At left: Matthew Foster of Ellsworth, Republican candidate for district attorney of Hancock and Washington counties; at right: Robert Granger of Blue Hill, who is running as an independent candidate for District Attorney of Hancock and Washington counties. Credit: Contributed/Courtesy of Rober Granger

Voters in Hancock and Washington counties will be the only Maine residents to decide next month whether to keep their current district attorney or to elect a new one.

Matthew Foster, the top prosecutor in the two counties, is the only incumbent facing a contested election on Nov. 8. The only other contested district attorney election this fall is in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, where voters will choose a successor to former prosecutor Andrew Robinson, who left this post this year for an appointment as a state judge.

Running against Foster is Robert Granger, an independent from Blue Hill and longtime criminal defense lawyer in Ellsworth.

Foster has received some criticism in the past couple of years from officials in Washington County. Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis and other elected officials have said Foster has not devoted enough resources to prosecuting cases there, and that the county should have its own district attorney, separate from Hancock County.

Both candidates said they don’t think Washington County needs its own district attorney, and a bill submitted in the Legislature to establish a separate prosecutorial district in Washington County died in committee last winter.

But the issue of how to more effectively prosecute cases in Washington County — where a sharp increase in illegal drug activity and violent crime has alarmed local residents and officials — remains an issue in the race.

The Fraternal Order of Police, a union that represents patrol officers with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Machias Police Department, has endorsed Granger, who once worked in law enforcement as a state game warden in Vermont.

During a live online candidates forum hosted Oct. 12 by the League of Women Voters in Maine and some Hancock County weekly newspapers, Granger said he wants to regain the trust of the residents of Washington County.

“They’ve largely felt shortchanged by the current administration,” Granger said during the forum. “For a long time they’ve had only one assistant prosecutor serving in Machias to handle [criminal cases filed in] Machias and Calais.”

Granger said Foster turns away too many sexual assault complaints that are referred to his office on the basis that they are “he said/she said” cases, and that more of these cases should be presented to the grand juries in each county.

He also said he would like the DA’s office to regain the trust of police officers, who feel like their efforts to enforce the law have been watered down by lackluster prosecution that has resulted in lenient plea deals or dismissals.

“We’ve had officers with decades of experience resigning or taking retirement out of frustration,” Granger said.

Foster said his office, especially in Washington County, has been hampered by a lack of resources committed to the courts by the state.

The courts in Machias and Calais have sometimes been closed down because judicial marshals aren’t available for duty, he said. The state should be funding and filling more positions with the courts — including judges, clerks and defense attorneys — and to hire logistics personnel to help manage the case backlog.

“The Legislative branch needs to properly fund the courts, the prosecution and the defense,” Foster said, noting that there is only one defense lawyer in Washington County who is taking appointments for criminal defendants.

“We are ready to try cases,” Foster said. “We are prepared, we have our cases in order and ready to go. We just can’t get the court time to do it.”

Foster said Hancock and Washington counties, together with 1,500 pending cases, have the lowest backlog of cases in Maine. Several other prosecution districts have backlogs ranging from roughly 3,200 to nearly 6,000 cases, he said.

But Foster said he’s not willing just to dismiss or undercharge cases to get them resolved more quickly.

“We need to charge all the crimes that are supported by the evidence, not just the ones that we pick and choose,” Foster said.

Granger said that focusing on serious felonies such as drug trafficking, sex assault and burglaries instead of on victimeless or non-violent crimes could help reduce the backlog.

“You don’t need to throw the book of every conceivable charge at a defendant,” Granger said. “If you focus on the major crimes that were committed and forget about the silly misdemeanors, you can get a lot more done in a shorter period of time.”

More specifically, Granger criticized Foster’s practice of having his assistant district attorneys handle trials, rather than trying cases himself. He said that Foster doesn’t have much trial experience, which limits his ability to train new prosecutors on how to try cases.

“He hasn’t tried cases for eight years. He has very little if any jury trial experience,” Granger said. “I’ve only lost three jury trials in the last 30 years.”

Foster said that he and his staff have served the residents of Hancock and Washington counties “competently and justly,” and that over the past eight years he had reformed an office that was “in trouble.”

Foster did not go into details, but the remark was a reference to a scandal under the prior district attorney in which an assistant district attorney, Mary Kellett, was  publicly reprimanded by state legal regulators for violating rules that govern how licensed lawyers, including prosecutors, handle legal matters.

The reprimand, in 2013, stemmed from the prosecution of a former Gouldsboro man on sexual assault charges. Kellett made inappropriate statements during her closing arguments during the man’s first trial in January 2009, and suppressed and failed to disclose evidence that he had sought for his legal defense leading up to that trial.

“The choice is clear. I would appreciate your support and vote on Nov. 8,” Foster said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....