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RensCo Dems’ DA candidate is respected judge with police ties

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RensCo Dems’ DA candidate is respected judge with police ties

Jack Conway, now town supervisor of East Greenbush, met Mary Pat Donnelly at a zoning board hearing a little over a decade ago, when she served as the board’s attorney. After the hearing, Conway’s feet “froze”—he has a gout problem—and so he sat there, somewhat immobilized, as many attendees walked past him.

Donnelly noticed. She lent Conway her cell phone to call his wife, sat with him until she arrived, and helped him into the car. They’ve been friends ever since.

“I have no objectivity on this—she’s one of my favorite people,” Conway told The Alt in a recent interview. On the bench—Donnelly served as town justice from 2012 until last month, when she resigned after being picked by Rensselaer County Democrats to run for district attorney—Donnelly has the “perfect judicial temperament,” a blend of compassion and toughness, Conway said.

As the county’s top prosecutor, she’d strike that same balance, Conway predicted: “a law-and-order district attorney who never loses sight of the concept of justice.”

In interviews with The Alt, local defense attorneys who have represented clients in Donnelly’s court also rated her highly.

“Fair and impartial,” Andrew Safranko said of the town judge. She “holds [prosecutors’] feet to the fire if they don’t have the elements to prove their case,” and “has set appropriate bail” when prosecutors ask for something beyond that, he said.

Donnelly is “just courteous, which is sorely lacking in a lot of town judgeships,” said veteran Albany defense lawyer James Long. Some judges want to rush cases to clear their calendar, Long added, but she is patient and “even-keeled.”

Donnelly, 44, may face a more polarizing incumbent who, according to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, has flouted the law.

Joel Abelove, a Republican narrowly elected four years ago, was charged in December with official misconduct and perjury related to his handling of the fatal police shooting of Edson Thevenin, an African-American man who had fled a DWI stop in his vehicle. A trial is set for June, though Abelove, who pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence, has moved to dismiss the indictment filed by state prosecutors.

Abelove has not said publicly whether he intends to seek reelection. (The county Republican committee didn’t return a phone call, and the prosecutor’s campaign didn’t return a message sent through its website last week.)

In a phone interview Friday, Donnelly declined to say whether she believes Abelove should have resigned, as the New York Times editorial board suggested and Democratic county legislators demanded, when charges were filed against him.

She also, perhaps more notably, would not say outright that she agrees with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 executive order appointing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as special prosecutor in cases where cops have killed unarmed civilians, though she said she’d obey it. (Abelove, after he’d already convened a grand jury that opted not to indict the cop who killed Thevenin, was sued into compliance by Schneiderman.)

“I can understand why law enforcement…may not appreciate [the executive order], but I do think that it can be a good thing,” she said. “An independent body that does not have ties to the law enforcement agency in question could only seek to get the truth out and perhaps bring honor back to everyone.”

Donnelly has considerable ties to law enforcement. Her husband is an Albany police officer, as was her late father, Timothy Murphy, who died in 2005. Her mother, Toni Murphy, the East Greenbush tax collector, also owns Tech Valley Security, a consulting firm established by her husband two years before his death and long led by a former Albany police chief.  

In her only competitive race, in 2012, Donnelly’s largest donation, of $2,500, came from Council 82, a law enforcement officers’ union.

When we asked Donnelly what she would say to progressives who might be wary of her familial links to police, she said she had “thought a lot about this” but then spoke about how certain “cases cause a stain on all of the wonderful men and women that do this job.”

“I live the life of a police officer, and I have my entire life,” she said. “I know the sacrifices, I know the pain, and I know how…much it hurts to be painted with a broad brush.”

Donnelly took fairly moderate positions on the policy-related questions we asked. She believes all police officers should be fitted with body-worn cameras (“It could only protect the ones that are doing their job correctly, which is the bulk of them”). She’s “in favor of open discovery,” or requiring prosecutors to turn over evidence to the defense with ample time before trial, as long as no one’s safety is jeopardized.  

She called LEAD—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, a program that allows police officers to refer people suspected of certain low-level crimes to social workers in lieu of arrest and prosecution—“wonderful,” and said she’d prioritize implementing it in Rensselaer County if she had the opportunity. (The program was brought to Albany in 2016.)

She declined to make a blanket commitment to not prosecute marijuana possession cases. While she said she appreciates the trend toward legalization and acknowledged that “a solitary charge of marijuana” is “probably not a valuable use of resources,” she maintained that “there can be a function to a low-level marijuana charge—depending on if it’s linked to something else, depending on if it is an individual who may have a bigger problem.” The charge could present “an opportunity to maybe get them in front of a body that can provide them with some sort of support or treatment,” Donnelly said.

She emphasizes, correctly, that the statutory purpose of bail is to ensure defendants return to court, not to serve as preemptive punishment. But she does not support Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to end cash bail for misdemeanors and some felonies because “bail has its place in certain circumstances,” she said.

She declined to say whether she thought Sheriff Patrick Russo should withdraw from his office’s partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as Democratic county lawmakers have urged.

Notwithstanding the rather middle-of-the-road posture her opinions evince, Donnelly is seeking the Working Families Party’s endorsement. Anita Thayer, secretary of the WFP’s Capital District chapter, told us the endorsement process for the race is still unfolding, though Donnelly is the lone applicant.

Donnelly has spent the bulk of her career as a court attorney in Albany City Court, assisting judges with drafting decisions and researching law. Before taking that job, she spent a year as a state’s attorney in Vermont, which is equivalent to an assistant district attorney in New York. She has also volunteered for an array of local causes, according to an East Greenbush Education Foundation biography from 2015.

It remains to be seen if Donnelly’s blend of legal expertise, centrism, and amiability—she’s “built for” knocking on doors, Conway, the town supervisor, said—will help her win her first countywide election.

She may also expect support from law enforcement, considering her background and potential opponent. The Times Union has reported that, under the current administration, cops in Rensselaer County “are not happy” about the number of felony cases that have been dismissed by courts for not being presented to a grand jury in a timely manner.

While she alluded to the speedy-trial issue in an interview with the Troy Record, for now, Donnelly seems somewhat loath to critique her prospective opponent in detail, at least at this early stage of the campaign.

If she sharpens her rhetoric, don’t expect her to sound like Larry Krasner, a Philadelphia civil rights lawyer elected district attorney last year while promising radical criminal justice reforms.

For instance, Donnelly takes issue with Abelove’s alleged attempt at circumventing the Cuomo executive order, but at least partly because she thinks it may have denied Sgt. Randall French, the officer who killed Thevenin, the chance of a “clean exoneration.”

“The attorney general came to the same conclusion, essentially, as the grand jury,” Donnelly said. “I think, and I would hope, that if there had been cooperation with the executive order, that the [AG’s] conclusion would have had a less tragic effect on so many people.”

In its report on the matter, the AG’s office said it could not disprove that French’s use of force was justified, since a forensic analysis could not rule out the possibility that Thevenin’s car was moving toward the officer when the first shot was fired.

The report did conclude, however, that French’s (and the police department’s) claim that Thevenin’s car “pinned him before he started shooting” was untrue. Even if Abelove had cooperated promptly with the AG, was a cloud-free absolution ever really possible?  

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