Kane reflects on a half-century effort to improve the quality of justice

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Rocky Hill — Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane, who is retiring Nov. 1 after 47 years of state service, said he's been "too darn busy" to sit down and take stock of his career.

He tried to look back during an interview this past week, furrowing his bushy white eyebrows as he sipped an afternoon cup of coffee. He had just returned from a public forum in New Haven, foregoing the elevator and climbing the flight of stairs to his office to keep his legs working.

He settled on working with people as his greatest accomplishment.

"It was being able to work with really good police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, and meeting and assisting witnesses who were good people," he said. Kane called later to say it was important to include jurors, who he said hear and see wrenching things as they listen to cases, apply the laws and sit in judgment of their fellow citizens.

At 76, Kane says he's ready to spend more time with his wife, four children and three grandkids, and doing things he enjoys: hiking, kayaking, traveling, reading and delving into history. He said he enjoys being places where people don't know what he does for a job.

"I'm a normal person," he said, erupting into hearty laughter.

Those who know him say Kane is remarkably devoid of ego, generous with his time and able to respond calmly and effectively to the most terrible events. 

"Talking about Kevin is almost as if you're talking about someone who is too good to be true," said state Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer, who was chairman of the Criminal Justice Commission that appointed Kane. "He's just been a model of public service. As someone who has been in the system in different capacities for a long time, he's someone you could consistently turn to for guidance, leadership and advice. Just an incredible asset."

Kane said he was tired, but during the interview his blue eyes emanated intensity and he displayed the traits that have garnered him universal support: a passion for public safety and fairness in the criminal justice system, willingness to change his mind, and the undivided attention he shows to everyone, no matter their position.

A graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law, he began working as a prosecutor in Middletown in 1972, thinking he would go into private practice after learning how to try cases.

"I was a slow learner," he said, again releasing his signature roar of laughter.

He transferred to the Office of the Chief State's Attorney in November 1978, where he served as the unit chief of a Special Investigations Unit. He arrived in New London in 1986, receiving several promotions before he was appointed as the district's chief state's attorney in 1995.

In 2006, he was convinced he was needed to bring unity to the Division of Criminal Justice. He left New London, where he had tried high-profile crimes, for an office in a corporate office park and an administrative job that required him to testify regularly at the state house. 

Two years ago, his portrait was commissioned by grateful state's attorneys and installed at the Division of Criminal Justice headquarters in honor of him being the longest-serving chief state's attorney. Kane didn't think his work was done and continued to arrive early and stay late at the office.

He never thought he would stay this long.

"It became hard to leave," he said. "There was always something coming up that seemed important to do."

In the last few years, his work included responding to reforms that required resentencing of those serving lengthy prison terms for crimes committed as juveniles, implementing a new law that changes the way eyewitnesses are asked to identify alleged perpetrators and, even before it was required by law on Oct. 1, deciding to release videos and information about deadly police shootings while incidents still are under investigation.

Kane, a friend to police whose loyalty to the law came first, said he won't miss getting calls in which he's told a cop has shot and killed someone. He said he had always believed in keeping information that might hinder an investigation of deadly force shootings confidential so that investigators could determine whether witnesses were describing what they saw rather than something they read or viewed on video.

He said he changed his mind, because it got to the point where not releasing information decreased the public's confidence in the system. Still, he wouldn't say prosecutors supported the bill that was passed this past session.

"I said we'd find ways to live with it," Kane said. "It puts a lot of pressure on us at a time when we should be focusing on the facts."

Death penalty debate

During his career, the pendulum of public opinion has shifted several times from calls to be tough on crime to a desire for more leniency. In the 1990s, the state passed "truth in sentencing" laws requiring that violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Shortly after he arrived in Rocky Hill, the public again wanted stricter punishment for repeat offenders, including mandatory minimum prison sentences and a three-strikes law, in response to the Cheshire home invasion murders, vicious crimes carried out in 2007 by two repeat offenders. No sooner were the two offenders convicted and sentenced to death than the General Assembly in 2012 overturned the death penalty. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that capital punishment could not apply to those on death row, as the law had provided.

Kane had prosecuted capital cases, including that of serial killer Michael Ross, the last person executed in Connecticut. He's said he did not believe in the death penalty, but it was the law.

Lately, the majority in Hartford has demanded second chances and rehabilitation.

"The same people who cried out for truth in sentencing laws were saying now, in the past few years, we need to close prisons," Kane said.

He said public outcry for reform often is in reaction to horrible crimes, which he said is understandable. He said attempts to fix the problems can have unintended outcomes, and it's fortunate that Connecticut prosecutors are not politically appointed and can attempt to be more balanced.

Kane said the court system is moving in a good direction with an Early Screening Intervention pilot program that enables prosecutors and social workers to get newly arrested low-level offenders into programs. The offenders are able to address their problems, such as addiction, rather than return to court repeatedly before they're admitted to a diversionary program.

Kane remains frustrated that the state's habeas corpus laws enable convicted offenders to appeal endlessly. He said a committee is working on reforms but suggests a better solution might be to establish a conviction integrity system within the Division of Criminal Justice.

Funding an issue

Budget cuts have left the division woefully understaffed, Kane said, particularly since recorded interrogations, dashboard camera footage and phone records, which all take time to analyze, have become important tools to help find the truth in cases. He added that under the Lamont administration, some positions that had been frozen have been filled.

He said a Criminal Justice Information System that will do away with paper files and enable law enforcement agencies to share information is close to being implemented but "still a hope," given funding issues.  

As he spoke, Kane always came back to prosecutors in the state's 13 judicial districts, making it clear he believes the state is in good hands. He's never been able to persuade lawmakers to give state's attorneys the power to subpoena people and information and conduct grand jury investigations, which he says would enable the state to investigate financial crimes and government corruption.

"I'm not saying it's rampant," he said. "Connecticut is a very honest state, but when there are allegations, they need to be investigated correctly."

Kane is often credited for creating a collegial environment in New London that is noted frequently by visiting defense attorneys who practice in other districts.

He's quick to credit his predecessor in New London, the late C. Robert Satti, who he said taught him more within 14 months of his arrival in New London in 1986, than he learned as a prosecutor in the previous 14 years.

A stickler for details

"He led the DCJ through this era where prosecutors are realizing we have to be smart with how we use our tax dollars and we have to make sure we divert people out of the system in positive ways," said Maureen Platt, state's attorney for Waterbury.

Platt said Kane is so thorough that if there's a typo in one of the lengthy documents that are on his desk at any given time, Kane would find it.

Michael A. Gailor, state's attorney for the Middlesex Judicial District, who worked as an executive assistant to Kane, said he has an amazing recall about the tiniest of details of cases he handled more than 30 years ago. Gailor said he recently ran into a relative of a homicide victim in a case that Kane prosecuted more than 20 years ago.

"She immediately began gushing about Mr. Kane and the kindness he showed her and her family while he was working on the case," Gailor said. "She begged me to thank him for the kindness. That's the kind of impact that he's had on people."

Judge Thomas A. Bishop said he was in private practice with the Suisman Shapiro law firm when he met Kane, then a young prosecutor in Middletown, in the 1970s. Over the years, Bishop has called on Kane often to share his insights and talents with students at the University of Connecticut Law School. And Kane never gave it a second thought, Bishop said, when Bishop asked him years ago to train public defenders — Kane's courtroom adversaries — on negotiating, or to bring prosecutors and defense attorneys together for training on implicit bias.

"He really just wants to improve the quality of justice," Bishop said. 

k.florin@theday.com

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