Photos by Thom Williams
Talk to progressive advocates, activists, and journalists in Albany County and they’re likely to have that David Soares story. The one where he made them a promise and then made them promise to hold him accountable. They’ll recall how in the early years–either as a candidate or toward the start of his first term–he said that he’d stay in touch with the street, that he’d keep young men out of jail, that he’d listen to the community. Most of them remember believing it.
Then most of them will tell you about their more recent interactions–when they decided it was time to tell Soares that he was not making good on his part of the bargain, that he had lost touch, seemed cold, hard and detached, was becoming or had become the very thing he pledged he was running against in 2004. And they’ll recall the dismissive response, the disdain they found in return.
It is a request Soares made of me many years ago when I was beginning my journalism career in Albany and he was serving his first term. He repeated that request in many subsequent interviews.
In 2004, David Soares was a political upstart running for Albany County District Attorney, promising to change the system that sends so many young people of color to jail. His campaign was buoyed by community activism, progressive advocacy groups and a door-knocking campaign that traveled to all parts of the county. He slammed the incumbent (his former boss) for supporting the Rockefeller Drug Laws that mandated large minimum sentences for possession of drugs. Soares turned a wave of community engagement and debate over the criminal justice system into an upset victory over incumbent Paul Clyne in the Democratic primary. He went on to dispatch his Republican opponent.
Soares faced various political challenges over the following campaign seasons. Many of those campaigns were ugly affairs with Soares’s personal life being dragged out into the open. In the end, though, he’s defeated all his challengers soundly.
In 2016 Soares ran unopposed in the Democratic primary despite a push by reformers to find a suitable challenger. Enraged by his handling of the Marquis Dixon case, which saw the 16-year-old who was accused of stealing sneakers sentenced to nine years in prison, advocates finally decided to send Soares a message by writing in Dixon’s name. Soares won.
Less than a month later, on Oct. 10, Soares was rushed to the hospital. He couldn’t catch his breath during a workout at a friend’s house. He spent the next three days undergoing quintuple bypass surgery. He says he spent the following months recovering, building a “healthy bubble” in his home with his new wife, and thinking about what he had achieved in his role as District Attorney and what kind of legacy he’ll leave behind.
“There’s a certain gift that you get from vulnerability, and the clarity I received through being in my vulnerable space,” Soares told The Alt during an interview. “I told myself if I was given another chance to walk through these doors and ply my craft I was going to make it meaningful, and if I’m in bed again in 10 or 20 years I’d have something to reflect on and be proud of.”
That period of reflection appears to have yielded results. Soares’s office is on the cusp of announcing new programs designed to involve the community in finding alternatives to jail for people who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system.
“We’ve been working at a fever pitch on criminal justice reform in Albany, and I’m really excited about it,” Soares said. “I’ve found a very positive way to express my frustration with the organizations that have been critical of us, and a positive way of reassuring the base; some that have articulated some exhaustion with us. We’ve found a better way of answering those questions and for me, it’s rejuvenating.”
Soares has debuted a number of community-based reform programs and alternative sentencing initiatives during his time in office.
The new programs will be a first step in mending broken fences between Soares’s office. advocates, the community, and the people–his former supporters. The task will be daunting, as the Dixon and Dontay Ivy cases have garnered national attention, playing into major concerns about the ability of district attorneys to be unbiased in their review of police shootings of unarmed civilians and the fact that New York still tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Soares has developed a reputation with advocates, lawyers and the family members of those he’s prosecuted of being hard and unreachable.
Asked if she had anything to say to Soares about the about his handling of her son’s case, Aisha Dixon, said, “I would like to say to him God works for those who work for him. Believe. Have faith, and he will correct all errors. I hope he will be ready for his judgment day.”
