Tuesday, March 6, 2012

McGinty heads toward victory in prosecutor’s race

Tim McGinty, a maverick former judge, looks like he’s heading toward victory in the race to become Cuyahoga County prosecutor. With early voting results and half the precincts in, he has a commanding lead: 38 percent, with the other candidates ranging from 20 percent to 9 percent.

McGinty parlayed his 29 years’ experience in the county courts as an assistant prosecutor and judge into strong performances in campaign debates and forums and a big lead in campaign donations. His ads and flyers were everywhere as the election neared.

He’s funny and a bit eccentric, with a big independent streak. I know because I once spent a few days with him. He was a judge in a malpractice trial; I was a juror.

The first clue was all the flags tacked up on the courtroom’s painfully monotonous, corrugated brown walls (I wish I could remember which ones… Don’t Tread on Me? Don’t Give Up the Ship?). During the many breaks in the action, McGinty would turn to the jury box and tell us the story behind the flag, trying to keep us entertained and awake.

He knew I was a journalist – that had come out in jury selection – so now and then, as we filed out to the jury room for lunch or whatever, he’d stop me and try to interest me in some story ideas. One was about a long-ago stop-and-frisk in downtown Cleveland that had gone to the U.S. Supreme Court and set a new precedent for how cops detain suspects. The other was his proposals for reforming the local justice system.

For more than a decade, McGinty has been pushing to make Cuyahoga County’s justice system more efficient, pissing off fellow judges and lawyers and railing against bureaucracy. Some of his ideas, such as ending the “straight release” of suspects after booking, have been adopted. Others, such as early and alternative disposition of low-level felonies, are being tried in pilot programs. Some, like 24-hour booking, have been ignored. But if he’s the next prosecutor (he’ll face a long-shot Independent opponent in November), McGinty will surely try to implement them all.

Like most of his opponents, McGinty aimed to convince voters he’d break with the past. Current prosecutor Bill Mason has faced strong criticism for his political alliances and for failing to deter and root out corruption in county government. McGinty didn’t take the lead on the issue – former Cleveland law director Subodh Chandra did – but McGinty did promise to set up an anti-corruption unit, refuse campaign contributions from his employees, and ask employees running for partisan office to take a leave of absence.

As McGinty became the man to beat, Chandra aggressively challenged him on several fronts, especially for prosecuting an innocent man, Michael Green, for rape in 1988. Green was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2001, and McGinty says his case is a cautionary influence on his decisions about eyewitness testimony and scientific testing.

The prosecutor’s race was the first without an incumbent in 56 years, which gave people an unusual opportunity to extract promises from the candidates. And since the real contest was in the Democratic primary, liberal constituencies concerned with civil liberties and racial bias in the justice system tried to extract promises that the candidate would prosecute moderately and not overdo it.

At the City Club debate, McGinty didn’t go as far as some of his opponents. He did say he’d seek the death penalty more judiciously, and not use it as a threat in plea negotiations. He claimed his planned reforms will eliminate the overcharging suspects, a cocky claim his opponents quickly challenged. Asked to name a case he had declined or dismissed as a prosecutor, McGinty didn’t quite do that. Instead, he cited his decision not to seek the death penalty against Eugene “Hacksaw” Canady, who had murdered and dismembered his girlfriend. It was really a non-dismissal. Hacksaw’s still in prison.

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