Kennedy walked the walk in DA’s office

Court adversary calls him professional, progressive

I HAVE SEEN some recent statements and articles criticizing Joe Kennedy III for working as a prosecutor for Republican District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, suggesting his work there indicates he is someone who opposes progressive change. As a former full-time public defender who lived on Cape Cod and went toe-to-toe in the courtroom with Kennedy, I saw the way he treated the indigent clients I represented, as well as hundreds of other defendants, rich and poor. I feel compelled to clarify the record on this issue—I write, simply, to let folks know that Kennedy is no stranger to the cause of social justice.

As a courtroom adversary, Kennedy was professional, diligent, and responsible in his representations to opposing counsel and to the court. And he treated indigent defendants and their families with uncommon dignity and respect. Of course, this should be expected from any member of the bar. What is more important is that Kennedy was conscious of the expectations that people projected onto him, and the impact they could have on the balance of the scales of justice. It would have been remarkably easy for him to press his many advantages and push for higher bails, longer sentences, and harsher charges to rack up a high conviction rate and earn points with his superiors.

Instead—and I suspect that he might be reluctant to admit this—Kennedy used his unique position to push back.

From what I saw, O’Keefe allowed his line prosecutors very little discretion in the way they charged and prosecuted cases.  Many of the prosecutors in the office bristled at O’Keefe’s standing rules. Some even denounced the unfairness of the more regressive policies to me in private.

But Kennedy did not grumble to me in private. When I pointed out something that was unfair to one of my clients, Kennedy’s response was, invariably, “Let me see what I can do.”

He pushed back against his superiors and ran things up the chain of command. In an environment where the default operating procedure for a line prosecutor was to push every charge to trial and pressure defendants into plea agreements, Kennedy would agree to drop overcharged offenses outright. He would agree to overturn other prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations and jointly recommend terms more favorable to my clients. Whenever one of my clients was charged, reasonably, with an offense that carried a mandatory minimum sentence, Kennedy never used the charge as a cudgel to force my client into an unreasonable plea.

These efforts did not go unnoticed during his time on the Cape. I saw more than one police officer give Kennedy an earful after a dismissal, and I saw him go through more than one tongue-lashing from a judge bewildered by a prosecutor who was willing to jointly recommend a reduction or removal of bail with defense counsel (many of the judges on the Cape at the time were former prosecutors in the district attorney’s office).

I recall one occasion where, after noticing inconsistencies in a police report, Kennedy pulled the arresting officer aside.  After the arresting officer admitted to Kennedy that he had misrepresented material facts, Kennedy agreed to drop the charge immediately. This is not a novel action for an ethical prosecutor, but it was not a common occurrence on the Cape when I worked there, and I don’t recall the practice being celebrated by local law enforcement, or by Kennedy’s superiors.

Meet the Author

Ricardo Brandon Rios

Former staff attorney, Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services
It is time for the regressive policies of so-called “law and order” prosecutors to be relegated from the mainstream. I don’t see any reason to think that Kennedy would stand in the way of such progress.  After all, I saw him in the courtroom doing the things we want progressive prosecutors to do, long before it was a policy position in a campaign.

Ricardo Brandon Rios is a former staff trial attorney for the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.