DA Candidates Discuss Recent Felony Conviction Rate
When it comes to successful prosecutions of felony cases by the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office, the incumbent says he is doing a better job than most in his position around the state, while his challenger believes he is falling too short, especially compared to his predecessor.
During a private debate with the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal, District Attorney Patrick Swanson and challenger Jason Schmidt were asked “What is your view of the handling of felony cases and of convictions in the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office over the last three to four years?”
Swanson began by applauding his staff, especially with its size and the amount of work they have. “Given with what we have with the caseload, the people that work for me do great work,” he said.
According to Swanson, they average about 86 felonies per attorney. “The state average of the 62 (county) offices is 48. We’re handling a volume that’s far above what other offices are handling,” he said.
Swanson said when looking at convictions of all criminal cases, including felonies, his office is higher than the state average. “(That’s) a testament of the people that work for me are doing,” he said.
Swanson said by choice, he handles nearly all of the homicide cases in the county.
“We have dealt with some very interesting, very difficult cases over the last four years,” he said.
Three of the cases involved accused women. “I don’t know if a DA before me has ever tried a female at trial for a homicide in this county and I’ve had to try three,” he said.
In all cases, the women claimed self defense, including Ashleyanne Lopez-Lopez, who stabbed to death Jefrena Brown, a 15-year-old high school student in Dunkirk. Schmidt was the attorney who defended Lopez-Lopez. She was found not guilty for second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
“We put that case into the grand jury knowing how difficult that case was,” Swanson said. “We asked them to consider a manslaughter first charge because we felt in a best case scenario that’s what existed. And for one reason or another, whether they believe it was self defense and they compromised, they gave us a man. two (second-degree manslaughter).”
He pointed out that his office had success in other cases, including a conviction of David Waggoner for the shooting death of William J. Michishima in Jamestown’; a guilty plea from Keith Robbins for the murder of his estranged wife Shari; and Brian Korzeniewski, who gave a mental illness plea in the death of Michael Bull in Jamestown.
“As far as how we’ve handled the felony cases and the convictions we’ve gotten, we have handled them as well or better than the rest of the state,” he said.
Swanson said his office has had more success than nearby Erie or Niagara counties, and had similar success to Rensselaer, Schenectady and Ulster counties, which are similar in population size. “Ulster and Schenectady, their felony arrests that result in a felony conviction are slightly higher. Now I will tell you this about Ulster and Schenectady counties — they have 25 lawyers each … We have 12,” he said.
Schmidt, however, was critical of Swanson’s success rate over the last four years, comparing him to his predecessor David Foley, who is now the county court judge.
Schmidt provided statistics that compare Foley and Swanson. In 2013, the DA’s office had 876 arrests and 573 convictions, a 65% rate. In 2014, the DA’s office had 954 arrests and 587 prosecutions, a 62% conviction rate. In 2015, the DA’s office had 945 arrests and 441 prosecutions, a 47% conviction rate.
Those were under Foley’s tenure.
Jan. 1, 2016, Swanson was appointed acting district attorney. That year, his office had 976 arrests and 526 prosecutions, resulting in a 25.7% conviction rate. In November 2016, he won the election and continued as the district attorney.
In 2017, there were 1,062 felony arrests and 361 prosecutions, resulting in a 21.6% conviction rate. In 2018, there were 1,021 arrests and 246 prosecutions, resulting a 21.6% conviction rate. In 2019, the last full year under Swanson’s leadership, there were 1,080 arrests and 247 prosecutions, resulting a 17.4% conviction rate.
Schmidt said his numbers, which show a drop by more than 50% from his predecessor, were generated from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Office of Court Administration. “These aren’t numbers I’m creating. These are numbers that are tracked by two different state agencies,” he said.
Schmidt said seeing a felony conviction rate dropping so significantly should be a concern. “I’ve never seen how we can go down as a county that far. It’s just ridiculous. It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Schmidt also took issue with Swanson’s argument that his office dealt with three felony arrests of women, who used self defense as their justifications. “If you can’t anticipate that there, that’s a problem,” he said.
He continued criticizing Swanson’s handling of some of the women who weren’t convicted, including the case of Barbara Redeye, who was found not guilty in the murder of her half-brother in Jamestown. “There was failure in that case. There was failure to get DNA evidence,” he said.
In rebuttal, Swanson insisted his opponent is providing data out of context. “He talks about Chautauqua County only. He doesn’t talk about how we’re doing compared to the rest of the state. He doesn’t talk about how we’re better than the averages,” Swanson said.
Schmidt, though, didn’t let up. “I’m comparing you to your predecessor,” he said.
Swanson said there’s also been times his office has dismissed felony charges because there wasn’t enough evidence. “We have an ethical obligation as prosecutors,” he said. “If there’s not a sufficient amount of proof to move the case forward, you can’t. You don’t do it because it’s the ethically right thing to do.”
Swanson added that they will continue to dismiss cases that don’t have enough evidence. “Our job is to be fair and ethical,” he said.
Schmidt agreed there needs to be a prosecutorial review of all cases but said if police are charging more felonies than they should, then the district attorney should be working with the local police departments to address this.
“When the numbers get so high, what that speaks to is a lack of communication with the police,” he said. “Law enforcement consists of two parts — the police and prosecutors. When those two agencies aren’t communicating correctly, you’re going to have these types of problems.”
Schmidt said local police agencies have told him there isn’t communication between the local departments and Swanson’s office. “You cannot blame the police for overcharging cases. You have to be involved and work with them directly in order to make those corrections,” he said.
Schmidt also took issue with Swanson’s defense, saying his decisions are based on ethics. “You’re constantly getting admonished by Judge Foley for violating the rules, by failing to turn over evidence, by hiding witnesses,” he said. “These are the most egregious ethics violations and you hold yourself out as having the highest integrity.”
Swanson defended himself saying, “You’re presuming that what the judge is doing all the time is correct,” he said.
He also insists he never “blamed the police” when jurors have found defendants not guilty. “I’m tired of people saying I’ve said things when they have no evidence of that,” Swanson said.