With just five days to go before Tuesday’s primary, roughly 200 lawyers turned out yesterday to hear the three Democrats vying to be the first new Manhattan district attorney in 35 years discuss how the office would change under their watch.
In a debate cosponsored by the New York City Bar and the New York Law Journal, Richard M. Aborn, Leslie Crocker Snyder, and Cyrus R. Vance Jr. all agreed that if elected to succeed District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, 90, who is set to retire at the end of the year, each would upgrade technology, liberalize pretrial discovery and focus on not only prosecuting, but preventing, crime.
But the 90-minute debate also brought out a number of subtle but significant differences among the candidates.
Mr. Vance, 55, a partner at Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer, said he supports a community-based model of justice, where prosecutors would be assigned to specific precincts and neighborhoods in order to identify crime patterns “building by building” and “block by block.”
Ms. Snyder, 67, a partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Freidman and a former acting Supreme Court justice, said she also favors a community-based approach, but emphasized pairing prosecutors with local religious, education and social service leaders as well as law enforcement to prevent crime.
However, Mr. Aborn, 57, a managing partner at Constantine Cannon, who has repeatedly favored strong community outreach, said he was “very concerned” that implementing such rigid geographic structures could lead to corruption.
A noted gun-control advocate, Mr. Aborn said he wanted to “maintain the nimbleness of the office” and ensure that the district attorney did not simply reach out to geographic communities, but organizations throughout Manhattan centered around common issues like tenants’ rights and women’s issues.
Each candidate offered detailed methods of easing the tremendous backlog in Manhattan Criminal Court. Moderator Patricia M. Hynes, the city bar president, challenged the candidates as to whether their first priority should be to address cases where defendants who have only been charged but not found guilty languish in jail, some for close to 400 days.
“Don’t we have an obligation to either fish or cut bait?” Ms. Hynes asked.
She questioned whether the candidates would support dismissing a case and facing the “ire of the public,” if the district attorney was not ready for trial on second call.
Mr. Vance said he would resist a “black and white rule,” which could result in serious cases being dismissed. But “don’t get me wrong…I’m absolutely committed to solving” the backlog, he said.
Mr. Aborn suggested that a case should be dismissed if prosecutors were not ready for trial by the time the Speedy Trial Act kicked in.
And Ms. Snyder said that expediting discovery and having a more flexible plea policy would alleviate the Criminal Court backlog.
On the question of instituting a policy of open-file discovery, Mr. Vance said he supports broader discovery and that eventually he would work to codify the practice rather than relying on “informal arrangements” between prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Ms. Snyder also said the district attorney should “take a more aggressive position” to pretrial discovery.
But while “codification sounds great,” Ms. Snyder said, in reality it would be extremely difficult to get groups to agree on the nuances of pretrial discovery and to spur the Legislature to move on the issue.
Noting that he had discussed supporting open-file discovery “months and months ago,” Mr. Aborn said there was no need to wait for codification since this was an area where district attorneys could move swiftly.
The three candidates, who all served as prosecutors, also took different tacks when moderator Kris Fischer, editor-in-chief of the Law Journal, asked what criterion they would use to divert individuals from the criminal justice system.
Ms. Snyder vowed to appoint a substance abuse expert to supervise and help decide which cases are appropriate for diversion, and said she favored a holistic program aimed primarily at non-violent youth.
Mr. Aborn said he supports pretrial diversion, but stressed the importance of accountability and “reporting back to the public.” Some programs work and some don’t, Mr. Aborn said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vance said he wants to establish criteria for diversion agreed upon by the Legal Aid Society and the New York City Police Department, which he admitted would be “no small feat.”
Mr. Vance also said he would rely on performance-based contracts to measure the results of alternatives to incarceration.
Mr. Aborn countered that such contracts, which are already in use, measured quantity but not necessarily quality and pledged to implement PrevenStat, an electronic means of gathering data to evaluate the effectiveness of alternative programs.
Each candidate has openly supported efforts to make sure the formerly incarcerated are successfully reintegrated into the community.
Mr. Vance, who has been endorsed by George McDonald, president & CEO of the Doe Fund, said that judges should think about re-entry from the time of sentencing.
“If you don’t have a house, if you don’t have a job…you are more likely to be back in jail when you come out of state prison,” Mr. Vance said.
Although Ms. Snyder said she “didn’t disagree” with Mr. Vance, she expressed concern about focusing on re-entry more than “proactively preventing crime” and keeping the community safe.
All three favor sealing criminal records in some form to support re-entry. Mr. Aborn said he was “completely open to sealing” from employers but said the amount of time after which records would be sealed might depend on the defense.
“The devil is in the details,” Mr. Aborn admitted.
The candidates also addressed the issue of wrongful convictions and whether they would use double-blind line-ups and videotaping to prevent them.
Mr. Aborn said he would videotape all custodial interrogations and implement double-blind line-ups. The complaint that taping is too expensive is a “red herring,” he said.
Mr. Vance said he would make sure young assistants were “not afraid to look at cases twice,” set up a Conviction Integrity Panel, and bring in outside experts like Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the co-founders of the Innocence Project.
And Ms. Snyder pledged to create a separate bureau of attorneys to review convictions, coupled with double-blinded lineups, videotaped confessions and training to guard against wrongful convictions.
Given two minutes for closing statements, Mr. Snyder stressed her experience, telling the audience that she had been involved in “every aspect” of New York’s criminal justice system for more than 35 years.
Mr. Aborn said the election was an “incredible opportunity to have a transformative moment,” if “we are willing to take off [the] blinders of the traditional” criminal justice model and be honest about the issue of race.
And Mr. Vance, who was chosen by lot to have the last word, said as district attorney, he would address every issue by asking two questions: “Does it make us safer as a community and is it fair?”
And “to make those judgments…I really think this is a job for a lawyer” who has experience on “both sides of the criminal justice system,” Mr. Vance said.