County attorney remains on the job after state attorney general partly takes over control of his office

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A county attorney in Manchester, New Hampshire, is putting a positive spin on the state attorney general’s decision to take over the criminal prosecution functions in his office.

Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Conlon told New Hampshire Public Radio on Monday that he is continuing his duties and welcomes the support to address problems that began years before his election.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced Friday that he was appointing a lawyer who is a former Manchester police chief to oversee prosecution functions in Conlon’s office. MacDonald said in a letter that the move was necessary because of “systemic failures in the leadership of the prosecutorial function,” report the Manchester Union Leader and New Hampshire Public Radio.

MacDonald’s letter cited concerns with oversight of several critical matters.

He cited one case in which the father of a toddler who died from ingesting cocaine accepted a plea bargain to negligent homicide. The father may have to serve only five years in prison if he successfully completes a drug treatment program, WMUR reported. The mother received a sentence of 8 1/2 to 17 years in prison on drug-related charges.

The letter also referred to the case of a self-described Nazi accused of beating his girlfriend to death in July. Prosecutors had charged the defendant with domestic abuse nine months earlier but dropped charges in February when the girlfriend recanted, the Union Leader previously reported.

The letter said Conlon had acknowledged that prosecutors made decisions in the critical matters without his involvement or knowledge, and without consulting with the investigating agency.

The letter said MacDonald had the authority to assume control under a state statute giving the attorney general authority to “exercise general supervision” of criminal cases pending before superior courts. The letter also cited a law that said officers and persons with duties prescribed by law “shall be subject to the control of the attorney general whenever in the discretion of the latter he shall see fit to exercise the same.”

Conlon, a Democrat, had no prosecution experience when he was elected last November. He defeated a three-term Republican who also lacked experience when he was elected.

In a letter to MacDonald, Conlon said his office had workloads more than double that of other offices in the state. The office “has struggled with morale and staff retention, and its ability to effectively communicate with law enforcement and other agencies regarding cases had eroded into a state of crisis,” Conlon wrote.

He says he has received a budget increase this year, he has hired experienced prosecutors, and morale is beginning to improve. He also says there are new policies regarding communications with police on plea bargains and management approval for plea bargains in domestic abuse and assault cases.

The official appointed to oversee the criminal function in Conlon’s office is David Mara, a former police chief and police prosecutor who served as drug czar for Gov. Chris Sununu. Mara’s law license was inactive, but he resumed active status Friday, according to the Union Leader.

The Union Leader praised MacDonald’s action in an editorial that described the plea bargain in the toddler death case as “lame.”

But University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law professor Albert “Buzz” Scherr told the Union Leader in an article that the plea deal appears to be in line with similar cases, and it’s curious that Mara was picked despite a lack of ongoing experience. At the same time, he criticized Democrats for putting Conlon up for office when he lacked experience.

“It’s New Hampshire at its less than prettiest all around,” Scherr told the Union Leader.

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