District Attorney Candidate
Steve Sessler: About justice and restoring confidence
Steve Sessler, the Conservative Party candidate for Livingston County district attorney, is attempting the unprecedented: Winning an election for a Livingston County office on a third party ballot line.
In a county where it is rare for a Republican candidate for county office to even face an opponent from the other major party — and rarer still for that party to achieve victory, Sessler is seeking a major county office on the third party Conservative line exclusively.
After holding his opponent Eric Schiener to a 1,881-to-1,881 tie vote in the Republican primary election (but missing the Republican designation by decision of the party committee), Steve Sessler persists as a viable candidate in the three-way race to be decided in the Nov. 6 general election.
Sessler said the vigorous momentum of his campaign continues.
“It comes from the volunteers and supporters and everything they are doing,” he said. “We continue to go door to door, to use the print media, press releases and the Internet.”
Sessler suggests that Livingston County’s 7,500 unaffiliated registered voters will be a determining factor in the election’s outcome.
“As it always should be, this is for the voters to decide,” he believes. “More and more I’ve come to realize that people will vote for the candidate they think is best.”
“In the end, if I win, it will come down to people who know me talking with their friends and acquaintances, people trusting what others whom they know and trust are telling them.”
It’s about justice
Sessler’s presentation at the Oct. 17 SUNY Geneseo candidates’ forum contrasted with that of the other district attorney candidates in that Sessler took time to explain the fundamental purpose of the office.
“I think people do need to know what the district attorney does,” Sessler said.
“That’s why I’ll often use the phrase ‘chief criminal prosecutor,’ because, frankly, there are not a lot of people who come into contact with the DA’s office. There are really only the people who are the victims of crimes and those who are charged with crimes.”
“Other attorneys are there to do their best to win for their client, but the district attorney is not about wins and losses. He’s not about the number of convictions he gets. He’s about justice. He’s about making sure that the guilty do not escape — and the innocent do not suffer.”
“Yes, you have to take the hard cases to a fair and just resolution,” Sessler continued. “That means you have to convict somebody and they have to be found guilty, so you’d better have the skills to do it.”
“You also had better be sure you are doing things in the right fashion, so that those who are innocent are not being unjustly accused of crimes.”
“What I intend to bring to the office is a sense of ethics: An understanding of what the law is and where you are in the criminal law process, and who has the responsibility for making sure the process is working.”
‘Mistakes shouldn’t be made intentionally’
Sessler cited recent publicity relating to an ongoing civil lawsuit against Livingston County, the basis for which was an effort on the part the district attorney’s office to prosecute a 16-year-old boy for sex abuse of his three-year-old half sister.
The case was dismissed when it was revealed that the three-year-old’s mother communicated with her daughter and listened to her testimony while the little girl was being interviewed by special prosecutors before a grand jury.
Sessler represented the 16-year-old as his criminal defense attorney. He has no involvement with the following civil action, but strongly believes the point of the suit needs clarification.
“It is a felony for a prosecutor to disclose what takes place in a grand jury proceeding,” Sessler stated. “When an assistant district attorney allows anyone to listen in to an interview which is a grand jury proceeding, they are committing a crime.”
“No person who is a district attorney or is looking to be a district attorney should in any way, shape or form condone what took place in that case.”
The present civil case is a remedy for what the district attorney’s office did, Sessler advised.
“Because the evidence is a DVD, it is beyond dispute that the assistant district attorneys who were operating that interview knew and intentionally allowed interaction between the grand jury witness and her mother.”
“In my estimation, a crime was committed by the conduct of the grand jury’s office — a class E felony with a maximum sentence of four years in prison.”
The grand jury process is secret, firstly because the identity of a person who is being looked at for misconduct should not be made known if the accusation against him turns out to be without basis — and secondly so that the information provided by the witnesses is not aired about in public, Sessler explained.