On March 14, 2017, Ms. Dixon’s son used Facebook to arrange a meetup to buy shoes at the McDonald’s on South Pearl Street in Albany. The victim (and would-be seller) said Dixon lifted his shirt, revealing a gun, and then absconded with the sneakers. During court proceedings, Dixon was denied youthful offender status by the judge and was sentenced to nine years. The sentencing struck a nerve with advocates, who were soon protesting and holding Dixon up as a poster child for “Raise the Age,” a campaign to change the age of criminal responsibility in New York State. New York and North Carolina are currently the only two states to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
On Oct. 27 of last year, appeals court judge Karen Peters reduced Dixon’s sentence and did away with his criminal record. Peters said that it was a “grievous error” that Dixon was denied youthful offender status. Dixon was out of jail by November of last year. But his time as a free man was limited; he was back in Albany County jail by December 5 for violating his parole, as The Alt exclusively reported.
Soares said he has mixed feelings about Dixon’s being made the poster child of the Raise the Age campaign. “With my office, it is never personal. But the fact that he was lifted up and made this personality around reform—I scratched my head internally, because of everything I knew about this young man, but I can tell you a part of me was glad to see the community come together to support a young man of color. It was refreshing to see them humanizing a young person–especially a young person of color–in Albany,” Soares told The Alt. “So, I thought that was refreshing. But the more I would read or hear from people, I would wonder, ‘What do you know about this person that I don’t?’ We have all the info on our files, the background of this young man, his history. . . . Let’s say that my fondness for the advocacy had reached its limits when there was an abandonment of facts and abandonment of the attempt to obtain facts or even a dialogue, because you can come to my table, or I can come to your table and we can have a conversation on the issues, but we have to start with a base level of what is truth and what is not truth.You can’t distort the truth to fit a narrative.”
In Soares’s opinion, the coverage of the case and the way advocates framed it tended to leave out the report by the victim in the case that he saw Marquis carrying what he thought was a gun. “So I’m looking at this and wondering ‘Why is this the guy you chose?’ You lured someone on the internet to come meet you. You planned the whole thing out, end up taking this person’s sneakers, and, by the way, he was claiming he didn’t have a gun but we found the pellets, even though the warrant got thrown out, and the shoe box for the shoes you took was in your house. But they’re (the advocates) just kind of fluffing over it. This is the guy you want? This is the guy you want to put on your shoulders? There are so many other worthy people.”
Soares’ other major contention with advocates from Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration and Black Lives Matter is that he feels they were not interested in having a reasonable dialogue
Victorio Reyes, an activist who headed Albany’s Social Justice Center for years, said that Soares’s dismissal of advocates and their concern doesn’t make much sense. “Why would radical activists want to waste their time with someone who wants to continue the policies that see so many young people sent to jail? If it wasn’t for radical activists, David Soares wouldn’t have a job now. Radical activists are the reason people know he is not living up to his promises.”
Reyes said that Soares is in a unique position; ”Unlike any other government official, he has entire autonomy over whether we’re sending more people to prison or not. If he singlehandedly wanted to reduce mass incarceration, he could. Could he say his options are limited by the law? Absolutely. But he could set lighter sentences, alternative sentences or supervision.”
The Alt spoke to a number of former Soares supporters, including former friends, confidants, voters and activists who were involved in his first campaign. A great many of them declined to comment on the record for fear that what they had to say could affect their loved ones who are involved in the criminal justice system or could damage their relationship with the DA’s office, the police department, or with local politicians. Reyes said he never bought into Soares’s original promises.
“I had a conversation with him when he was first running, and it sounded too good to be true. He said ‘Look me in the eyes. My number one concern is looking out for neighborhood kids and keeping them out of prison.’ I asked how I could trust him. And he said, ‘I know if I don’t you’ll hold me accountable.’”
The Dixon case has become a flash point in the Raise the Age Campaign and at least three parents whose teenagers were prosecuted by Soares’s office and sentenced as adults are involved in the campaign. One mother, who asked for anonymity, said that Soares’s office made sure her son, who was a an addict and first-time offender, would not be tried in drug court. She said despite numerous pleas for mercy Soares insisted personally her son serve a multi-year sentence for burglary. She said she was shocked, because she had voted for Soares knowing he was a progressive.
