Determining who will be Jackson County's next district attorney is the most important race in the upcoming election, community leaders say.

Determining who will be Jackson County's next district attorney is the most important race in the upcoming election, community leaders say.

"The DA has the most power of anyone in the criminal justice system," said Doug Engle, director of Southern Oregon Public Defender Inc. "No one can make him file a case, or dismiss one, or go to trial — not us, not the judge, not anyone."

The candidates, Chief Deputy District Attorney Beth Heckert, Deputy District Attorney David Hoppe and Rob Patridge, district director for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., have been facing off in public forums for the past several weeks.

For the past year, Jackson County has been rocked by child abuse and domestic violence tragedies, said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of the United Way of Jackson County.

Everson, Engle and others want residents to know their vote in the May 15 primary could determine who will win the top spot in law enforcement.

"A voter could think that November is the important race. But if a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote (in May), they are the new DA," Everson said.

District Attorney Mark Huddleston will retire in December, leaving the office open for the first time in almost three decades.

Marlene Mish, director of the Children's Advocacy Center, agrees with Engle that "the DA is the most powerful law enforcement official in our county."

"The community has very conscious expectations," Mish said, adding she hopes to see "a strong leader who will always take the best road" — one where victims' rights are at the forefront of decision, she said.

There are 39 million survivors of child sexual abuse in America today. One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by their 18th birthday, said Mish.

"Everyone thinks they can't be a victim," Mish said. "But everyone can be a victim. People from all walks of life can end up in the grand jury room."

Engle is hoping for a district attorney who can see both sides of an issue. Someone who has the strength of character to take an unpopular position on a complicated case, hold the line for justice, and not yield to political or public pressure, he said.

"They have the most power," Engle said. "They need to exercise that in a fair and just way. Do the right thing, even if it hurts."

All three candidates voiced support for addressing drug and alcohol problems through treatment programs, rather than incarceration. They also agreed on a need to find mental health solutions for those who are ill and caught up in the criminal justice system.

"There is a desire in our community to start a mental health court, but no funding," Heckert said. "I see the DA's office as playing a key role in bringing forth ideas."

Huddleston has given his endorsement to Heckert, describing her as "extremely qualified," and noting she has extensive trial court and administrative experience.

Heckert has been with the prosecutors' office for 23 years after being hired immediately out of law school. If elected, Heckert would be the county's first female district attorney.

"When I started as a deputy DA, it was a man's world," Heckert said, adding the prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges were all male.

"Sometimes after interviewing a witness or a victim, they'd say, 'OK, honey, now I want to talk to the lawyer,' " Heckert said.

For the past two decades, Heckert has seen more and more women enter the courtroom as attorneys and take the bench as judges. She has worked with child abuse victims, the drug task force and juveniles. Now the lead prosecutor on the Jordan Criado murder case, in which a Medford man is accused of killing his entire family, Heckert supervises six attorneys in the office and has trained many of the current deputy district attorneys, she said.

Heckert was co-counsel with Huddleston in the February murder trial of William Simmons. Simmons was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the death of Ruch teen Kaelin Glazier, who went missing in 1996.

"Becoming a DA was always my goal," Heckert said.

While grateful for the support she has received from Huddleston, Heckert said she would make changes to the office, including offering clearer guidelines for plea bargains, particularly in domestic violence cases.

"I'm a lot more hands-on," Heckert said. "They might be settling for a lower charge than I think appropriate."

Patridge, a three-term state representative who served as majority whip for the GOP in the Legislature, spent about three years as a Jackson County deputy district attorney in the late 1990s. He also served on the Medford City Council and was general counsel for Pacific Retirement Services, operators of the Rogue Valley Manor and other retirement centers.

Patridge is endorsed by Walden, numerous current legislators, Medford City Council members, Jackson County commissioners and Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters.

"I have the support of the last three sheriffs and the last two (number has been corrected from previous version) Medford police chiefs," Patridge said, adding local law enforcement is "really, really frustrated" with the district attorney's office.

Patridge would like to update the technology in the office, including adding electronic filings and notifications.

"Right now the MPD (Medford Police Department) has to print out every case and hand walk it to the DA's office," Patridge said, adding Oregon courts are mandated to offer electronic filings by 2013.

"The DA's office has an antiquated system. We can't keep doing the same thing," he said.

The District Attorney's Office needs to become more collaborative with local nonprofit groups, such as the Southern Oregon Meth Project, and provide free legal training for police officers, Patridge said.

