Kevin T. Kane, the prosecutor in Connecticut’s last execution and more recently a cautious partner in the push for criminal-justice reforms, said Tuesday he will retire in November after nearly a half-century as a prosecutor, the last 13 as chief state’s attorney.
His departure comes as prosecutors nationally are responding to public demands to be more open about how they make life-changing decisions on how to charge defendants, whether to seek bail, and how tough or generous to be in plea negotiations. The search for his successor is certain to garner more public attention than previous selections.
ACLU Connecticut quickly issued a statement calling for “a national search, robust public comment and transparency during the interview and selection process, and to appointing someone who is truly committed, in action and in words, to decreasing incarceration and eliminating racial disparities in Connecticut’s justice system.”
Kane, 76, is longest-serving of the seven men who have served as chief state’s attorney, an office created in 1973 to provide coordination and support to the state’s 13 largely autonomous state’s attorneys. The role made him an influential voice at the General Assembly, often blunting legislative demands for change.
But reformers say Kane evolved. Just as elected district attorneys in other states responded to political constituencies increasingly dubious of the tough sentencing practices that fueled an era of mass incarceration in the U.S., Kane acknowledged the importance of prosecutors having the confidence of the broader public.
“It’s more and more important now, I think, given what we have been through in the last few years,” Kane said.
His successor will be named by the Criminal Justice Commission, whose six members are chosen by the governor and are confirmed by the General Assembly. Two members must be judges. Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald is the current chair.
The commission currently is looking at hiring 25 entry-level prosecutors, a state’s attorney for Litchfield and, now, a chief state’s attorney.
“We’re not elected DAs, which I thank God for,” Kane said. “We don’t have to engage in that manner, but it is important for us to engage with the public. We do understand that we represent the public.”
That increasingly has has meant taking a broader view of the causes of crime and recidivism and the question of when justice means forgoing prosecution.
“An awful lot of the problems we have in our society end up on our doorstep,” Kane said.
That doorstep is the front door to a court system in which prosecutors enjoy broad discretion.
Earlier this year, Kane helped find common ground with victims’ advocates, the ACLU and the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont on a new law aimed at opening what reformers called the “black box” of prosecutorial discretion.
The law calls for the collection and publication of data on prosecutorial decisions about charges, diversionary programs, bail requests, plea deals and sentencing recommendations. It also raises the profile of the Criminal Justice Commission that is responsible for the appointment and disciplining of prosecutors.
As a result of the new law, which passed unanimously, the commission will be meeting at the Legislative Office Building when it comes time to select Kane’s successor.
David McGuire, the executive director of ACLU Connecticut, said he never considered Kane a champion of reform, but he increasingly saw him as a willing and reasonable partner. Before the start of the 2019 legislative session, Kane met with the ex-offenders the ACLU had hired as lobbyists for its “Smart Justice” initiative.
“I think he is someone who cares deeply about the legacy and reputation of prosecutors,” McGuire said. And, he added, that means “evaluating the way prosecutors did their work.”
Kane was a legal-aid lawyer before becoming a prosecutor 47 years ago in the old Circuit Court system in Middletown. He grew up in West Hartford, attended Kingswood-Oxford, and graduated from Marquette University and the University of Connecticut law school.
He was named the state’s attorney in New London in 1995, taking over responsibility for the prosecution of Michael Ross, the serial killer who was the last convict executed in Connecticut before the death penalty was repealed.
As a relatively new chief state’s attorney in 2007, Kane refused to accede to politics, rebuffing Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal when they asked that he go to court to keep a rapist, David Pollitt, in prison after the completion of his sentence.
Rell and Blumenthal were responding to a public outcry. Kane insisted on following the law, and he pushed back at the elected officials.
“The court had no authority to grant any relief under the circumstances, where the defendant had completed the incarceration portion of the sentence,” Kane told the Hartford Courant at the time. “Asking a court to do something a court cannot do puts the court in a very unfair situation.”
As chief state’s attorney, Kane had a constituency he represented: the regional state’s attorneys. Legislators said Kane always seemed mindful that he was speaking for an institution, not himself. But he compromised on the prosecutorial bill.
McGuire said Kane spoke at the signing of the prosecutorial transparency law, which will produce reams of data about the decisions made by his successor and other prosecutors. It will also end their reliance on paper files.
“He spoke eloquently about how much things have changed,” McGuire said.
Michael P. Lawlor, a University of New Haven professor who was a long-time legislator and then criminal-justice adviser to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said he sees Kane among the ranks of one-time skeptics who have embraced change.
Kane was praised Tuesday by Lamont.
“He has worked tirelessly and dedicated his career to pursuing justice and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system,” Lamont said. “I thank Attorney Kane and wish him well in his much deserved retirement.”