Mike Capuano is the progressive candidate in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the senate and he deserves our support. There are a lot of good things to say about Capuano but it is also important to discuss some of the unsavory elements of Martha Coakley's career.
Coakley is a careerist and supported her two former bosses in the Middlesex DA's office as they ran for governor--Scott Harshbarger and Tom Reilly, who was clearly the least progressive candidate in the last Dem primary for governor.
Far more damning is her continued support of Harshbarger and Reilly's involvement in one of the worst cases of child sexual abuse hysteria of the '80s--the Fells Acres case. A mother and two adult children (Violet and Cheryl and Gerald Amirault) were convicted and sent to prison for very lengthy sentences (Gerald served 18 years) on the basis of vigorously coached and outlandish testimony from children. Harshbarger and Reilly sacrificed children (by implanting "memories") and the Amirault family for their political ambitions, even long after the nation recognized the hysteria involved in most of the allegations of sexual abuse in daycare centers.
Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote a definitive and scathing criticism of the case for the WSJ "A Darkness in Massachusetts" (1/31/95) and in her book, No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness and Other Terrors of Our Times (WSJ Books, 2004), but Coakley continues to insist it was a good conviction, because her career has been built on following the blocks set by Harshbarger and Reilly, and by following that pernicious advice popularized in Massachusetts by Tip O'Neil: go along to get along.
Coakley continued to encourage parents of Fells Acres children to prosecute the case on local media when public sentiment and elected officials started to call for parole for the Amiraults and a re-examination of the case, and consequently to question whether Harshbarger and Reilly had dishonored the office of Middlesex County District Attorney. For her "loyalty" she received the support of their machine when Reilly. like Harshbarger, went from Middlesex D.A. to state AG, a two-step that Coakley completed in 2006.
Anyone who works within the criminal justice system, anyone, that is with anything approaching progressive politics or simply a concern for justice, knows that prosecutorial misconduct is one of the most damaging and intractable features of the system. The district attorney, an elected official at the county level, has the most power of anyone in the system, and practically unlimited discretion to prosecute, or choose not to prosecute, cases brought by law enforcement.
The district attorney sets an agenda for which areas of law enforcement to emphasize because it is impossible for the criminal justice system, especially the courts and corrections, to address every case of law-breaking. District attorneys can be tremendously effective change agents, as when they began to take seriously cases of domestic violence, or when they establish alternatives to traditional adjudication with drug courts or procedures for restorative justice. Because of their autonomy and the political nature of the office, they get a lot of attention, and command a bully pulpit at the local level. It is not surprising that so many go on to Congress; for example, Arlen Specter, Patrick Leahy and Amy Klobuchar among others in the Senate and many more in the House, including Bill Delahunt in the Massachusetts delegation.
But with this power comes responsibility. Too many district attorneys, and prosecutors on their staffs, view their job as a matter of getting convictions, as part of the adversarial process. That is not the job of the D.A. or any prosecutor, who after all, represents the people. Their mission is to seek the truth and justice. When a prosecutor finds exculpatory evidence, she is required to share it with the defense counsel (and the defendant!). Far too often, this does not happen, and there are many people in prison and on death row who have been victimized by the political aspirations of district attorneys who have wanted to demonstrate that they are "tough on crime" and will protect the people from the bad men who pose the major threat to their security.
As part of their "tough on crime" persona, some district attorneys have staff show up at all parole hearings to oppose parole for inmates who are eligible for parole. Parole eligibility is part of their sentence but many district attorneys and attorneys general confuse the task of honorably pursuing a conviction in a criminal trial with being eternally disposed against a defendant. They also align themselves, understandably, with victims of crime and support these victims when they testify at parole hearings. Too often, however, as in death penalty cases, the prosecutor uses the victims to make an appeal for the death penalty or against parole, knowing that this will actually prevent closure for the family of the victims for many years as the process drags on, when a life sentence or parole could end the family's involvement. Cui bono? the elected DA who can proudly claim unrelenting "war on crime."
I asked Martha Coakley, when she was running for Middlesex D.A., if she would continue the practice of automatically opposing parole and she said she would, not knowing my position on the issue. I didn't get a chance to ask about her continued support of the Fells Acres prosecution--that would have been deemed impolite at the meeting of my town Democratic committee.
Yes, Coakley is a woman, and I'd really like to see more women in the Senate and the House, but Coakley is more a part of the good 'ol boys network than Capuano. She has been cultivating downtown business interests since she got the AG position. She is so far from the best the state has to offer it would actually be tragic to see her in the senate, when the state has outstanding progressives in the Congressional delegation such as Capuano, Jim McGovern and John Tierney. I'm a big fan of Barbara Boxer and Debbie Stabenow, and favorably disposed to several other women senators, but if you share my frustration with Dianne Feinstein and Blanche Lincoln, be very afraid of wasting a senate seat, a safe Democratic senate seat from Massachusetts, on Martha Coakley