Days before the final votes are cast in an election likely to make him Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, Alvin Bragg is showing just how different a prosecutor he might be.
Instead of stumping for votes all day, the Democrat is spending the last week of his campaign questioning New York City police officials in a rare judicial inquiry into the 2014 police chokehold death of Eric Garner, whose pleas of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Bragg, a civil rights lawyer and former federal prosecutor, is representing Garner’s mother as she presses the city for more public accountability for officers and commanders who were involved in Garner's death, none of whom were criminally charged.
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“I can’t think of a case that’s been more emotionally significant to me as a lawyer,” Bragg told The Associated Press in an interview before testimony in the judicial inquiry began. “The fact that we sit here, seven years after Mr. Garner was killed and don’t know basic facts, that’s an embarrassment.”
Bragg, 48, won a tough Democratic primary and is now the prohibitive favorite in the Nov. 2 general election against Republican Thomas Kenniff.
The winner succeeds retiring District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., taking over high-profile cases including the prosecution of former President Donald Trump’s company and its longtime finance chief on tax fraud charges.
Trump himself remains under investigation by the office after Vance led a multiyear fight to get access to the Republican's tax records.
Bragg campaigned partly on a promise to change the culture of the D.A.’s office, emphasizing transparency and trust as integral to public safety.
He says he'll decline to pursue many low-level offenses, looking for alternatives to prosecuting “crimes of poverty,” such as stealing small amounts of food, and de-emphasizing conviction rates.
In taking on the city over Garner's death, Bragg said he's setting the tone for how he'll proceed as district attorney.
“Some people have said, ‘How can you run for district attorney and sue the city?’ That’s the whole point. The whole point is that safety and fairness are compatible. Indeed, they are inextricably interwoven,” Bragg said, explaining that people won’t be inclined to help officers solve crimes if they can’t trust them.
Bragg’s own experiences with the criminal justice system mirror those of many of his would-be constituents. Growing up in Harlem during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic, he was held at gunpoint six times — three times by police. He’s had a knife held to his throat, a body at his door and, as an adult, opened his home to a brother-in-law just released from prison.
His election opponent, Kenniff, is a defense attorney and former prosecutor and Army Judge Advocate General. Kenniff works in Manhattan but is registered to vote on Long Island. He says he’ll establish residency in Manhattan if elected.
Kenniff says he’d be a more conventional district attorney: tough on crime and opposed to the state bail reforms two years ago that eliminated pretrial incarceration for many charges. Kenniff wants to rebuild the office, which he says has been plagued by attrition.
“With me, you’re going to get a more traditional prosecutor. Somebody who’s willing to play the role that prosecutors have traditionally played in the city, in this country, probably in most places,” Kenniff told The Associated Press. “I’m going to emphasize public safety and prosecuting crimes seriously, but fairly. As far as overall philosophy, it’s going to be a pro-public safety prosecutor’s office.”
The next district attorney will lead an office of about 500 lawyers who occasionally have to take on cases involving the rich, powerful or famous.
Vance was sometimes criticized over his 12 years in office for decisions not to prosecute the powerful, including dropping sexual assault charges against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and declining to pursue an Italian model's groping allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein before trying and convicting him last year of rape after scores of other women came forward.
If elected D.A., Bragg would be the latest in a wave of progressive, reform-minded prosecutors across the country, joining a group that includes Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.
Bragg wants to eliminate cash bail entirely, saying there’s no data to support claims that people released from jail are behind surges in shootings and other violent crime. Bragg says the current system punishes the poor — exacerbating what’s seen as a two-tiered system of justice.
As a top deputy to New York’s attorney general, he oversaw a lawsuit that shut down Trump’s charitable foundation. Prior to that, Bragg led a unit investigating killings by police.
“Bragg has been very clear that he’s embracing the progressive playbook and he is going to do a lot of things that probably wouldn’t have been done by a more traditional DA’s office,” says Vance’s former chief assistant district attorney Daniel R. Alonso.
“The question is, how far will Bragg go? And, will he be able to implement the reforms that he’s promised to implement while still ensuring all of us that we are maintaining public safety as well as possible?” says Alonso, a Manhattan resident who’s now a partner at Buckley LLP.
Bragg, a Harvard Law graduate, said he saw how the legal system could also show compassion while clerking for the late U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson Jr. No one seemed to notice when a shivering man walked into court, Bragg said, but Patterson did and dispatched Bragg to fetch him a jacket.
“I think what made Bragg so successful was that he was asking voters to think about not just who we lock up but also the communities we’re leaving behind in doing so and the circumstances from which people are coming,” says Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.