Deval and the lawmen

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  October 19, 2006

Dan Conley, DA in Suffolk County, routinely — and rightly — bemoans the plight of his underpaid, overburdened staff, but refuses to acknowledge that it may be contributing to lower arrest rates, difficulty gaining convictions, and frequent reversals of those convictions his office does get. In fact, he held a press conference in January to tout his homicide team’s high conviction rate for 2005 (saying nothing about the year’s pitiful arrest rate) — and then at budget time asked for more money for prosecutor salaries. If you say you’re doing a great job with what you have, why should anybody think you need more?

The other route to more funding is to actively support candidates who will feel they owe you for their election. These past few weeks have, in that sense, been a golden opportunity for Conley and his colleagues. Instead, they left Patrick to defend himself, so they should not be surprised if they find themselves on the outside of a Deval Patrick administration.

Long line of losers
Former attorney general Francis X. Bellotti agrees that DAs and other law-enforcement officials are sometimes too wary of the political waters — “you can’t stay completely above the fray and still win,” he says — but notes that there are legitimate reasons to maintain distance. “As a DA, you don’t know who you’re going to prosecute tomorrow.”

Fair enough. But this political failing may also help explain why career prosecutor Tom Reilly just joined Bellotti in a long line of Democrats unable to advance in Massachusetts politics. The state’s last four attorneys general — Reilly, Harshbarger, Bellotti, and James Shannon — all ultimately failed to turn their statewide political success into victory in a non–criminal justice office.

Now, not only has Reilly withdrawn into the shadows since his primary loss, but the officials who supported him have mostly followed his lead. Some say that it would have taken just a couple of calls from Reilly to get the Democratic DAs out in force for Patrick as soon as crime became a campaign issue.

But most agree that the fault ultimately lies with Patrick. Not only did he flub the Benjamin LaGuer issue when it came up by misrepresenting his actions, he utterly failed to foresee that this was a flank where he would need support — despite Reilly’s now-infamous warning on WGBH-TV’s Greater Boston that a soft-on-crime candidate like Patrick would have a hard time winning the general election.

“He should have seen it coming,” Coakley says.

Bellotti agrees that Patrick, coming from outside the state and facing prosecutor Tom Reilly in the primary, should have actively courted the DAs. “It’s more an organization thing,” Bellotti says.

“We’re not hearing much from Deval,” says one state DA. “He’s done nothing to reach out to us.”

One prosecutor Patrick did meet with — the only one, as far as the Phoenix could determine — was William Keating, of Norfolk County. Keating came away supportive and endorsed Patrick. “I spent an hour and a half talking with Deval Patrick about criminal-justice issues,” Keating says. “I was very pleased.”

Keating could have offered a great rebuttal to Healey’s criticism of Patrick’s financial support for LaGuer’s DNA test. Keating, upon taking office in 1999, immediately launched a two-year review of cases prosecuted before DNA evidence was commonly allowed in Massachusetts courts in the mid ’90s, looking for possible evidence of exoneration. “Certainly on the DNA testing, people can be strong on justice without being weak on crime,” Keating says.

Which seems like a great sound bite, coming from a law-and-order prosecutor. If only Patrick had gotten him in front of the media when he needed him.

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