"I bring a wealth of community experience and a business perspective to an office that has been insular and myopic," Patridge said.

Patridge said he also wants to hold town-hall meetings to work with neighbors and community leaders on crime prevention.

Hoppe has worked in the District Attorney's Office for 11 years. He served as a prosecutor for about a year and a half in Klamath County before coming to the Rogue Valley. He also has worked in private practice.

"I've served 17 years as an attorney, 13 as a prosecutor," Hoppe said, adding he has worked on several high-profile homicide cases and spent the last decade prosecuting child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

"I was the first winner of the (Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training) Child Abuse Prosecutor of the Year Award," Hoppe said, adding he also has served as chairman of the Jackson County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council and is the prosecution representative at Sexual Assault Resource Team meetings and trains reserve police officers on sex crimes.

Hoppe wants to fast-track domestic violence cases to get offenders into treatment where warranted, saying, "Studies have shown that it's better for victims and survivors if a quick resolution is made, regardless if they're going to reunify with a spouse."

In 2011, Hoppe prosecuted and won the case against Benjamin James George, the man convicted of murder by abuse and first-degree assault for crushing 2-year-old Kacy Sue Lunsford to death. George was sentenced to life in prison.

Hoppe would transform the domestic violence, child abuse and sexual abuse caseloads "so there is much more vigorous prosecution," he said.

"I would take more violent offenders off the streets," Hoppe said. "These crimes ripple throughout our community and within the victims and their families for generations."

Hoppe said he holds no hard feelings against Huddleston for endorsing Heckert. "I appreciate him being loyal to his deputy DA, but he has trusted my abilities," Hoppe said, adding Huddleston put him on several high-profile murder cases.

There are currently 20 county prosecutors, including the district attorney. All three candidates said they would use the office to help educate the community on criminal justice issues, and that they would serve as lead prosecutor on selected cases in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Patridge would work to streamline the office, which could include cutting members of the current staff, to save the taxpayers money, he said.

"There are 45 employees in the DA's office," Patridge said. "And the DA's office is the funnel that is blocking up the system."

Hoppe said each candidate has plans to modernize the office, but that's not the most important role of a district attorney.

"I believe that my background, my approach to litigation, my skills are what's needed to modernize the office, to transform it into an aggressive prosecutorial firm that holds violent offenders accountable," he said. "The caseloads I've chosen to specialize in reveal my character."

Patridge said he saw firsthand "a lot of fundamental things that were broken" in the DA's office during his brief tenure there.

Patridge questioned the number of cases that don't proceed to trial or even plea bargaining, and said the DA's office is not "victim focused." He challenged Heckert and Hoppe for being a part of the status quo.

"I believe leaders emerge and leaders always lead," Patridge said. "The DA's office is where the rubber hits the road. I'm a proven leader and things need to change."

Hoppe and Heckert defended their department's performance as a whole, while dismissing their opponent's experience as a trial attorney.

A defendant has the right to go to trial within 60 days unless he waives his desire for a speedy trial, Heckert said. The department holds three grand jury hearings every week and Jackson County prosecutors have a good conviction rate, she said, adding the county's case volume is in the top 10 for the state.

"If you have an attorney who (is not filing cases), you deal with that attorney," Heckert said, adding she's the only candidate with experience in overseeing deputy district attorneys. She said she would work to help to move cases forward if at all possible.

Criminal law has changed drastically in the past 15 years since Patridge prosecuted a criminal case, Heckert said. One of the duties of the top district attorney is to help advise deputy prosecutors on complicated case law, often in the midst of a case, she added.

"To my knowledge Patridge has never handled a Measure 11 case, a child abuse case, an adult sex crime case or a homicide," Hoppe said. "Fifteen of the 19 deputy DA's would have more prosecutorial experience than Patridge."

The prosecutors also questioned Patridge's dedication to the office, and his ability to be nonpartisan.

"In our office, we've never been political," Heckert said. "With at least one of my opponents, that appears to be a threat."

Patridge said he is a good trial attorney, adding he covered misdemeanor domestic violence cases and was moving up to general felonies before he left to become a state representative.

Supported by both Democrats and Republicans, Patridge said he would use his political connections only for the betterment of the community as a whole. Patridge denied interest in seeking a higher office.

"I've wanted to be the DA since 1998. It's not a steppingstone," Patridge said.

Hoppe said Patridge isn't the only one with experience in advocating for victims in the political arena.

"I'm more than willing to go to Salem to fight for victims' rights," he said. "I've done it."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.