MERCER — This year’s Mercer County district attorney’s race takes place under a shadow cast by the man who won the office four years ago.
Former District Attorney Miles Karson, elected in 2015, was removed from office in February after his conviction on criminal charges for obstruction of justice and official oppression. That forced the Mercer County Court of Common Pleas to appoint a replacement.
Only two people — attorneys Pete Acker and Dustin Cole — applied for the appointment. Both had previously announced their intention to run for election to the office in 2019.
The court appointed Acker to fill the last 11 months of Karson’s term in office.
Acker and Cole will square off again in the primary. In their first meeting, however, the county courts had the only votes that mattered.
On May 21, Mercer County’s Republican voters will be making the decision.
There are no Democratic candidates filed for the election.
A longtime attorney — almost 40 years’ experience — in Mercer County, Acker was appointed Feb. 1 to the office he is seeking in this year’s election.
But he announced his intention to run, weeks earlier, before Karson’s trial began.
“I was very aware of the situation, in light of the investigation and eventual conviction of Miles Karson,” Acker said. “I decided we need some experience to get things running on an even keel.”
While Acker hasn’t been elected as district attorney, he is running on a “stay the course” platform, with a promise to continue the initiatives he started since he was appointed.
Immediately after taking office, Acker said he met with the assistant district attorneys, both to hear their input and to express his expectations for performance.
For almost all of Karson’s time as district attorney, the state attorney general’s office had been either investigating or prosecuting its case against him. Acker said that necessarily resulted in a damaged relationship with state prosecutors.
“That relationship is restored,” he said.
In a similar way, for the same purpose, Acker said he has also met with representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Western District of Pennsylvania.
One of his office initiatives has been to control the number of cases it prosecutes through the use of plea agreements, including in the prosecution last month of Antonio Velasquez Rupert in the December 2016 murder of Amanda Downs at a Hermitage apartment building.
Velasquez Rupert pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and other offenses, and will be eligible for parole after serving 35 years.
Acker defended his use of plea agreements by citing a case load of almost 300 per month. He said the office has a standard for accepting agreements.
“If there is a guilty plea, it had to be the highest charge that we could prove within a reasonable shadow of doubt,” he said.
Acker said some of the cases he inherited were “overcharged” beyond what prosecutors could prove.
Going forward, Acker said he wants to fight the opioid epidemic through a two-pronged approach of prosecuting dealers and encouraging options for addicts through programs like the recently established treatment court.
Now in his fourth month as Mercer County’s district attorney, Acker said he has no illusions about the job and planned to pursue it anyway.
“I think one of the elements of the job is that you make people unhappy on a regular basis,” he said.
Dustin Cole, a criminal defense attorney for 10 years, is framing his relative youth as an asset against the far more experienced Acker.
He likened the district attorney’s position to that of a medical patient in need of cardiac treatment.
“Are you going to want a heart specialist or a foot doctor?” he said.
In that example, Cole framed himself as a specialist focused on criminal cases like those he would prosecute as district attorney, while characterizing Acker as a general practitioner. Cole said he has tried more than 1,000 cases, almost all of them in criminal court.
He said Mercer County’s most recent district attorneys have been assistant district attorneys who were promoted by voters into the head job and that it’s time for that to change.
“I think its time for a fresh and outside perspective in the district attorney’s office,” he said. “I think you’re seeing the recycling of ideas.”
Cole, who called the district attorney’s duties a “team effort,” said he would confer with the assistant district attorneys before deciding on which policies to keep and which to change.
If elected, Cole said he would prioritize cases “that affect our safety and security.” Specifically, he said, those cases would include crimes of violence like murder, and sex crimes, particularly when the victims are children.
On one issue — drug use — Cole and Acker endorse more or less the same approaches.
“I think we can be more aggressive in going after drug dealers,” he said.
Cole also proposed treatment court and other programs to help addicts. At a forum on the campaign trail, Cole said someone asked him about the use of naloxone, also known as Narcan. He characterized the drug, which treats opioid overdoses, as treating a symptom rather than a cause.
“We need to get to the point where we don’t need to use Narcan,” he said.
Follow Eric Poole on Facebook and Twitter @HeraldEricPoole. Email him at email@example.com.