by Stephanie Barry
SPRINGFIELD – The four Democratic candidates for Hampden district attorney worked to bring their messages to the public during a forum hosted by the local NAACP chapter on Tuesday.
The forum included questions from a three-member panel. It hit topics including prison overcrowding, police brutality and marijuana prosecutions, while audience members followed up with queries about recalcitrant witnesses and diversity.
It was the fourth public forum for candidates Shawn Allyn, a Holyoke attorney; Hal Etkin, a lawyer from Longmeadow; assistant prosecutor Anthony Gulluni, of Springfield; and former longtime prosecutor Brett Vottero, also of Springfield. The event at Springfield Technical Community College drew by far the largest crowd of all the forums and featured the most detailed questions to date.
Panelists included Leslie S. Smith and Sophia E. Jeffries, officers with the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, and Todd Hankins, project director of Veterans with Vision. It was moderated by WWLP 22-News reporter Laura Hutchinson.
All candidates vowed to be tough on street crime and focus more heavily on diversion programs for juvenile offenders and substance abusers. Most decried the swelling number of inmates and Vottero in particular focused on the disparate numbers of African-Americans in the nation’s jails and prisons.
When asked by an audience member how each would handle fearful and obstinate witnesses who stymie murder investigations, the responses included similar themes but were nuanced.
Gulluni emphasized his current position as an assistant prosecutor in Hampden County and his personal experience with temporarily relocating a witness to South Carolina in a murder trial. However, he focused sharply on changing the culture in the inner city through partnerships with churches and community groups.
“The anti-snitching pop culture paradigm has to change,” Gulluni said. “More money might not come; we have the resources now and I’ve used them.”
Vottero, who spent more than two decades as a prosecutor, said the future district attorney must distinguish between witnesses who are genuinely fearful and those who are simply defiant.
“In some cases (witnesses refuse to cooperate) not only out of fear – it’s out of a desire to stonewall police. We need to get that group before the grand jury, put them under oath and ask them the questions.”
Etkin highlighted declining state funds earmarked for state-funded witness protection. It dipped to $94,000 this year from nearly $1 million in 2007.
“If we’re going to ask people to step forward and risk their lives, we have to be right there with them,” Etkin said.
Allyn talked about his plan to establish a witness protection unit should he be elected, and has spoken of his intentions to lobby Boston elected officials for more money to fund greater shields for witnesses who cooperate with investigations.
The forum follows a rash of gun violence in Springfield recently that claimed the lives of two 18-year-olds in separate shootings.
While questions at the forum did not focus solely on issues facing people of color, the first audience question chosen at random quizzed candidates specifically on their electability based on “diversity and multicultural experience.”
Vottero conceded he grew up in an all-white, small town in the Midwest, but noted that he was a member – and later an official of – an organization called CISV International, which promotes cross-cultural friendships through camp program.
“At 11 years old I spent time at a camp with children from Liberia and Costa Rica and all over the world,” Vottero said.
Allyn spoke about his experience as a social worker with the former state Department of Social Services and working with some of society’s poorest and most vulnerable as clients. He also touched on his disclosure earlier in the campaign that he is gay.
“As a gay person I know what it’s like to be different,” Allyn said.
Gulluni emphasized growing up in Springfield and remaining there, and on his father’s long tenure as director of the now-closed Massachusetts Career Development Institute,a job training center that largely served minorities.
“It was my home away from home. I grew up around diversity and in some ways I’ve mirrored my father’s work,” Gulluni said.
Etkin focused on his roots growing up in the city’s North End, a Latino friend whose birthday party he recently attended, and asked his law partner, Travaun Bailey, to stand up.
“He’s a great guy and he’s smart. He just happens to be African-America,” Etkin said.
In his closing remarks, Etkin also asked Alesia Days, a supporter and a black attorney who works for the city of Springfield, to stand up and vowed to hire her if elected.
While the opponents in the race have been courteous and few barbs have been thrown at any of the public events, Allyn quipped:
“I hope my supporters aren’t upset with me. I have about 30 of them here and I haven’t promised any of them jobs,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience.
The field will be whittled down to one after the Sept. 9 primary; there are no Republican or independent candidates. The winner will replace former district attorney Mark G. Mastroianni, who was appointed as a federal judge earlier this month near the end of his first term.