for the disenfranchised.
When asked about the professionalism of a district attorney in turning over all exculpatory evidence to the defense, Knight, a veteran defense attorney, gave high marks to the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
"I don't see a concern here, they follow the law," she said.
Caccaviello thanked her for the vote of confidence, citing how he sits down with the defense attorney in every case to go over files.
"It's an open file, and if we disagree, we have the courts," he noted.
Harrington has worked on cases outside the Berkshires where the district attorney withheld evidence crucial to the defense; doing so jeopardizes the case.
"This is how we protect convictions and prevent being overturned on appeal," she said.
If elected, Harrington would create a high-risk domestic violence task force, similar to the one operating for Hampshire and Franklin counties.
Since its inception six years ago, the Richmond native said neither county has had a single domestic violence-related death.
"[Berkshire County] had three domestic violence fatalities in the past year," she noted.
Caccaviello said he has taken steps to form such a task force.
"I'm committed to getting a better result. Domestic violence should never be tolerated," he said.
Knight would ensure continuity in the handling of domestic violence cases.
"I would have the same prosecutor follow the case all the way through," she said.
On handling the sensitive case of a police officer accused of a crime, Knight called it a challenge, and possibly a special prosecutor would be needed, given the close relationship the district attorney has with local police.
Harrington also advocated for outside help to prosecute such cases, but not Caccaviello, unless there is a true conflict of interest.
He believes the evidence, not whether the defendant wears a uniform, dictates the direction of the case.
As for who's most qualified to be Berkshire District Attorney, Knight spoke of her 30 years of trial experience in the Berkshires and eastern Massachusetts
"I was also a prosecutor for five years in Middlesex County; not many people know that," she said.
Caccaviello was hired as an assistant district attorney right out of law school.
"I happen to think experience matters. I've been in [the Berkshire District Attorney] office for 30 years," he said.
Citing high crime rates in North Adams and Pittsfield, Harrington said it's time voters made a change.
"They can chose someone with energy and passion ... or the status quo," she said. "If you want reform, you need a reformer."
Dick Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 413-496-6233