Alicia Barraza became a leading voice in the Raise the Age campaign after a series of events led to her son’s suicide in a Fishkill correctional facility at the age of 21. During the Summer of 2010, Barraza said, at age 17 her son, Benjamin Van Zandt, a resident of Selkirk and AP student, was quietly battling depression. He later told his parents that he was hearing voices and trying to quell them by starting small fires. In early August 2010, Barraza said Van Zandt lost control and decided to act on the voices that had been tormenting him. He bicycled half a mile to Delmar, where he entered an empty house and spread gasoline around the rooms, eventually setting a fire. The home was almost entirely destroyed.
The quiet neighborhood had been dealing with a series of break-ins and was on high alert. A week later, police came to arrest Van Zandt, after he used a credit card he had stolen from the house. His father asked police if he could come along, as his son had told him of his deteriorating mental health. The police denied the request, saying Van Zandt was being charged as an adult. The family scrambled to find a lawyer; by the time they found one and made it to the police station Van Zandt had already written a lengthy confession.
From there Van Zandt was sent to Albany County Jail, not to a mental health facility. He was released on $50,000 bond, along with an agreement that he would receive psychiatric treatment and medication. Barraza said her son started doing better, first as an inpatient at an upstate psychiatric center, and later at home, thanks to medication and therapy. Barraza, though, continued to worry. She said Soares’ office and the judge seemed keen on delivering her son lengthy jail time. She said Soares’ office refused to talk to her and other family representatives about her son’s mental illness and treatment.The family was told to either take the plea deal being offered or face trial.
Van Zandt caved and pleaded guilty in a deal that saw him relinquish any chance to be treated as a juvenile offender, agree to serve four to 12 years in adult prison, and pay $455,000 in restitution for the house he burned.
Soares’s office painted a different picture during a 2015 interview.
The office said Van Zandt created a fake Facebook profile to stalk one of his classmates. Then, when he found out that classmate and his family were out of the country, he packed a backpack with a jug of gasoline, a blow torch, and tools to break into the house. Once inside, they say, he targeted his classmate’s room, looking through personal items and searching for valuables, only finding some credit cards, and then set the house ablaze.
Afterwards, Van Zandt began ordering iPads and other electronics under a false name and having them delivered to a neighbor’s house. Police were finally tipped off when Van Zandt used a fake Facebook account in an attempt to gain more personal details about his classmate’s father because he needed them to use one of the stolen credit cards. Soares’ office said Van Zandt’s family members were adamant that he not be sent into the mental health system and that they referred to it as a “black hole.” Technically, Van Zandt could have spent more time in a mental health facility than he was sentenced to in jail. Soares’s office also said that the family could have presented a not-guilty plea based on mental health if they had allowed the case to go to trial.
While there is debate over the characterization of the events that led to Van Zandt’s sentencing, the results are not disputed. Van Zandt was a young, troubled teen in an adult prison. He was tormented by other inmates, abused, manipulated, beaten and raped. Eventually he took his own life, fashioning a noose out of bed sheets.
Soares told this reporter in a 2015 interview that he personally did not feel that a sentence to a mental health facility would have been appropriate given the details. “This is not a young person who just walked in and set fire to a home. That is just not the fact pattern we were presented with,” Soares said. “The fact pattern we do have is that of a young man who planned ahead, packed a backpack with gasoline and a blowtorch, and then after setting fire to the home began to methodically pursue criminal benefit. There was nothing about what he did that indicated a mental health problem, other than his family’s surprise.”
Barazza said she expected Soares to be sympathetic, to be concerned with finding alternatives and treatment–not focused on delivering the most punitive sentence. “I mean, at the beginning (of his career as DA) he seemed more progressive. He was going to make big changes. I think overall the people who supported him are very disappointed.”
Soares said that debate over Raise the Age has largely glossed over the details of possible legislation and how various laws and processes interact. He said that the debate has ignored victims.
“A lot of people who promote Raise the Age are promoting certain elements of Raise the Age. Those people are not understanding the hyper-technical elements of the legislation that would have a detrimental effect on the very communities we’re trying to assist.”
For example, Soares says, some proposals that would send 16- and 17-year-olds to family court do not take into account victim statements and restitution. “We’ve seen no consideration to victim advocacy groups that have been working so aggressively to have a greater voice in the system and to get to this place right, but Raise the Age in its current construct is going to silence and set us back on victims rights issues. These are things that need to be considered while tailoring the legislation,” Soares said.
