Editor's note: This is the second in a series of three stories focusing on a debate held between Judge John T. Ward and Legislator William F. Coughlin for the upcoming election for County Judge.
MAYVILLE - Public confidence in the criminal justice system is essential.
Incumbent County Judge John T. Ward and his challenger, attorney William F. Coughlin, couldn't agree more.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, voters in Chautauqua County will decide the Conservative and Independence nominations for November's general election. Ward, a Republican, and Coughlin, a Democrat and county legislator representing Fredonia, are seeking both nominations.
Both candidates were asked during a recent debate how important public confidence is in the criminal justice system and what each has done to maintain expectations.
"With public confidence, a lot of it has to do with image," Ward said. "A lot of it has to do with ability, and I just hope that during the last 20 years I have been able to demonstrate both my confidence on the job and my temperament and my integrity."
He added: "I think those are important attributes a judge has to have to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system."
Coughlin, who is an adjunct criminal justice professor at the State University at Fredonia, said he maintains a strict following of the law as it was intended to be applied.
"I have always, always, always tried to follow law as it was established, either criminal procedure or the appeal law itself," Coughlin said.
The former assistant district attorney and public defender said he helped the city of Jamestown establish a regular schedule for preliminary hearings - which are required soon after a felony arrest.
"This is something the law requires for a defendant that is incarcerated," Coughlin said. "This was done on a willy-nilly basis. ... There was not set preliminary hearing dates according to the statutes."
After sitting down with the Public Defender's Office, a regular schedule was established.
"Not only is it the law but it sets the chain in motion as to how you are going to dispose the case. That wasn't done. That's something I did when I was on my own."
Ward, meanwhile, said it is important as county judge to go out into the community and educate the public about the courts system. Doing so, he said, clears up confusion and misconceptions about the law. Ward said he routinely will speak at functions and to groups about the judicial system. As county judge since 1992, he has become a polarizing figure in the community, whether he likes it or not.
"I think it's important for judges to get out into the community and talk to groups and let them know exactly how the system work and what types of issues we have to deal with," he said. "Everyone knows you are a judge, whether you are in the courtroom or not. You're still representing the courts system, and I think it's important that people have the confidence and project the image that you are representing the courts system."
As for media in the courtroom, Ward said, "I tried to keep the courtroom as open as possible. I've tried to give the media as much access as I am legally permitted to do."
In terms of public perception of the courts system, Coughlin said he was initially concerned as public defender over the lack of diversity.
"I don't think I would be telling tales out of school if I didn't say that a large percent of people who are defendants in Chautauqua County Court are of color," Coughlin said.
To ease "tensions," Janice Slaton was hired, whom both candidates said was well qualified for the position.
"Just that one hire did a lot of alleviating tensions between defendants and some of the old-time public defenders who had been there," Coughlin said.
Coughlin said for public perception of the criminal justice system to remain positive, convictions and rulings need to stand up to appeals. The Democrat alluded to a few cases handled by Ward that have be reversed - most notably a case involving Ingvue "Pete" Buchanan, who in 1998 was convicted of murdering a 14-year old Dunkirk girl.
The New York State Court of Appeals overturned the decision in 2009 because Buchanan had been ordered to wear a stun belt during the trial. After a hung jury during his second trial, Buchanan took a plea deal of 16 to 18 years in jail.
"More importantly Ingvue Buchanan is going to be walking the streets, somebody who should be in jail, as a direct result of mistakes," Coughlin said.
Ward stands by his decision that Buchanan was a threat during the trial, and noted that corrections officers at the jail warned of his violent behavior. Ward said of his cases appealed since 1993, only nine have been reversed.
Ward questioned Coughlin regarding a 2005 lawsuit that was brought against him by a former employee in the Public Defender's Office. The suit, according to Steve Abdella, county attorney, was settled for $150,000 - all of which, he said, was paid by the county's insurance company.
"Bringing up that I do find somewhat offensive," Coughlin said, noting that the settlement did not include a finding or admission of guilt.
"I think if you're running for public office, I think it's fair game," Ward said.