Archive for Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Field in D.A.’s race grows to 3

Challengers say incumbent scrimping on time in courtroom

April 28, 2004


It's a battle eight years in the making.

Douglas County's chief criminal prosecutor, Republican Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney, hasn't faced opposition since she was elected to the office in 1996.

Tuesday, Democrat Charles Branson, a Lawrence private-practice attorney and part-time Eudora city prosecutor, became the second person in recent weeks to announce he wants to take Kenney's job from her this November.

Branson and fellow Democrat Martin Miller, who will square off for the party's nomination in the Aug. 3 primary, both said they'd do things differently if they were charging and prosecuting crimes. Both said a major problem with the way Kenney runs her 24-person office with an annual budget of $1.22 million was that she didn't spend enough time in court.

"I'm going to prosecute cases myself," Branson told a group of about 25 supporters Tuesday morning when he announced his candidacy on the steps of the Judicial & Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.

Branson said that the D.A.'s budget has grown by 50 percent since Kenney took office and that in difficult economic times, "we've got to learn to do ... the best we can with what we have."

His platform includes plans to create a local consumer-protection office and to start an orientation program for victims and witnesses.

Former co-worker

Miller, who once worked with Kenney as an assistant district attorney, is taking a second swipe at her. He won about 12 percent of the vote in 1996 when he ran as an independent against Kenney. Miller recently has served as an appointed defense attorney for many high-profile felony defendants and cites his courtroom experience as one of his biggest assets.

"I enjoy going to court, and it's been quite a few years since we've seen very much of the D.A. in court," Miller said. "I don't think the office is large enough, really, to have a district attorney who spends all his time or her time doing the administrative stuff."

Kenney, the only one of the three who had formally filed as a candidate as of Tuesday, oversees more than 2,000 cases per year but normally doesn't appear in court herself. There are some exceptions, including the 2002 capital murder case against Damien Lewis and a first-degree murder case filed earlier this month after a shooting at a southwest Lawrence apartment complex.

Case involvement

Kenney said she stayed involved with major criminal cases at every stage, including the charging decisions and plea negotiations. She estimated she works between 45 and 50 hours in a typical week overseeing management of the office and meeting with law enforcement officials and community groups.

"Although I'm not physically in the courtroom handling the cases, that does not mean I'm not involved with the cases and aware of what's going on," she said.

Though her office doesn't have a formal victim and witness- orientation program, as proposed by Branson, it has two full-time victim-witness coordinators who help people understand the court process. The vast majority of the office's budget, about $1.16 million, pays salaries, and Kenney said the increases in her employees' pay have kept pace with overall county-employee pay raises since 1996.

"I believe very strongly that I have put together a professional staff, a very dedicated staff, a staff whose number one priority is protection of this community," she said.

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