Do you need experience as a prosecutor to be a good district attorney?
Ask one of the defense attorneys vying to become the next Suffolk district attorney if experience as a prosecutor matters and you are likely to hear the name Lawrence Krasner.
A longtime civil rights attorney who spent much of his career suing Philadelphia police officers, Krasner became the city’s district attorney in January even though he had no experience trying cases as a prosecutor.
Krasner’s election in Philadelphia last year sheds light on the question of experience among the candidates running in Suffolk: four lawyers with varying degrees of prosecutorial experience and two with none.
Those with some prosecutorial experience argue that voters should seek a seasoned prosecutor, while the two defense attorneys in the race, Shannon McAuliffe and Michael Maloney, say their courtroom experience advocating for the rights of defendants makes them the ideal candidates to reform an office that does not have the trust of many in the county’s minority and poor communities.
“People who are prosecutors keep saying you need to have that experience to be district attorney,” said McAuliffe, who worked for 12 years as a defense attorney in Suffolk. “I think that’s a complete myth. I know this office better than any of the other candidates. Day in and day out, I’ve represented defendants against a broken system that valued winning over everything else.”
But one of the former prosecutors in the race, Evandro Carvalho, a state representative who served two years as an assistant district attorney in Boston’s district courts, said defense lawyers lack training in one of the most critical and sensitive roles a prosecutor plays: being the voice of the victim.
“The point of view of the victim and the survivors and the people who are hurting because of violent criminals, you get that as a prosecutor,” Carvalho said. “To sit across a victim and listen to her story and see what she’s going through, it’s imperative experience.”
Conventional wisdom would suggest that prosecutorial experience is practically a prerequisite for the job. But at forums and debates that have drawn hundreds of people, the questions for the candidates have also centered on sentencing reform, repealing cash bail and court fees, and bringing in outside prosecutors to investigate police shootings.
How much voters value prosecutorial experience will be clearer after the Sept. 4 primary, when they will choose among five Democrats. The winner of the primary will face Maloney, an independent, in the November general election.
The Democrats are McAuliffe, Carvalho, former Suffolk prosecutor Linda Champion, Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Greg Henning, and Rachael Rollins, former legal counsel for Massport and the MBTA.
In Philadelphia, voters bucked decades of tradition when they chose Krasner over a former prosecutor by a 3-1 margin. The election followed the removal of a district attorney who was convicted on corruption charges. Krasner’s message of reform also resonated with an electorate tired of tough law-and-order policies that did little to lower crime but led to high incarceration rates and convictions of innocent people, said David Rudovsky, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and civil rights attorney.
Krasner’s victory should show voters in other parts of the country that the seat does not need to be held by former prosecutor, Rudovsky said.
“I don’t think it’s necessary at all,” he said. “Defense attorneys deal with prosecutors all the time. There is no mystery there in what they do. If you weren’t a prosecutor, that doesn’t have any impact at all on your ability to bring in new polices and run the office efficiently.”
Suffolk County, where outgoing District Attorney Daniel F. Conley has led the office since 2002, has not been plagued by scandals like those in Philadelphia, though Conley has faced criticism from civil liberties groups and defense attorneys for his opposition to the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences and his support for expanding the state’s wiretap statute.
But Conley, who was a prosecutor for nearly two decades before becoming district attorney, is largely credited with leading a professionally run office, stacked with respected prosecutors.
To keep that level of continuity, Suffolk needs a district attorney with prosecutorial experience, said William D. Delahunt, who was Norfolk district attorney for 22 years, a job he came into during the mid-1970s without that background. At the time, Delahunt said, many prosecutors worked part time.
“It’s much more professional now,” said Delahunt, who has contributed $200 to Henning’s campaign. “Hitting the ground running is a different task.’’
That is the message Henning, who with the exception of a yearlong stint as a Boston school teacher has spent the last 11 years as a prosecutor, hopes will resonate with voters.
“Being a lawyer doesn’t make you qualified to do the job,” Henning said. “Being a prosecutor — gathering witnesses, talking to victims — that’s what the work is about. Respectfully, it’s a different skill set than defending a person from a charge.”
But his longtime experience has also opened him up to criticism that he would be too indebted to police to objectively investigate allegations of misdeeds by them. Henning is the only candidate who has said he would not appoint an outside prosecutor to investigate police-involved shootings, arguing Suffolk already has a team of “experienced, impartial’’ prosecutors who can look at such evidence.
“I’m not beholden to anyone,” Henning said.
Maloney said voters should be skeptical of such claims.
“He’s a product of the system,” Maloney said. “I don’t have relationships with specific detectives and law enforcement in Suffolk County. I don’t feel like I owe anything to them.”
Other candidates have drawn fire for not having enough experience prosecuting crime.
Some of Rollins’s opponents have accused her of embellishing her resume as a prosecutor. On her website, Rollins touts her experience “prosecuting cases involving civil rights violations, fraud, sexual predators, narcotics, violence, and weapons.”
Rollins acknowledged that she seldom dealt with criminal cases during her stints in the Plymouth district attorney’s office, a five-month rotation she did when she was still in private practice, and at the Massachusetts US attorney’s office, where she largely worked in the civil division.
Rollins said her critics fail to take into account that her civil work put her in the courtroom and in front of victims; for example, building cases against dangerous sex offenders so they would not be released from prison.
“I would never in any way say that I’ve done more than I’ve done,” she said. “My civil experience is what’s going to make me a great DA.”
Champion, who worked for two years in Suffolk as a prosecutor and who has been among Rollins’s fiercest critics, said with six candidates to choose from, voters need to value honesty as much as experience.
“This is a district attorney position where we’re going to be holding law enforcement and people accountable,” she said “Everything has to be transparent.”