Monday, October 20, 2008

Annette Butler debates Bill Mason

Annette Butler, the Republican candidate for prosecutor, debated Bill Mason today, trying to convince a City Club audience that the Democratic incumbent ought to go. The debate put Mason under the sort of cross-examination you don't see often in our one-party town.

Butler held up the Sunday and Monday Plain Dealer and read the headlines from the paper's exposé of racial disparities in drug case sentences. The paper found statistics and damning anecdotes that showed black drug defendants in Cuyahoga County getting felony convictions while white drug defendants -- including the sheriff's son -- were convicted of the same or worse offenses but got drug treatment or plea deals and no felony record. (See the stories here and here.)

Mason called the reports "troubling" and "disconcerting" and said he'd find funding to study the issue. The articles placed much of the responsibility on his office, but he said several parts of the justice system influence sentences, including police, the courts, and the probation department. Butler said she'd create standard practices and policies to make sure prosecutors treat defendants equally.

Butler also criticized Mason for his partial resistance to open discovery -- allowing defense attorneys open access to prosecutors' files. She said she'd guarantee open discovery for all defendants. A worker for Cleveland's rape crisis center gave Mason a big assist on this issue, saying she was concerned open discovery wouldn't protect victims and witnesses enough. Mason agreed, while saying he was open to some changes in the rules.

Mason also got grilled about the FBI's county corruption investigation. An audience member asked why the FBI hadn't informed him in advance about the July raid of county offices, and she asked where citizens could go to report corruption in the county, clearly implying she felt they couldn't go to Mason. He said his office has prosecuted 140 "public officials," including policemen and teachers. He said the feds don't always include local law enforcement in raids, and that they understand Mason has an inherent conflict of interest because the prosecutor's office represents county government in civil cases.

The audience also found a few weak spots in Butler's case for herself. A policeman asked Butler if she was going to go easier on defendants charged with possessing crack pipes. She said yes: "It's costing a fortune to prosecute them as felonies," she said. "I'll spend a lot of energy on the bad guys, not a whole lot of it on crack pipe cases." Mason replied he wouldn't choose which laws to prosecute.

Another questioner asked Butler how she would make up for a near-lack of criminal-case experience. She spent 24 years with the U.S. Attorney's office, handling civil matters. Butler said she would draw on her management, trial, and appellate experience and her three years of teaching criminal law. Mason, who suggested last week that Butler wasn't worthy of debating him, avoided criticizing her today, except to say: "I think experience in this office matters a lot."

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