DA candidates work to distinguish themselves at debate ahead of 3-way primary

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PITTSFIELD — The three candidates for Berkshire District Attorney battled it out in a debate on Monday night.

Voters will, in the primary election on Sept. 4, decide the next district attorney from among the Democratic candidates since no Republican is on the ballot.

The candidates are District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, who succeeded David Capeless in March and has worked over two decades in the Berkshire District Attorney's Office; Andrea Harrington, who's worked as an attorney for 15 years, including in post-conviction work for people on death row, defense work in juvenile court and labor law; and Judith Knight, who's worked for 30 years as an attorney, including work as a defense attorney, prosecutor and legal mediator.

The debate at Berkshire Community College was hosted by the Pittsfield Gazette and moderated by former Pittsfield mayor Sara Hathaway.

Early in the debate, Hathaway asked about jailhouse informants and how the candidates would or wouldn't use them.

Andrea Harrington said transparency is key to using this kind of information. "The integrity of the system depends on the integrity of the prosecutor," she said.

Knight said jailhouse informants will always be motivated to get out, and that motivation can spur false testimony. When striking deals with them, Knight said she'd be sure to use independent evidence to corroborate their claim, and put it in writing so that everyone is aware.

Harrington and Knight both used the term "snitches" when answering the question, which Caccaviello took issue with. He said the word carries a negative connotation.

"I don't like to use the term `snitches,'" he said, "because I like to encourage people to come forward with truthful information."

In answering a question about handling evidence, Caccaviello noted his longstanding experience with crime scenes. "I trained under David Capeless," he quipped at one point.

"I've heard that," Hathaway said, prompting laughs from the crowd.

Hathaway asked about what data each candidate would collect if elected, and all agreed the office should keep track demographics of the people being convicted.

Knight said implicit racial bias has been an ongoing theme in the race, and so making this data public "would be a check and balance for the District Attorney's Office."

Harrington said the office should be using data to redefine its success. "It's time for us to be answerable to the community," she said.

Hathaway asked the candidates to choose a favorite amendment from the Bill of Rights.

Knight cited the First Amendment, recalling a case in which she defended a second-home owner who'd not been allowed to speak during a Town Meeting.

"We won " she said. "It was worth it, and the community was better for it."

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Caccaviello said the First Amendment is also his favorite, noting the beautiful chaos that happens in municipal meetings.

"You know what's a more volatile scene than a murder scene? A Town Meeting," he said, to laughs from the crowd.

Harrington listed the Eighth Amendment, which states the criminal justice system shall not use "cruel and unusual punishment." She said the amendment brings to mind a case in which she got someone off death row who'd committed a crime as a child.

The case taught her about how to deal with the minds of children, she said, and those are lessons she aims to take with her into the office.

The candidates also debated the merits of specialty courts, like drug courts.

Harrington called herself "a huge proponent" of drug courts, adding that those who don't meet the threshold for drug courts she'd like to capture through a diversion program.

Caccaviello said Berkshire County's drug court has produced only two graduates. While such courts can accomplish great things, he said, the program is rigorous and "the numbers are low."

Knight said that a big reason numbers are so low is that those in the program have so many check-ins to make that they can't also hold down a job. That makes it hard for many to participate.

Still, she said, she defended one of the drug court graduates and found the program transformative.

For those two graduates, Knight said, it changed their lives.

"That's worth every penny," she said.

Hathaway asked about fairness, and how each candidate would pursue it.

Knight said she would veer away from "hard minimums," and Harrington said she would build a more transparent office that is more accountable to the public.

Caccaviello said he'd draw from experience to exercise prosecutorial discretion, which means sometimes it doesn't make sense to pursue a mandatory minimum.

"Experience matters," Caccaviello said.

Harrington disagreed.

"The old way of doing things is not working ," she said in closing. "We need leaders, not followers."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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