“If that secrecy is being violated by the district attorney’s office, you have a serious problem,” he said. “You lose respect and confidence in the criminal justice system — and that can’t be tolerated by any society, anywhere.”
“Understand how serious that process is. You can’t be fooling around with it!” he assets. “The instant you get the smell of something being amiss, if you think that you’re not being treated fairly, then the system loses the legitimacy it has got to have to be effective for what it does in society.”
Sessler acknowledged that sometimes, indeed, mistakes can be made by the district attorney’s office, “but they shouldn’t be made intentionally,” he emphasizes.
Sessler noted that a grand jury is by no means the puppet of the district attorney. Rather, he explained, it is an independent entity having options of its own which may run counter to the hope and expectations of the district attorney.
The jurors may decide the person under examination for misconduct is not going to be charged with anything (a ‘No bill’ situation); or they may charge him with a felony crime by means of an indictment, or they can charge him with a misdemeanor — and, rarely, they can decide to pursue their very own investigation of matters, calling witnesses themselves.
Finally, the grand jury can determine there is no probable cause to say a person committed a crime, and thereby direct the prosecutor to file a notice of dismissal — saving the privacy of the individual under examination.
“The grand jury is a screening process by a group of citizens because another citizen is about to be accused of something,” Sessler summarized. “Before we let the power of the state come in to prosecute a person, other citizens must make a determination as to whether or not probable cause exists.”
Confidence is essential
“What I see that has made me want to be the chief criminal prosecutor in Livingston County is a sense in the community that injustices are being done; that there is a partiality in the administration of criminal justice,” Sessler stated.
“I am about developing confidence in the criminal justice system by doing the right thing. You can’t have assistant district attorneys committing felonies in regard to grand jury conduct. It’s the type of conduct that’s going to bring ridicule and scorn from the outside. This community deserves much better than that.”
“Everyone in this community deserves justice.”
At the fundamental level of justice, even in the smallest of local courts, Sessler points out, court is open to the public.
“There is a reason it’s an open court room: So you can have confidence in the criminal justice system. Unless there is some real good reason under the law, you can walk in there and your case can be in front of friends and neighbors.”
For Sessler, it is extremely important that the community have confidence in its criminal justice system, knowing that it’s system is working.
“And working doesn’t merely mean convictions. It means justice properly functioning,” Sessler adds.
“Sometimes justice is a ‘not guilty’ rendering. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. A good deal more openness could go a long way to demonstrate that this system is working. ”
Speaking of information which the office of the district attorney can provide for the media, Sessler qualified, “There are bounds within the law because prosecutors — government attorneys in general — have the obligation not to try the case in the public press. That wouldn’t be fair either.”
“It’s fairly well defined what you can and can’t say at different points in time. It’s a balancing of the first amendment and the idea we are going to have an open court system with the presumption of innocence.”
Can a defense attorney prosecute?
“I have seen and participated in both sides as a prosecutor and defense attorney — and throw in the judge as well — so I have all three perspectives,” Sessler says.
“Like an old priest once said, ‘In order to fight sin, you’ve got to know sin.’”
“Because I know well how to defend a criminal case, that puts me in a fairly unique position. I’ve been successful as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney. If you bring that level of experience to the table, you surely know how to prosecute the case.”
“The first thing I think about when I’m defending a case is what I’d be doing if I were the prosecutor. On the other side, I’m in a better position to anticipate what a defense attorney will do.”
“I’ve been one.”
Qualities of leadership and experience
The qualities of experience and leadership which a district attorney can bring to the office could be an important factor “to bring confidence back to the criminal justice system,” Sessler believes.
Sessler calls attention to his own 23 years experience as a trial attorney — a sum which equals the total years of experience of both opponents.
“I have proven leadership experience through my service in the Marine Corps and I have ten years of my community — the Town of Livonia [where Sessler has served as elected town justice] — recognizing that I know what justice is and that I can and will deliver it,” he said.