Elections for top prosecutor in New York City’s smallest borough are usually highly local matters. But this year, candidates for Staten Island district attorney are running for an office that got national scrutiny over a police chokehold death last year.
Republican career prosecutor Joan Illuzzi and Democratic former congressman Michael McMahon are vying for an open seat in a community that has become central in the debate over how prosecutors handle allegations of police brutality.
He’s a veteran politician who has never been a prosecutor. She’s a political novice with decades in a different DA’s office. It’s become the kind of race where debate tickets get snapped up in half an hour, and politics-watchers are tuning in.
“It seems to have captured the imaginations” of some in a season when most eyes are on next year’s presidential race, Iona College political science professor Jeanne Zaino says. “There are a lot of tentacles.”
The flowchart starts with former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion last December and resigned. His seat was won by then-DA Daniel Donovan, the prosecutor who had empaneled a grand jury that declined last year to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man.
The grand jury’s decision spurred protests and fueled a national conversation about police treatment of black men, the fairness of the justice system and the role of district attorneys.
Critics lambasted the longstanding secrecy of grand juries and questioned whether DAs worked too closely with police to deal with claims of officer misconduct.
Prosecutors pushed back, defending their independence from police and calling grand jury confidentiality an important protection for witnesses. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo temporarily appointed Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a special prosecutor for police killings statewide.
Meanwhile, civil liberties advocates are trying to get the Garner case grand jury transcripts unsealed, over the DA’s objections. Courts so far have said no.
Illuzzi and McMahon both oppose releasing the transcripts and feel that DA’s should continue to be entrusted with cases involving deaths at the hands of police. Both decline to opine on the specifics of the Garner grand jury investigation, noting they don’t know its secrets.
But each says the DA’s office could explain more to foster transparency and public understanding.
McMahon suggests more proactively discussing reasons for grand jury secrecy and appointing a corps of staffers to attend community meetings. Illuzzi envisions making more use of grand jury reports, which are allowed to address misconduct allegations against a public servant or to recommend laws or regulations.
McMahon, who has practiced civil and criminal law, was a city councilman before his term in Congress.
“I’ll be able to leverage that experience to give the people of Staten Island a modern, 21st-century office … and to rebuild the bridges between law enforcement and all the communities on Staten Island,” said McMahon. His platform includes fighting for more city funding for the office and refusing to let drug traffickers plead guilty to less than their top charges.
Illuzzi resigned to run after 27 years as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. She handled major cases, including the ultimately dropped 2011 sex-abuse prosecution of former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn and this year’s trial in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz, a touchstone of the national missing-children’s movement. It ended in a jury deadlock, with one holdout for acquittal.
“I have the energy and know-how” to be DA, says Illuzzi, who calls the job “an opportunity for me to keep the people of Staten Island, whom I love, safe from harm.” Her ideas include establishing a hotline for people to report drug activity and a pathway for senior citizens to report scams and other crimes directly to the DA’s office.
McMahon’s campaign is ahead in fundraising, more than 2-to-1, but there are no public polls in the race.