Connecticut’s longest-serving top prosecutor, who’s tried some of the state’s most notorious cases, said he’s definitely retiring. Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane postponed that move to look into recently-discovered cases pending in the Hartford judicial district. But Kane is set to officially retire at the end of the week.
Kane’s career as a prosecutor spans nearly half a century. As Chief State’s Attorney, he oversaw numerous investigations, helped foster changes in the criminal justice system and testified on a range of issues before the legislature. As a prosecutor, he tried dozens of cases; some of them, like that of serial killer Michael Ross, made national headlines. Ross was the last person to be executed in the state before Connecticut repealed capital punishment in 2012.
Kane also prosecuted the murder-for-hire trial of Old Saybrook attorney Beth Ann Carpenter. That case put him up against New Haven defense lawyer Hugh Keefe.
“I remember Austin McGuigan, when he was Chief State’s Attorney, at the beginning of that trial called me and he said, ‘You don’t have a chance in that trial.’ He said, ‘Juries love Kevin Kane,’” Keefe said. “Well, it turned out they did.”
His demeanor may have helped, said another longtime defense attorney William Dow.
“Do you remember Bob Newhart, the comedian? He had that little stammer, you kind of wanted to help him out through the joke,” Dow said. “Kevin has a little hesitancy in his speech, or his manner of speaking, that makes people want to help him out. So he’s very, very dangerous with juries. And he’s completely trustworthy. There’s no guile. Think about that. This is a lawyer you can trust. There may be four in the state.”
Kane himself, having grown-up in the 1960s, never envisioned being a prosecutor.
“I was not a law and order guy until I started doing defense work, ironically as a legal aid lawyer,” Kane said. “I became aware of what prosecutors really do. Because it’s a prosecutor who decides whether or not to charge a person with a crime. I decided I’d like to become a prosecutor and learn how to try cases, and then go on, maybe into private practice, and make some money as a trial lawyer. And I tried a lot of cases, one after the other, and I always thought, there’s more to learn.”
Kane rose through the ranks, starting as an assistant state’s attorney in Middletown 47 years ago, and becoming Chief State’s Attorney in 2006 — heading the state Division of Criminal Justice and overseeing the 13 state’s attorneys. Over his career, Kane advocated for videotaping police interrogations, favored the use of body cameras, and was dedicated to solving cold cases.
Kane’s been described as compassionate, honest and even-handed by colleagues, legislators, and the defense bar. But he can also be — in his own words — thick-headed, a description David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, would likely agree with. McGuire said Kane has, at times, pushed against the rising tide of reforms.
“It was undeniable that the momentum at the state capitol was in favor of criminal justice reform,” McGuire said. “Kevin oftentimes would push back on that during his testimony at the judiciary committee, but as systems started to change he was a participant in that. Not always an active or positive participant, but he was part of those discussions and the division has evolved over the last few years.”
People outside the state also agree that the division and Kane have evolved. Michelle Feldman is a policy advocate from the Innocence Project, which advocates for people it claims are wrongfully convicted. She said that over the years, Kane has been more open to reforms and transparency measures. And at the very least, he’d tell you what he could support.
“We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but I have appreciated that he’s been honest and open and willing to sit down and talk through policy issues,” Feldman said. “Because that doesn’t happen in every state. Sometimes I go into states and the district attorneys are just not willing to hear any kind of reform ideas out.”
In the end, Kane earned respect as Chief State’s Attorney that few, out of the six before him, were afforded. Attorney Hugh Keefe pointed out that several of his predecessors “went out in a hail of controversy.” Given the history, even Kane, who was reluctant to take the position, expected to be driven out of office at some point.
And controversy is never far away in the job. Kane described struggling with how to react to public opinion, especially after tragic police shootings.
“A lot of people thought the body cameras would be the be all and end all.” Kane said “look at any football game on a Sunday and look at the replays from different angles. The idea about the public’s demand now for body cameras, I was as resistant — and I’ve changed, partly because of the public’s demand and seeing how that led to mistrust of the system.”
As Kane reflected on his career, he said the Early Screening and Intervention Program, or (ESI) was one of the most critical changes he’s made as chief. Its goal is to redirect less serious offenders from the courts to diversionary programs through social workers who’ve been hired as case coordinators.
“They can refer that person immediately, that same day,” Kane said. “Get them connected, get them help. And if it helps resolve the underlying problem, that’s going to reduce the criminal behavior. To get upfront analysis of cases at the front end of the system, from the low-level criminal offenses right through the most serious cases — I think that will lead to the biggest change in our criminal justice system that we’ll have seen in my lifetime.”
Kane’s successor will be named by the Criminal Justice Commission, whose six members are appointed by the governor. Kane warns that it’s a hard job and that people really do get buffeted from one side to the other.
He said one of the challenges facing the next Chief State’s Attorney is lack of public confidence in the police, which translates into a lack of confidence in prosecutors, and government in general.
Attorney William Dow said, not just anybody can be Chief State’s Attorney.
“It takes exactly the right person to fill that job — someone who starts off seeing the best in people and working backwards from there. And a sense of policy, and an ability to communicate with legislators in a way that can get them appropriate funding, and go from there.”
Dow called Kane the soul of decency.