Robert Granger says he plans to pursue more sexual assault cases and to focus more on serious and violent crimes after he becomes the top prosecutor in Hancock and Washington counties next month.
Granger’s approach likely will be closely scrutinized after he is sworn in as district attorney for the two counties on Jan. 1. He is inheriting an office that, under his predecessors, drew unwanted scandal and criticism for the way it handled prosecutions.
District Attorney Matthew Foster was voted out last month after lying when asked during a public forum if he ever had been investigated by the state attorney general’s office.
He was investigated for an accusation that he sexually abused a child though charges were never filed. He also was criticized by some police officers and sexual assault advocates for neglecting Washington County and for inadequately prosecuting sexual assault cases.
Foster’s predecessor, Carletta Bassano, never was investigated by police but was publicly reprimanded in 2015 by a state panel that oversees professional conduct for lawyers for trial preparation violations in three separate criminal cases in 2013 and 2014.
Granger said that since the Nov. 8 election, he has met with police officers and sexual assault advocates to discuss how cases have been handled in the courts.
“The over-riding criticism I’ve heard is that far too many sexual assault cases were not prosecuted simply because the evidence boiled down to a ‘she said, he said’ scenario,” Granger said. “If a woman is courageous enough to come forward and subject themselves to the scrutiny of law enforcement, medical personnel and the public, we, as prosecutors, ought to show similar courage and pursue these cases with vigor.”
Granger said he’ll be more aggressive in presenting sexual assault cases to grand juries in the two counties so that the jurors can decide if charges should be pursued.
“I think it’s problematic for a single prosecutor to make intake decisions alone on these cases,” Granger said. “By going to the grand juries, law enforcement and the public will know that we have taken the allegations seriously, and the evidence was fairly considered.”
He also said he plans to consult more with police when deciding whether to pursue a criminal case against a defendant. Police officers have told him that some cases they were involved in were dismissed by Foster without any consultation with the investigating officers.
“I hope to find ways to make certain that law enforcement has a voice in case outcomes and they are routinely kept in the loop on dispositions,” he said. “I want to make certain we maintain open dialogue as we are partners in this arena.”
The incoming district attorney also hopes to streamline prosecutions by pursuing a few serious charges against a defendant instead of adding on several more less serious charges, cases can be decided more quickly. There is an “unacceptable” backlog of cases in the two counties, he said.
“Neither victims of crime nor criminal defendants themselves benefit from justice delayed,” he said. “Witnesses move away or disappear, law enforcement officers retire and victims lose enthusiasm to move forward because they have already mentally adjusted to the lack of final resolution.”
He said that after he takes office, he plans to go through the pending case list to see if there are cases that do not involve violence or otherwise might be considered “victimless” crimes that might be resolved quickly with plea-deal offers.
“We need to do something, even if it may mean making some painful decisions,” Granger said.
He also said the state should commit a judge full-time to Hancock and Washington counties to help address the backlog, but it is beyond the authority of the district attorney’s office to make that happen.
As for providing more resources to Washington County, the top deputy prosecutor under Foster — Toff Toffolon — has agreed to stay on and continue to shoulder the caseload in that county. And Granger said he plans to make more regular trips to Machias and, when he can, to prosecute cases himself.
“Given the rising crime rates and wave of drug abuse that has overtaken Washington County during the last eight years, I want to focus more personnel and greater attention to prosecution in that county,” he said.
To underscore that commitment, he said he plans to take part in a swearing-in ceremony in Machias on the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 1, after he takes the oath of office that morning in Ellsworth. He said that, to his knowledge, no district attorney serving Washington County has ever publicly taken an oath of office in that county.
He said he has hired Paige Bebus, a recent graduate of University of Maine School of Law, as an assistant district attorney in Washington County, and that Bebus is learning the rigors of the job from Toffolon. Chris Chu, an ADA under Foster, will be leaving that post, but Granger already is looking to hire another prosecutor dedicated to Washington County.
In Hancock County, assistant prosecutors Carly Reger, Heather Staples and Delwyn Webster all have agreed to stay on and continue prosecuting cases for Granger, he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included inaccurate information about Bassano’s history with state regulators.