Two women, both self-described progressives, vie to be Middlesex’s top prosecutor
As the district attorney in Middlesex since 2013, Marian Ryan pushed for the statewide expansion of restorative justice, an alternative to traditional prosecution that calls on a criminal offender to atone and help make victims whole.
As a prosecutor in the Suffolk District Attorney’s office, Donna Patalano held trainings on implicit bias and cultural competency, a course that urged prosecutors to be mindful of their language and behavior in front of victims and defendants. She unofficially dubbed it: “How not to be a [expletive] in court.”
In a campaign defined by calls for more aggressive criminal justice reform, both Democrats in the race for Middlesex District Attorney have cited such moves as examples of their progressive-minded approach. With the Sept. 4 primary just days away, Ryan, 63, is relying on her background as a veteran criminal prosecutor to show she has the credibility to push prosecutorial reforms not just in her county, but statewide.
Patalano, 53, who began her career in health care management and did not earn her law degree until she was 35, is trying to sell voters on the diversity of her background, as both a county prosecutor and later a defense attorney who specialized in appellate cases.
Faced with two seemingly similar candidates, voters in the state’s most populous county are trying to draw clear distinctions between them, said Lori Kenschaft, an Arlington resident and coordinator of the Mass Incarceration Working Group of First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Arlington, where nearly 400 people showed up on a stifling July night to hear the two candidates debate.
“What I keep saying is we’re lucky in Middlesex to have two strong, progressive candidates and if they were running somewhere else, I’d happily vote for either of them,” she said.
With no Republicans in the race, Tuesday’s winner will take the seat.
Patalano is telling voters she will be strikingly different from Ryan, whom she faulted for running an office that is losing experienced prosecutors at a higher rate than other counties, failing to release racial data on prosecutions, and announcing policy reforms that give prosecutors little guidance on how to implement them.
“There is an intellectual dishonesty at the core of that office that is troubling,” Patalano said. “She says one thing in public and she does another thing in the courtroom.”
Ryan said she plans to release in October racial data being studied by the American Institute of Research. On issues like limiting cash bail requests, she said she has avoided detailed directives because she wants her prosecutors to use their discretion. She said her commitment to concrete change is evident in the landmark criminal justice bill the Legislature passed earlier this year. When other district attorneys signed a letter opposing early Senate versions of the bill, Ryan, along with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, refused to sign on.
“The hard work, where you really have to have gravitas, is when you talk to powerful, persistent opponents of change,” said Ryan, 63. “I’ve been in a great place to lead that conversation and I certainly want to continue doing that.”
State Representative Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat, said Ryan helped him write sections of the bill on restorative justice that became law.
“She was at the forefront of that,” Garballey said. “I don’t think it would have been possible without Marian Ryan.”
Adam Foss, a former Suffolk prosecutor who worked with Patalano when she ran the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office of Professional Integrity and Ethics, said Patalano began talking about prosecutorial reform years before it became mainstream.
“For someone to be talking about those things at the time who had no aspirations to be DA anywhere, that’s meaningful,” said Foss, who now trains young prosecutors to consider alternatives to incarceration. “This isn’t a conversation that started because it was politically expedient.”
Over the years, Ryan has been far more receptive to criminal justice reforms than her peers, but she has also faced fierce criticism for her office's handling of several high profile cases.
In 2015, a judge found that Middlesex prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in the case of an Irish nanny accused of killing an infant in her care.
Last year, Ryan, then head of the state district attorneys’ association, said district attorneys were working to notify thousands of defendants whose drug cases could have been compromised by Sonja Farak, a lab chemist who admitted she was under the influence of drugs when she was testing evidence between 2005 and 2013.
Ryan made the announcement after the American Civil Liberties Union had sued her and other prosecutors for taking too long to identify potentially compromised cases. In April, a Supreme Judicial Court justice ordered the dismissal of more than 7,500 cases.
Ryan said the delays in her county occurred in part because her office would receive cases identified by numbers, not defendants’ names, from the state lab.
“Were there other cases that waited longer? Yes,” Ryan said. “I think in the end we got to the right result.”
Patalano has also criticized Ryan for what she describes as a heavy-handed management style that has hurt morale and led to high turnover rates.
The turnover means police officers must spend overtime hours briefing new prosecutors on cases and victims must tell their stories all over again, said two longtime Middlesex prosecutors who recently quit.
They said they left largely because they felt pressured to run nearly all matters by their supervisors, who often told them to seek higher bails and tougher sentences than they felt were justified.
“I don’t know one senior prosecutor in that office who isn’t looking for another job,” said one of the former employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they work for state agencies.
Ryan said the high departure rate is due, in part, to the size of the county, which requires prosecutors to have a car.
Many prosecutors, faced with low salaries and student loans, cannot afford one, Ryan said.
Ryan said the office has several layers of supervision and prosecutors are encouraged to be open with their managers.
“I hire bright, well-educated people who are encouraged to speak their minds,” Ryan said.
Ryan questioned why other district attorneys in the state, all of whom are male, are seldom criticized by former employees.
“I think it’s an interesting coincidence,” she said. “That’s a storyline many women who are in these positions are familiar with.”
Patalano has also faced criticism for her management decisions. When she was chairwoman of the state’s Board of Bar Overseers, which investigates complaints against lawyers, Patalano was tasked by the Supreme Judicial Court with reviewing the benefits the office’s employees received. In 2016, she announced sweeping cuts to longstanding benefits, a move that spurred staff members to unionize.
“This is not someone who treated competent, dedicated loyal employees in a respectful way,” said Anne Kaufman, the former director of the office’s attorney and consumer assistance program. “It was really quite appalling.”
Patalano described that time as “the hardest” of her professional career and conceded the employees should have had more say in the outcome.
“If I could do it over, I think we would have included their voice in the conversation,” Patalano said.
Patalano twice considered working for Ryan, in 2015 and 2016. Ryan’s campaign gave the Globe e-mails in which Patalano described her excitement at the prospect of working in the office. She was offered jobs both times, but declined, saying she was looking for a position with more leadership responsibilities.
Now, Patalano says she was just being polite.
“That was when I really started thinking of running for the office,” she said.