By JIMMY LAWTON
Plea bargains, a Potsdam boy’s murder and the failure to find an Ogdensburg man guilty of murder despite three trials have become prominent issues in St. Lawrence County’s most visible campaign this year.
Incumbent District Attorney Nicole Duvé says she is the best candidate for the job but her opponent, Mary Rain, says the DA she has failed the victims of St. Lawrence County.
A Democrat, Duvé has conducted a low-key campaign while continuing to work as DA.
Rain, a Republican who was placed on administrative leave after abruptly leaving the county Public Defender’s office in 2011, has waged a high-profile campaign, conducting press conferences with murder victims’ families at her side.
Both attorneys say they have the experience necessary for the position. Rain says she has been practicing law for about 18 years, with two years as a county prosecutor and eight as public defender.
Duvé has spent a total of 10 years in the St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s office, with two years as an assistant and eight more as the chief prosecutor.
She has remained quiet through much of the campaign, only recently meeting with the press, while her opponent has been spending the past weeks issuing statements and holding news conferences accompanied by the families of victims in high-profile cases.
Duvé said Rain has been selling half-truths and misrepresentations to the media and she could not stand idly by any longer.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts,” she said. “I am dismayed in a large measure, because it’s a campaign of misinformation. It’s unfair to the public and to this office. People here work very hard for the victims in St. Lawrence County.”
Rain says her statements on Duvé are truthful. She says Duvé has failed on multiple occasions to bring justice to victims and their families. She said the district attorneys too often settle for weak plea-bargains and have mishandled cases that have let criminals walk free.
Duvé said it’s easy from the outside looking in to see plea bargains as letting criminals off easy or being a lazy prosecutor, but the reality is often much different.
“Plea bargaining is not a four-letter word. They are a vital and necessary part of the criminal process and are sometimes the best way to handle a situation,” she said.
Duvé said pleas are used to protect victims from lengthy public trials, to ensure criminals are penalized in cases where evidence is lacking or when witnesses are unwilling to take the stand.
“Sometimes, when folks come in, we have the sad job of telling them we believe you have been wronged, but we don’t have a lot of evidence,” she said. “That’s when we work with the victims or their families and they have to decide if they want to go through the process without a strong chance of conviction.”
Duvé said victims and their families often play a role in the decision to negotiate a plea agreement.
Rain said pleas can be a useful tool for prosecutors, but criticized Duvé’s track record of weak deals.
“You are always going to have plea deals to spare victims. I am not questioning the system, I am against the way they have been used in this county,” she said. “Plea deals that we have seen come out of weakness instead of strength.”
She said weak pleas have left sex offenders and other felony offenders off on weak sentences and sometimes only probation. Rain said if elected, she will work closely with police agencies when investigations begin to ensure strong cases are made and prosecuted while evidence is fresh and witnesses are available.
“You have to get on top of your felonies at the start. You have to get to the crime scene and make sure the evidence you need is collected. You have to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your case and you have to be ready at trial,” she said.
Rain said that lack of initiative has also left murderers on the streets of St. Lawrence County.
Rain said Duvé has failed to be a part of the investigation process that could have helped bring in the person who murdered a 12-year-old Garrett Phillips in 2011. She said felony crimes need to be prosecuted quickly to ensure evidence and witness testimonies are fresh.
Rain, who has held press conferences with Phillips’ mother Tandy Cyrus at her side, said Duvé has failed to take an active role in the investigation. She said the victim’s family has not been kept “in the loop” and that Duvé has refused to offer any updates.
“When I talked to the family, they said I provided them with more information than they had received from the DA,” she said.
Duvé said her decision to remain quiet on the case is because the investigation is ongoing and it could be detrimental to talk about it in detail. She said like any case, prosecution must rely on evidence and that in order to bring a case to trial and get a conviction an investigation must be compete and thorough.
“It is an active police investigation. I will not say or do anything to compromise that investigation in any way shape or form,” she said. “If there comes a point in time when they complete the investigation and turn it over to be prosecuted then I will do my best to ensure justice is served.”
Rain says that is not enough. She said if elected, she will be involved in the investigation.
“The first thing I’ll do is see what (Duvé) has in her file and what information is available and then I’ll contact the police agencies and see what we have to work with,” she said.
Rain also criticized Duvé’s decision to try former Ogdensburg resident Wayne Oxley for murder on three separate occasions only to see him walk away. Rain recently held a press conference at the former home of Bernard Trickey, the man whom Oxley was accused of murdering with a baseball bat.
Rain was accompanied by members of the victim’s family at the conference, where she said Duvé failed to bring justice to the Trickey family, but Duvé said she did the best job she could do with the evidence she had available.
“He was convicted of murder in the first trial by 12 out of 12 members of the jury. It was appealed and the court ruled that he should have been allowed to offer evidence on his behalf that was omitted from the trial,” she said.
Following the appeal, Oxley was tried again, but the jury was unable to reach consensus.
“In the second trial eight jurors thought he was guilty and four felt there was not enough evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “At that point 20 out of 24 people had found him guilty. I felt it was my duty to try him a third time.”
Duvé said that by this time a lot of things had happened. She said some witnesses couldn’t be located and others recanted statements and committed perjury. In the end the third jury agreed there was a lack of evidence to convict Oxley of murder.
“We worked with the evidence that we had. You are always limited to what is available, but we do the right thing. It’s hard to do, but we don’t just walk away,” she said.
Duvé said her experience has taught her a lot on the job that has allowed her to run the county prosecution office on a shoestring budget and limited resources.
Rain said failure to convict Wayne Oxley was due to an unorganized and unprepared case made by the prosecution.
In the Media
While many attacks have been made about Duvé’s record, there has also been some mystery surrounding Rain’s abrupt departure from the St. Lawrence County Public Defenders office in 2011, where she had served as the administrator, but was later stripped of those duties and placed on paid administrative leave before she resigned.
Rain said the media has insinuated that she left because of a high workload, but says that isn’t the case.
“Yes, there was a high workload, but that’s not why I left. That’s the job. You push through it,” she said.
Rain said her departure was a result of a “mishandling in her employment.” She said would not speak on the details regarding the conflicts, but said they began almost immediately after she announced she would run for St. Lawrence County DA.
“Everyone knew I was running for DA. They paid me $25,000 when I resigned because they mishandled my employment and they continued to use my litigation skills after that. I think that speaks volumes about what happened,” she said.
For her part, Duvé said she has spent the last 10 years working hard to bring justice to the families of St. Lawrence County.
Duvé has not commented publicly on Rain’s departure, instead focusing on her work at the county and the struggles faced by her office. She said it is impossible to explain to the media how much work goes into the job.
“I want people to understand the entirety of the job, but it is not something you can capture in a sound byte or a newspaper article,” she said. “People in this office aren’t here because of lavish office accommodations or big pay checks. They are here because they want to help people.”
Duvé says that’s what drives her to do the job and that it isn’t the kind of job that anyone can just step into.
“This office is so busy and has so much going on that someone who isn’t familiar with the inner workings, isn’t familiar with the county or used to the caseload, is easily overwhelmed,” she said.
“You have to come in with your eyes wide open, you can’t be afraid to work hard, you can’t be afraid when things go bad. There is no quitting in this job when things get tough,” Duvé said.