Bernard T. Hessley

Bernard T. Hessley answered some questions posed by the Times Observer about his candidacy for Warren County District Attorney in Tuesday’s primary election.

How do you view the role of plea bargaining in criminal prosecution?

“It’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes it has a negative connotation. If people don’t understand how the system works, they think that you’re letting people off the hook, or people are getting away with things, and that’s not the case. The purpose of the plea bargain is to actually make sure the system runs, and insure judicial economy.

It’s impossible to take every single case to trial. If we did, the public wouldn’t like it. They would have to sit (on a jury) in three or four trials in judgment of their fellow citizens, and take days out of their lives. It would take so much of the court’s time, the court wouldn’t be able to address other issues that are important to people such as custody, property disputes (and) injury cases.

It’s part of the district attorney’s job to do justice, not seek convictions. I always thought, when I was an assistant district attorney, you have to look at every case individually. Sometimes you give them a little bit of a break if they don’t have a history, and you hope there isn’t a next time. If there is, you say, ‘We gave you a break last time.’ Other cases, certainly there’s no plea bargain at all. You have to take them to trial. (Plea bargains) are a necessary part of the system.

What do you see as the future of the Warren County Drug Task Force?

“Unfortunately, as a candidate, we don’t get to see behind the curtains of the job. The drug task force is necessarily not a public matter. I really can’t say until I see what the workings are, what the structure is, who the team members are, how they work together, what additional resources we might need, what resources we could possibly cut. I think we have to have a drug task force.

My position in the Erie County district attorney’s office was strictly drug prosecution. It was a full-time, around the clock job.That’s because these cases take so long to develop. You have to weed out the criminals and their connections and you need surveillance, and you need to do it quietly. What I saw working hand in hand with the Erie County vice officers, you need police officers who are specifically trained, know the techniques, know the tricks of the trade of the drug dealers as they are very good at hiding things. There is no doubt it (the task force) is necessary and will continue, but what shape, form, and size that is I won’t know until I take office and see how that is actually operating.

What is the right size for the district attorney’s office? Does the county need a full-time criminal investigator (full-time or part-time county detective)?

“Right now we have the district attorney, we have a first assistant who is full-time and … we have a part-time assistant district attorney.

In our system with two judges, sometimes they are really hustling to cover two courtrooms, and juggling schedules can be difficult. It may be nice to have a first assistant and another full-time assistant district attorney because there is a lot of work to do. Every criminal case is being handled by those one and a half (existing) positions and there is a lot of cases every year in Warren.

To handle those cases well and prepare for trial takes a lot of time. If one of the DAs is preparing for a major trial and cannot pull themselves away from the desk there needs to be somebody to handle the other work. As a prosecutor, there is a lot of weight on your shoulders, a lot of pressure because you are representing the community and the commonwealth.

It wasn’t uncommon for me, leading up to a major trial, you know, all-nighters are not uncommon. So yeah, you need help. You need a team, somebody to pick up when you are otherwise occupied. I do think a detective is necessary, because the DA is tied to the courthouse. There is a lot of running around gathering information. That is where a detective is very beneficial. You think of a detective as somebody out on the street solving crimes. They do that when necessary, but they round up the information for the district attorneys so they can do their job. That’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time.

I don’t know that we need an additional investigator per se to go out and independently do criminal investigations. I think the officers that I’ve encountered who cover the Warren area do a good job. I think it is important for the DA’s office to have a utility player, someone who’s not a lawyer but understands the criminal process, understands trial and trial preparation.

I think they also offer a measure of protection in the DA’s office and for staff, because when you are putting people away for years, and taking away their livelihood, their lifestyles that is based on criminal activities… you become a target. Certainly, you have the deputy sheriffs that are trained, but they are not stationed in the DA’s office. Even if it only takes them one or two minutes to get to the DA’s office, two minutes in a dangerous situation can make a world of difference.

Having someone who is trained in police work is vitally important.

What do you perceive as the greatest threat to public safety in the county? Is it drug use, alcohol, misdiagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, or other matters?

“These are always a little bit of the chicken or the egg (questions). Mental health is a huge issue. Because of the stigma of it, and because of the heath care system, I don’t think people get diagnosed or treated for mental health. They… sometimes self -medicate.

Certainly some people drink or do drugs because they think it’s fun or cool, but there are people out there who are using drugs to regulate their moods, stabilize their emotions and mental well being. They have an underlying mental health problem, and they develop a drug addiction, or an alcohol addiction. When you have that situation, it’s very hard to hold down a job, and so they steal or commit other crimes to support that habit.

A separate issue is people that use drugs and alcohol to excess. It is the major contributing factor in most crimes. Most people don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go out and commit a crime’, like you see in the movies. We don’t really have professional thieves or criminals or it’s a very, very small percent. Generally, we have people who are having tough times, are making bad decisions. They’re drinking, using drugs and that clouds their judgment, They continue to make bad decisions and commit crimes, crimes of violence against others, crimes against spouses and loved ones because their inhibitions are lower and they are more aggressive.”