The state’s Criminal Justice Commission on Thursday appointed career prosecutor Patrick Griffin to the “thankless job” of chief state’s attorney.
Griffin will oversee a division that he said is low on morale and reeling from the recent retirement of its former leader Richard Colangelo Jr., who was ensnared in a political scandal.
Griffin, who is the New Haven state’s attorney, was chosen over Hartford State’s Attorney Sharmese Walcott after both candidates were interviewed and questioned for about 90 minutes each.
The interviews highlighted the challenges facing the chief state’s attorney’s office and the 13 regional state’s attorneys that they oversee to some extent.
While former Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo’s name wasn’t mentioned by anyone during Thursday’s proceedings, his retirement at the end of March hung over the interviews.
Colangelo retired rather than face an investigation that could have led to his firing. The issue was the Division of Criminal Justice’s hiring the daughter of former Office of Policy and Management Deputy Secretary Konstantinos Diamantis as one of Colangelo’s executive assistants — while Colangelo was trying to get Diamantis to approve raises for himself and the 13 other state’s attorneys.
“First, I want to thank both of the attorneys for putting themselves forward. This is a thankless job that you are interviewing for,” Commission Chairman Andrew McDonald said.
The division is facing far more issues than just the aftermath of the Colangelo scandal. Both Griffin and Walcott were asked how they would address everything from the “brain drain” because of retirements to the bumpy unveiling of a new electronic case tracking system.
Before starting the interviews, McDonald said a third candidate, Dawn Gallo, had withdrawn her application after being chosen as a finalist.
Griifin went first and acknowledged that the “morale of the division was the worst it has been” in his 27 years of employment there.
Griffin said there were a variety of issues that have led to that, including “all of the negative news stories” over the past year, referring to the issues surrounding the office.
Griffin also pointed out that the division has lost about 30% of its staff to retirements.
“There’s hundreds of years of experience and institutional knowledge that has left and is difficult to replace,” Griffin said.
He also pointed out that adjusting to the “dislocation and disruption” of the court systems caused by COVID and issues getting the new online case management system up and running have made recent months more challenging.
Griffin has been the state’s attorney in New Haven since 2016. Before that, he ran the cold case unit at the chief state’s attorney’s office in Rocky Hill. When asked what has been his most difficult case since becoming the top prosecutor in New Haven, Griffin said it was the arrest of Hamden police officer Devin Eaton.
Eaton and a Yale police officer shot at a car in New Haven on April 16, 2019, after Eaton stopped it while investigating a reported robbery. Officials said Eaton fired 13 times after the driver, Paul Witherspoon III, got out of the car unexpectedly. Witherspoon wasn’t injured. His girlfriend, 22-year-old Stephanie Washington, was seriously injured but survived.
Eaton eventually pleaded no contest to first-degree assault and resigned.
“The officer-involved shooting in Hamden was a challenge because we had to conduct an investigation of a member of that department while at the same time prosecuting cases that department was sending to my office,” Griffin said. “In the end, the evidence showed that the officer had shot an unarmed person, and we charged him.”
Griffin said the department is at a crossroads because four of the 13 state’s attorneys are about to retire, creating a void but perhaps also an opportunity.
“There will be four state’s attorneys positions that will need to be filled, so there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to infuse new thoughts and energy into the division,” Griffin said.
Another area in which Griffin said he would like to see a more uniform approach is sentencing modification. Griffin said a committee in New Haven reviewed 110 applications, agreed to hearings for 55 cases and modified 22 sentences.
“One of the things I would like to see is a separate committee set up to review sentencing modifications and remove the prosecutors originally involved in the case to take the emotion out of it,” Griffin said.
During her interview, Walcott also acknowledged that morale is at a low point within the division because of the recent issues involving Colangelo, as well as the lack of staff because of retirements and people leaving for other jobs that offer better telework opportunities.
Walcott said she’d give the division a “C” grade for morale. She described it as “damaged but not broken.” She said besides trying to fill vacant positions within the division, she would create a new professional standards unit.
“Within that unit would be an ethics officer, as well as a Freedom of Information officer liaison and a diversity, equity and inclusion officer to review our training standards,” Walcott said. “That unit will hopefully help signal to the community and to our outside organizations that we are serious, and we are committed to being ethical, and we are trustworthy.”
Walcott has been in the system for 15 years, the last two as Hartford state’s attorney. When asked what areas she would address if appointed as chief state’s attorney, Walcott mentioned the need to reform the juvenile justice system.
“I think our juvenile justice system has been overlooked,” Walcott said. “I think that society counts on the Division of Criminal Justice to not just be a participant in the juvenile system, but to be an active stakeholder, and that means looking at what sort of programs are we providing. Are we balancing the needs of society with the needs of juveniles?”
Walcott said she would also investigate where the division is putting its resources and if cases are treated consistently.
“Are we making the correct distinctions between Part A and Part B cases? Are we triaging cases appropriately? Walcott said. “Is there a consistency as to how we are treating cases or are there different outcomes for some cases in different districts?”
The commission spent about 90 minutes interviewing each candidate, focusing mostly on what their plans would be for the office.
The chief state’s attorney oversees the 13 state’s attorneys offices, although they have no direct supervision of the state’s attorneys in each district.