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Outlining Goals, Berkshire DA Candidates Spar In Becket

Three weeks before primary day, the Berkshire District Attorney debate tour continued in Becket, Massachusetts Tuesday night.

The Becket Democratic Town Committee hosted another meeting of the three candidates bitterly vying for DA in the basement of the town hall that serves the rural community of just under 2,000. For the most part, the conversation stuck to the major themes of the campaign. The area’s Democratic state Senator, Adam Hinds, moderated, and introduced a lightning round, asking the participants to name one “significant change to the operation of the DA’s office you plan to make in the New Year.”

Sitting DA Paul Caccaviello, who’s overseen mid-election reforms to the office while his rivals accuse him of representing a conservative legacy, answered first.

“Having reasonable transparency for the community and engaging the community,” said Caccaviello.

He spelled out his definition of “reasonable transparency” to WAMC after the event.

“Transparency that’s a balance between letting the public know what it is that we’re doing and able to disclose versus handling the sensitive materials that we deal with," Caccaviello said. "In other words, investigations. So if there’s questions about a pending case, we’re restricted as to what we’re able to convey to the public.”

Judith Knight, who unsuccessfully ran for the seat on a progressive platform in 2006 and touts her experience as an assistant DA in Middlesex County from 1988 to 1993, was next to answer.

“Creating workable diversion programs for our young people and setting forth a criteria so that everyone knows how to qualify for that,” said Knight.

She also spoke to WAMC afterward, asserting that the DA’s office must break entirely from nearly 14 years under David Capeless.

“Bit by bit, piece by piece, I don’t think that’s going to do it," Knight said. "I want to commend Paul for the changes he is making, but it’s not going to be big enough or across the board enough to really make a difference in the Berkshire County criminal justice system.”

Fellow private practice attorney Andrea Harrington, who lost the Democratic primary to Sen. Hinds in 2016 and often points to her experience defending death row inmates in Florida as evidence of her social justice credentials, was last to share a vision of her goals.

“Bringing a domestic violence initiative prevention program in order to prevent domestic violence before it happens," said Harrington.

She used her post-debate conversation with WAMC to further dismiss claims of political opportunism that have emerged over the campaign. Earlier Tuesday, Knight brought up Harrington’s State Senate run to support that narrative.

“The old way of doing things is not working here in the courts, and I could see that very plainly — and that’s what motivated me to run for the state Senate," Harrington told WAMC. "And the role of the District Attorney is just an incredibly powerful way to do things that are just, right away, day one, the DA can change so much.”

One interesting moment in the debate came when Harrington appeared to inaccurately describe the process of how the DA decides to prosecute cases and in which court: District or Superior.

“So initially criminal defendants can be charged in the district court," she said, "so, some cases are charged in the district court and are kept in the district court, whereas other cases are bound over to the superior court when there’s a determination that the prosecutor’s office wants to bring a felony charge.”

Caccaviello leapt on her characterization of the court’s function.

“OK, first of all, let me just clear something up, OK?" said the DA. "Felonies can be charged in either the district court or the superior court, so let’s make that clear first, okay?”

Knight continued the clarification in her remarks.

“Basically all cases can go through the district court, but whether they stay in the district court is up to the prosecutor and up to the charge," she said. "For example, a rape or a murder or home invasion — those can’t stay in district court.”

The conversation continues August 20th, at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, the third-to-last debate in the race before primary day on September 4th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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