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2018 Election Preview: District Attorney of Rensselaer County, New York

A year after being charged with misconduct, a prosecutor seeks re-election

A year after being charged with misconduct, a prosecutor seeks re-election

Daniel Nichanian

In 2017, Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove was indicted for official misconduct and first-degree perjury for his handling of a police shooting. After Sgt. Randy French shot and killed Edson Thevenin, a Black man, Abelove speedily impaneled a grand jury that decided not to indict French; he did so over the wishes of then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was looking to take over the investigation in accordance with an executive order signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Among the charges Abelove faced was “withholding evidence from the grand jury,” Brendan Lyons writes. “The Times Union reported last year that Abelove did not subpoena two civilian witnesses who were at the scene of the shooting.” Abelove was also charged for providing French immunity before he even testified to the grand jury.
A judge dismissed the charges in June 2018, finding that the attorney general’s office lacked the jurisdiction to prosecute Abelove; the attorney general has since sought a reargument.
Abelove faces challenger Mary Pat Donnelly on Nov. 6. Abelove is a Republican while Donnelly is a member of the Independence Party, running as the Democratic nominee.
Donnelly says she would abide by requests from statewide officials to take over police shooting investigations. “The DAs work hand in hand with the police officers on a daily basis,” she told WAMC. “So for the elected DA of the county to insist on handling the investigation of a police officer who he works with on a frequent basis, it just doesn’t allow for justice to be served.”
Reporting in The Alt, Luke Stoddard Nathan describes Donnelly’s other policy positions as “fairly moderate.” “There can be a function to a low-level marijuana charge,” Donnelly told The Alt about marijuana prosecution, “depending on if it’s linked to something else, depending on if it is an individual who may have a bigger problem.” She does not support Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors and felonies that are classified as nonviolent; that proposal could come up in the 2019 legislative session.
Given how rare it is for prosecutors to face misconduct charges, Abelove’s circumstances bear some similarities with that of Eric Zahnd, the prosecuting attorney of Platte County who is coasting to re-election this year despite receiving a reprimand from the state Supreme Court.
Update: Mary Pat Donnelly defeated DA Joel Abelove on Nov. 8th.