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Suffolk DA's Departure Offers Possibility Of Progressive Overhaul

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Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley speaks as Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, right, and Appellate ADA Teresa Anderson, left, listen at a news conference in Boston, Thursday, May 15, 2014.
Elise Amendola/AP
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In November, voters will decide who will take over one of the most powerful public law enforcement positions in the state.

Dan Conley announced last week he is not seeking reelection to be district attorney for Suffolk County. The announcement has widespread implications for Boston politics. The opening offers an opportunity for whomever wins the seat to significantly shape Boston's criminal justice system at a time when reform is a hot topic on Beacon Hill. 

WGBH's Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed has tracked Conley's career and says he leaves behind a legacy of successfully handling high-profile cases, protecting victims' rights and expanding outreach to communities that have strained relationships with law enforcement.

"In terms of the big picture, he did a lot to advance the interest of crime victims across the state, especially victims of sex offenses and other violent incidents," said Medwed. "He also made an effort to develop or improve the relationship between the DA's office and the African-American community in Boston."

But at times, Medwed added, Conley also showed rigidity around issues that are increasingly under fire by reformists.

"He certainly had some missteps. Perhaps the biggest one concerns his outspoken support on mandatory minimum sentencing. Conley's support for mandatory minimums came at a time when most legal scholars, including me, were very critical of this approach, touting its flaws, and about over-incarceration generally."

The question now becomes who will replace Conley, and will the new DA continue the centrist-leaning Democrat approach or move in a different direction.

Shannon McAuliffe, a progressive lawyer who previously ran a program for at-risk youth, has already announced her candidacy, as has Rep. Evandro Carvalho, who used to work for Conley. Others are also interested in running, including City Councilor Michael Flaherty, as the Boston Herald reported last week. 

But Medwed says national leaders with groups like Black Lives Matter are actively recruiting a candidate and he sees an opportunity for another former Suffolk prosecutor to return and take over his old boss' job.

"I'm keeping my eye on a man named Adam Foss, he's an African-American and former assistant prosecutor who's now doing criminal justice reform work — ground-breaking work — for musician John Legend," said Medwed. "Adam Foss is quite young, but he's incredibly bright, savvy, charismatic, innovative and progressive. I'm gonna keep my eye on him as a potential challenger."

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