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Democrat Nicole Duvé (left) faces a challenge from Republican Mary Rain for St. Lawrence County district attorney. Photos: David Sommerstein
Democrat Nicole Duvé (left) faces a challenge from Republican Mary Rain for St. Lawrence County district attorney. Photos: David Sommerstein

Accusations, but little information, in St. Lawrence DA race

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The district attorney race has dominated the election season in St. Lawrence County. Incumbent Democrat Nicole Duvé has run a low-key - you could say, lawyerly - campaign for a third term. Republican challenger Mary Rain, on the other hand, has aggressively attacked Duvé's record and credibility, while calling for change.

Both women have their vulnerabilities. Duvé failed to get convictions on two high profile murders. Rain left her job as the county public defender under mysterious circumstances two years ago.

David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

When Democrat Nicole Duvé held her first and only press conference of the campaign, she guided reporters through the district attorney’s cramped offices in the county courthouse, past boxes of case files in the hallways...

That’s where the files have to live because there’s no space to put them elsewhere.

...And down to the dusty basement, which the county DMV abandoned a decade ago. Here, under fluorescent lights, dozens more boxes and repopulated cubicles.

Duvé says the point is her office is administering justice in adverse circumstances – an austere budget, a hiring freeze, low salaries, 8,000 pending cases for eight attorneys.

It’s not about the big paycheck. It’s not about the fancy corner office with all of the windows. You’ve seen the accommodations under which they work. Nobody’s complaining about it. Everybody’s putting their head down and doing their work to work for the people of St. Lawrence County.

The tour was a direct response to her challenger Mary Rain’s first press conference, where, on the steps of the courthouse, Rain accused Duvé of running a chaotic office that was keeping justice from being served.

Felony offenders to walk our streets without any consequence. She’s had dismissal after dismissal. Before it even gets out of the courtroom, it has been dismissed because of her disorganization and incompetence.

Rain’s an attorney who started her career as police officer in the Hudson Valley. She says she’s better prepared to partner with law enforcement to be tougher on crime and put criminals behind bars more quickly.

In appearances across the county, Rain has hammered Duvé for a low conviction rate and too many plea bargains.

Since I’ve been campaigning and even before I was campaigning, I heard from many victims who said they simply did not receive justice from this district attorney’s office.

Mary Rain has made two unsolved murders the lynchpin of her campaign, blaming Duvé for not getting convictions. Tandy Cyrus, the mother of 12 year-old Garrett Phillips, whose murderer hasn’t been found, has stood beside Rain. So has the family of Bernard Trickey, whose longtime suspected killer, Wayne Oxley, went free after three trials -  one guilty, one hung jury, and finally not guilty.

Duvé calls these joint appearances “unfortunate” and “disheartening”. She says Rain’s attacks belie a misunderstanding of what the DA can and cannot do, how plea bargains can help a victim to justice, and why victims would not want a trial.

Sometimes all we can do is provide the opportunity for justice. I’m certainly not going to drag a rape victim kicking and screaming through the court process. I think that’s completely inappropriate and I would never do that.

According to state data, Duvé’s felony conviction rate from 2008 to 2012 is 74%, very close to the non-New York City statewide average of 77%. Her dismissal rate is also on par with the statewide average. But her conviction rate is about 10 points lower than those in neighboring Franklin, Jefferson, and Lewis counties.

Mary Rain has also had to defend her record. She resigned as county Public Defender in 2011, citing an overwhelming caseload. But that was after she was stripped of operational oversight of her office and put on administrative leave.

Rain says a Democratic legislature pushed her out for political reasons. But some observers, including some Republicans, say she was ineffective and didn’t get along with people, suggesting her own staff wanted her out. What really happened is confidential.

The thing is, there is much voters can’t know or understand about this race. There’s confidentiality and technical jargon. Judges and attorneys are reluctant to wade into a political campaign.

Danny Lempert studies judicial politics at SUNY Potsdam. He calls it a “low voter information environment”.

It’s unclear what the relevant baseline is here, so are the plea bargaining rates high given the budgetary constraints that are in play in the county? So there’s not a lot of relevant information out there and, more importantly, voters don’t have the time to seek out detailed information about these down-ballot races.

Lempert says that’s why many people vote along party lines. On that count, Duvé has a slight edge with a 1,000 voter Democratic enrollment advantage.

There are a few endorsements of note in this race. Mary Rain has won the support of the Watertown Daily Times and the state police union. Nicole Duvé has the endorsement of the Daily Courier-Observer.

Both women have acknowledged the overwhelming workload facing the St. Lawrence County district attorney. Yet each wants the often thankless job.

Republican Mary Rain says it’s because at heart, she’s a cop and she believes the county needs a new prosecutor.

I started out as a police officer in 1984. I’ve always been driven. I’m very victim oriented, and I would love to be back on the prosecutorial side.

To answer why she wants another four years in the cramped DA offices, Democrat Nicole Duvé tells the story of a five year-old girl who was sexually abused. Duvé says she spent days helping her build confidence to tell her story to a grand jury.

She is the reason that I get up and do this job every day. Because I can help others like her. Because I can’t always help them, but I know that if I try and it works, it’s worth it.

St. Lawrence County voters have a stark choice, but with little information – either a third-term DA or a new one. Polls are open until 9 at night.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had incorrectly reported the winner of the Watertown Daily Times' endorsement. That has been corrected. It is Mary Rain.

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