October 21, 2008
DA candidates face off in last of three debates
HOMER — In a poignant moment during the final district attorney debate, incumbent David Hartnett offered a personal apology to one of the Homer High School students he prosecuted in 2006.
Hartnett, a Republican, is competing with his Democratic opponent, County Attorney Mark Suben to keep the four-year seat.
Zachary Walter was prosecuted in 2006 for shooting at classmates with an air pistol that shoots plastic BBs. Walter asked Hartnett why he was arrested at school half a year after a judge had dismissed the charges against him, pointedly asking Hartnett if it was to embarrass him.
Hartnett offered a personal apology to Walter for the embarrassment he felt, but said he had not directed the arrest to come at that specific time and place.
“I did not order when or where that arrest would take place. It was not my intent to embarrass you,” Hartnett said, reluctant to speak in specifics about the case since it has been sealed.
Walter said afterward he was not satisfied with the response.
Suben said this case is an example of what troubles him about Hartnett’s priorities. He said the case disintegrated into a “personal persecution of two boys.”
Patrick Dugan, whose 14-year-old son was shot by Walter, said his son was too traumatized to go to school when the accused boys were allowed to return to school.
Hartnett defended his judgment in seeking prosecution, saying he does not seek justice blindly. He questioned Suben’s readiness to take on the challenges of Cortland County, having never prosecuted a drug case.
Suben said his prosecutorial experience in the Bronx and Syracuse ran the gamut from rapes to murders, and that he served in the Bronx special victims unit, which specialized in domestic, juvenile and sex offenses.
Suben conceded he has only seen the defense side of drug cases during his career as a defense attorney.
He said this experience positions him well for prosecuting these cases, since understanding your opponents is crucial to being able to defeat them.
Hartnett urged the audience to consider Suben’s lack of experience with working with a drug task force, saying he himself has led the Cortland County Drug Task Force during his last four years as district attorney and has worked closely with it the previous 24 years working as an assistant district attorney in the office.
When asked by an audience member about the last time he prosecuted a case, Suben said it was in 2004 when he was called upon to be a special prosecutor, and he got felony pleas in a case in which the defendants were submitting prescriptions to get controlled substances. He also said he has won a murder case as a prosecutor and as defense attorney has never lost a felony or misdemeanor case in Cortland County.
Hartnett said rather than taking a candidate on his word, voters should opt for one who can back up his records with facts. He provided statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
According to preliminary January through December 20007 data, felony arrest and felony processing reports for Cortland County and New York state, the felony drug conviction rate for the county was 95.2 percent, higher than the state’s average of 87.5 percent.
One audience member pushed Hartnett on a 2006 case in which Jason Dempsey, who was accused of assaulting a 20-month-old child, was found not guilty of all charges.
Hartnett said he was “extremely disappointed” with the verdict but he respected the jury’s decision because that is the criminal justice system he has to work with.
“We put the proof in front of the jury and the jury spoke,” Hartnett said.
Suben said that is not a satisfactory response.
“The job of a trial lawyer is to help the jury understand that the position he is advocating is the only position they can logically come to at the end of the trial,” Suben said.
One resident, Geoff Davis of Cortland, asked both candidates how they could assure him, if elected district attorney, they would spend “every waking hour” pursuing justice in the case against Charles Thibeault, who stands accused of murdering his estranged wife, Wendy earlier this year.
Hartnett said he would work as diligently as possible on the case, as he has been all along. He said a thorough investigation was carried out and that enough evidence was put before the grand jury so the indictment would not be dismissed. He said he is an experienced prosecutor and would work as hard as he can to ensure that justice is served.
Suben said as the chief law enforcement officer of the county the district attorney must make it a point to communicate with everyone along the way.
“For the DA to speak to the community and say you don’t need to worry, it would go a long way to helping people understand and feel secure,” Suben said.
Davis said he left the debate undecided about whom to vote for.
“I was looking for something to tell me he feels comfortable he can get a conviction and I didn’t get that from either one,” Davis said.
Robert Churchill, a retired lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department, said Hartnett has a concern for the victims and exercises good judgment in fairly prosecuting.
Cincinnatus resident Chip Elwood, and father of one of the boys prosecuted in the Homer gun incident, however, lauded Suben’s intelligence.
“He is competent and would have the perspective for knowing when and what to do for every individual case.”
Suben and Hartnett also vied for district attorney in 2004. Hartnett won with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Monday’s debate will air on cable channel 2 7:30 p.m. tonight, 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday.
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