Berkshire County DA’s race: baggage, experience, politics
Caccaviello, Harrington, and Knight battle for Dem nomination
BY ALL INDICATIONS, the Democratic primary race for Berkshire County district attorney has been a bruiser. In public forums and interviews, the incumbent and his two challengers have challenged each other repeatedly, forcing the candidates to defend their commitment to reform, relevant experience, and fitness for office.
“This is all good for democracy,” said Rahsaan Hall of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which is leading a statewide education campaign on the critical role DAs play in shaping law enforcement practices.
Organizations across Berkshire County have taken the race seriously, hosting a total of eight debates and forums, which became increasingly heated as the summer dragged on.
The race got off to bumpy start when former Berkshire DA David Capeless resigned in March, 10 months before his term was scheduled to end. Capeless asked the governor to appoint his first assistant, Paul Caccaviello, as the interim district attorney. Though the move was intended to help Caccaviello out, it generated some negative backlash. Despite Capeless’s long-standing reputation for professionalism and integrity, the Caccaviello appointment was widely criticized by residents and advocates as unfairly giving him the home court advantage.
Caccaviello, who worked for the past four Berkshire County district attorneys, isn’t convinced his new position gives him a leg up. “I don’t have a war chest or a political machine. I’ve never run for anything in my life,” he said. “The advantage goes to my opponents. It gives them a talking point. I’m not running on five months of being the titled DA. I’m running on 30 years of experience, 15 murder trials, and over 300 tried cases.”
The dynamics of the race echo tensions in campaigns across the nation, as insider candidates who know the ropes are pitted against outsiders who say the legal and political systems need an overhaul.
Andrea Harrington’s reform campaign focuses on the importance of new ideas and a fresh start. Judith Knight says her 30 years as a mediator, defense attorney, and prosecutor give her a reformer’s perspective with an eye towards treatment and prevention. Caccaviello’s approach is more by-the-book. He argues that criminal justice reform is no longer a promise, it’s the law. (“The district attorney’s job is to enforce the will of the Legislature,” he said.) To do that highly specialized work, he said, experience is crucial.
Caccaviello and Knight both say relevant experience is what Harrington sorely lacks. “Given that we have over 6,000 cases active at all times, I have learned you need to spend a great deal of time on investigations and case preparation for criminal prosecution in court. Andrea Harrington has zero experience in these areas,” Caccaviello said in a statement. He said his research indicates she has tried seven cases in Berkshire County, most of them dealing with operating under the influence. “Since she has not done the work, and because she appears intent on cleaning house of the existing talented staff, the county would be engaging in a high-risk experiment, with the inexperienced leading the inexperienced,” he said.
Harrington has worked for the past 12 years as a defense and employment lawyer at several firms in western Massachusetts. Prior to that, she worked for a few years at a firm in Florida specializing in death row appeals.
At a town hall forum in Beckett earlier this month, the candidates were asked what cases they would move to Superior Court. Harrington responded that misdemeanor cases are tried in district court, whereas felonies are tried in superior court. Both Knight and Caccaviello corrected her, saying felonies with less than five-year maximum sentences may be tried in District Court.
“It’s not a job you learn by coming in at the top,” said Knight. “Andrea has never even tried a case in Superior Court. She’s a good campaigner and has come up with some great sound bites, but she’s a politician not a prosecutor.” (Harrington ran for state Senate two years ago, losing to the current office holder, Adam Hinds.)
Harrington says she is running because “our community has suffered under the policies of this district attorney. They have been aggressively prosecuting nonviolent cases. They didn’t want a drug court. Now they are objecting to juvenile diversion. We are the only county without diversion.” She said the Berkshire County DA’s office also lagged behind other DAs in tossing out convictions utilizing evidence analyzed by former UMass chemist Sonja Farak, who was convicted of stealing and tampering with drugs. “The AG had to beg them to throw out the cases,” Harrington said.
“There’s nobody serving time here for simple possession of a substance,” countered Caccaviello, “We’re very cognizant addiction is a disease. We want people to get treatment. But if someone breaks into someone’s home to get money for drugs they may serve time for that main charge. Our mission is public safety, not politics.”
Caccaviello also said Berkshire County has an informal diversion program that he plans to formalize. “Personally, I embrace diversion. But whether or not I liked it, it’s now the law,” he said. He said the DA’s school-based outreach program is designed to help educate young people on cyberbullying and other issues to prevent crime. The program also facilitates peer-to-peer mentoring for youth who may need support to stay out of trouble.
As for the county’s drug court, he said, “the issue was not about whether it worked, but whether we could sustain it with the low numbers. For the few who get through drug court each year, it makes a very big difference in their lives.” Responding to Harrington’s allegation about the cases related to tainted evidence, he said the cases had to be dropped. “There is a need to restore the public’s confidence in the system,” he said. “That’s why we dropped those cases.”
As a defense attorney, Knight has sat opposite Caccaviello in court. She said she respects his work but casts doubt on his commitment to reform. “Paul has integrity. He’s a decent human being who is genuinely curious about human nature,” she said. “He tries to understand, why would someone do this?”
But she said Caccaviello’s tenure under Capeless ingrained in him to practices that are out of sync with the current reform movement. “Prosecutors can do a lot of bad, but they can also do a lot of good,” Knight said. “Paul can talk the good talk, but the way he was anointed, it sounds like trickery going on. Do we still have Capeless behind the scenes?”
Knight wants to use drug forfeiture money to help fund a youth center in Pittsfield modeled on a successful peer-to-peer mentoring program in Great Barrington. She also talks about developing a specialized domestic violence unit so cases “don’t fall through the cracks” if the victim doesn’t want to testify. At the Beckett forum, Knight said she would pursue prosecutable domestic violence cases with or without victim testimony.
Caccaviello said in the majority of domestic violence cases, the victim does not want to testify. It’s imperative to treat each case individually, he said, and listen to the victim before deciding whether or not to pursue charges against the offender. “In some of these cases, we can potentially put the victim in more danger if we prosecute,” he said. He recalled one victim who objected when he wanted to move forward without her testimony. “But you go home to a home that’s safe. I don’t,” she told him. Caccaviello’s approach aligns with national domestic violence protocols for prosecutors. Knight’s policy, sometimes called “no drop,” does not.The dialogue on the issue highlights district attorneys’ scope of influence. They decide who gets charged and under what circumstances those charges are dropped. They decide whether to seek bail. For good or bad, their decisions may have life-long impact on offenders, as well victims and children, who frequently witness crimes in the home.
With no Republican or independent candidate in the race, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is all but assured of winning a four-year term in the post.