Franklin County Sees First Race For County Prosecutor In 16 Years
This election cycle, the Presidential and Senate races have absorbed much of the public's attention. But this November, Columbus is the battle ground for a lesser known office: Franklin County prosecutor.
On the first day of early voting in Ohio, Columbus City Council President Zach Klein spent his morning in the parking lot of the Franklin County Board of Elections.
He shook hands with voters and let them know that this year his name is on the ballot, for a different position. Klein is doing something that has not been done in 16 years: challenge Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien.
O'Brien has held the post since 1997 and has run unopposed in the last three elections. Klein says some voters have forgotten about the role of county prosecutor.
"I actually had someone come up to me at the beginning and say, 'I didn't realize this was an elected position,'" Klein says. "It's been unopposed; no one's been talking about it for nearly two decades."
Zach Klein has made a name for himself among voters while serving on City Council for the last five years. Compared to O'Brien, he's a newbie.
O'Brien has worked in the city or county prosecutor's office since the 1970s. He pins his re-election message on experience, something he says his opponent is lacking.
"It's not only important to have courtroom experience but, it's important to have any legal experience," O'Brien says. "Mr. Klein has never practiced law in his life."
The Franklin County Prosecutor oversees an office of more than 100 prosecuting attorneys. They represent the state in cases of felony crimes and juvenile offenses.
While the prosecutor must follow state and federal law, they can determine some prosecution policies and practices in Franklin County.
O'Brien says that's why any decent candidate for this position needs courtroom experience.
"You have to council those hundred lawyers about how to handle a case," O'Brien says.
Zach Klein is, in fact, a lawyer. He has a law degree and he's worked as a clerk for a federal judge, an assistant attorney general, and a special assistant U.S. Attorney. He may have no experience trying cases, but he doesn't think that should matter.
"The job of the prosecutor in a large, urban, populous county is to be the leader on the reform that's necessary and a trend setter for the office," Klein says.
Klein is largely running on a platform of criminal justice reform. He says he want the prosecutor's role to be more "outward facing."
"Not just me as the prosecutor, but my staff as well," Klein says. "Going out and listening to community concerns and bridging that divide to restore faith in the criminal justice system."
He plans to diversify the pool of prosecutors, which he says right now is only 4 percent African-American. He wants all prosecutors to take implicit bias training. He also wants to create a public database on the demographics in the court system.
"If there were 1,200 criminal filings... how many were male, how many were female, how many were black, how many were white, how many were Latino?" Klein says. "Those are the type of questions that the public wants to know, like 'What is the fairness in the justice system?'"
But to do any of that, Klein will have to beat O'Brien, the longest serving prosecutor in the county's history. He also has the longest tenure of any prosecutor in the state.
O'Brien is credited with setting up the county's first drug courts in 2009 to help divert addicts into treatment instead of prison. He's worked with the Innocence Project to use DNA evidence to exonerate two convicted felons.
O'Brien has also worked with the community group BREAD to create a truancy pilot program, which aims to keep kids in school and out of prison.
"I am in the community on a regular basis, and I have probably attended six or eight heroin overdose forums here in Franklin County," O'Brien says O'Brien.
Using an Independent Prosecutor
The recent attention on police-involved shootings has brought the issue of prosecutor independence into the race. But neither O'Brien nor Klein fully support an independent prosecutor.
O'Brien's office always presents a police-involved shooting to a grand jury. In his 20 years in office, no officer has been indicted for shooting a civilian.
O'Brien says when it comes to such cases, he would consider asking judges to release secret transcripts from grand jury proceedings, but only when there is no indictment.
"Obviously, the suggestion is that we're rigging cases in front of the grand jury to avoid officers being indicted, and I think by the release of the testimony that would refute that," O'Brien says.
Klein says he's willing to consider referring such cases to an independent prosecutor in the future, but he says it's ultimately up to the public to vote prosecutors out of office if they they disagree with how a case was handled.
Klein points to Cuyahoga County, where prosecutor Tim McGinty was criticized for his handling of the Tamir Rice case. In the following election, McGinty was voted out of office.
Supporters of using independent prosecutors say that county prosecutors cannot present an unbiased case in police-involved shootings because they work closely with police.
The only candidate in this race to promise special prosecutors in 100 percent of police-involved shootings is Green Party candidate Bob Fitrakis.