Soares said that the rush to advocate for the people his office prosecutes has resulted in an “abandonment of the facts.” He points to protests over the death of Donald “Dontay” Ivy in Arbor Hill, on April 2, 2015. Ivy was stopped, beaten on his legs with batons and tasered by Albany Police officers. Ivy, who had a heart condition, died despite attempts at CPR by the officers. Soares investigated and presented his findings to a grand jury, which found no criminal wrongdoing. Soares, at the time, complained that the investigation was hampered by a lack of witnesses who were not police officers and the fact that only two of the dashcams in the eight vehicles on the scene had been activated.
“It is a pretty lonely space and difficult space to occupy these days when forced to use reason and facts, because the abandonment of facts and the convenience of spin makes it a very, very difficult place to communicate and to reach some accord or agreement on how we move forward on criminal justice,” Soares said.
“Talk about the people who came to my office to protest during the Dontay Ivy investigation. We investigated. There was no one in this town that had more facts about the case than we did, because we took the time to talk to people, to interview people and to analyze, but we had people here wanting a different outcome. There are other offices across the river where a similar issue took place. An officer was involved in an unarmed person being shot. And there was silence from the same group of people who came here to protest and claiming to be interested in criminal justice reform. Now, I’m not suggesting I want them to go over there, but their silence said volumes about motivations in coming here.”
Asked what he thought the motivation was for protesters to target his office and not that of the Rensselaer County DA, Soares responded: “You’re in the news–you’re making news here. That’s just me being 100 percent honest.”
It wasn’t always protesters and reform advocates who saw Soares as target number 1. During his early years in office, Soares was regularly attacked by the Albany establishment and by conservative critics. Then Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings and his Police Chief, James Tuffey, routinely criticized Soares for his stance on the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Conservative pundits called him soft on crime. In May 2006, Soares, addressing the International Drug Conference in Canada, attacked the War on Drugs as a failure. “The attempt to engage in cleaning the streets of Albany one twenty-dollar sale on the street at a time is a failed policy,” Soares said. Jennings accused him of attacking the laws he was elected to uphold. Then Albany Police Union President Chris Mesley called on Soares to resign. Mesley later sued Soares for mental anguish he claims to have suffered as a result of claims Soares made about him during the 2008 election. At one point the relationship between Soares and the police union was so hostile that union members protested in front of Soares’s home.
The Albany Police department has seen a major shift in focus since those days. Tuffey resigned in 2009, after it surfaced that he had used racial epithets during a case. His time as police chief was known for episodes during which police would swarm an area to combat crime. Now the police department is known for using more holistic and community-based tactics. Jennings decided not to run for reelection in 2013. “This department, locally, has changed so much over the years,” said Soares. “We are blessed in Albany to have the quality of professional department we have now, and that was not always the case.”
Soares said that he realizes he’s been silent on major issues for quite some time. He hasn’t been publicly challenging injustices or pushing for reform. He says his recent heart attack reminded him of how important being that kind of leader is to his understanding of himself. “There has been a silence in my life,” Soares said. “I went through a period of my life from 2004 to 2008 or 2009 where I was just constantly being attacked by the traditional police department. I was constantly being attacked by the establishment. And that forced me to put my face in books and focus on the office and on delivering a work product we could be proud of. And I stepped away from that space where I was always in the limelight, taking on whatever issues. I haven’t been proud of that, and as a result, there’s been a silence on a number of issues I think I should have been more vocal about. I reconciled that silence by saying we need to see people step up and see people in the city and county be more assertive.”
Soares said he is no longer looking to others for leadership on the issues he cares about. He plans to bring more people in from the community, but he says he is ready to lead again.
“As I lay in my bed reflecting on the last several months I thought, ‘You know what? I was really proud of that guy in Academy Park that made the announcement. He took a lot of shit, he got fat, he lost his hair, he needed a new heart–but I like that guy.’ So I’m trying to reconnect with that guy, but being a little less combative, because not everyone extending a hand is necessarily trying to throw a punch at you.”