Since winning the election a year ago from former boss Paul F. Walsh Jr. — under whom he served as assistant DA for eight years — Sutter has been lauded for his aggressive and effective enforcement of a previously seldom-used, state bylaw known as the “dangerousness” statute.

C. Samuel Sutter was starting off his day fighting mad, but saddened as well.

It was Thursday morning and the normally punctual Bristol County District Attorney had just come into his office 20 minutes late for an interview.

The night before he had gotten word that a 15-year-old New Bedford boy — who had been shot in the abdomen at a New Year’s Eve house party early Tuesday morning — had lost his battle for survival.

Just another senseless shooting victim, some might say. But that’s not the way Sutter sees it.

“I’m sad, disgusted and fed up,” he said, looking drawn yet intense.

Sitting in his fifth-floor office with its view of New Bedford harbor, the 55-year-old Sutter was wrapping up a week of interviews marking his first anniversary as the county’s district attorney.

Since winning the election a year ago from former boss Paul F. Walsh Jr. — under whom he served as assistant DA for eight years — Sutter has been lauded for his aggressive and effective enforcement of a previously seldom-used, state bylaw known as the “dangerousness” statute.

Anyone deemed a threat to the community by a judge at a dangerousness hearing — be it a case of illegal possession of firearms or domestic abuse — can be held for 90 days without bail. Besides getting potentially deadly characters off the street it also affords prosecutors time to prepare a solid case.

“It’s a priority in my office,” he said.

Sutter is especially encouraged and gratified that the entire process has proceeded as well as it has.

“It’s gone surprisingly smoothly — both with convincing judges and in getting ready within 90 days,” he said.

According to 2007 police records, Sutter’s office last year had a 62-for-80 record of winning dangerousness hearings involving illegal guns, DA spokesman Greg Miliote said.

In 2007 there were 29 dangerousness court hearings in New Bedford, 24 in Fall River and 12 in Taunton. Of those 12, Miliote said, 10 were successfully argued.

One possible indication of the statute’s effectiveness are Taunton police statistics for the number of unlawful gun shots reported within city limits during the past two years.

In 2006, from Jan. 1 to Nov. 14, there were 103 shots reportedly fired in the city, compared to 82 gun shots for the same 10-month period in 2007, a 20-percent decrease overall.

'Breath of fresh air'

Mayor Charles Crowley, when asked to assess Sutter’s first year in office, employed a tried and true catchphrase.

“He’s like a breath of fresh air,” Crowley said. “He said he was going to crack down and he did.”

The mayor also said he appreciates the district attorney having met with the Safe Neighborhood Initiative crime watch groups in the city, of which there are approximately 15.

Sutter said that, true to his campaign promise, he’s making it a point to meet “at least once a year” with every crime watch group in Bristol County.

Crowley said he’s especially impressed with the new DA’s talent for putting criminal cases on a fast track.

Under the Walsh administration, he said, “a lot of court cases languished in the courts.”

But since Sutter’s come into office, he said, there’s been a noticeable turnaround in that regard.

“Sam has sped up the process,” Crowley said.

Most defendants facing dangerousness hearings have been caught while in possession of an illegal gun. Unfortunately for Edwin “Gio” Medina, the New Bedford boy who died this past week, his killer wasn’t among them.

Sutter is unabashedly passionate when the topic turns to guns, teens and death.

“A 15-year-old kid is dead because of senseless gun violence, [and] the family has to deal with grief and pain,” he said, a look of both anguish and anger flaring across his face.

Sutter said the American people, by and large, have not gotten the message that illegal and easily bought guns constitute no less than an existential threat to civilized society.

He mentioned Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia’s new police commissioner (the City of Brotherly Love had 406 killings in 2007), who chastised presidential candidates, from both parties, for not paying close enough attention to what is a growing epidemic in many U.S. communities.

“He said it’s not taking the spotlight in the presidential debate, and I agree with him 1,000 percent,” said Sutter, who called gun violence “the biggest issue facing the city, community and nation.”

Pausing, as though to find just the right words, he said that “we are powerfully resolved to do something about it.”

Cracking the code of silence

Guns in and of themselves are just part of a larger problem facing law enforcement.

Sutter said he and other district attorneys are hampered by a credo that has come to be known in many inner-city neighborhoods as “stop snitching” — a virtual brick wall of refusal to in any way help police identify cold-blooded killers.

The day before this interview, Sutter was successful in convincing a New Bedford judge to hold two 17-year-olds in lieu of bail — both of whom, he alleges, were witnesses to the New Year’s Eve shooting and had subsequently lied to and misled investigators and police.

(Later that day a third man tied to the case was similarly held on an obstruction of justice charge.)

Sutter made clear he has no patience for such people.

“I’m fed up with witnesses who lie to us and jerk us around. They’re going to learn a hard lesson,” he said, striking his desk more than once with the edge of his hand.

Sutter said witnesses who intentionally lie in major criminal cases have two choices under the rule of law — either “talk to us and tell us the truth,” or refuse to say anything.

In the latter case, he said, they can look forward to being subpoenaed before a grand jury, which, he added, is something that’s “going to happen all the time in shooting cases.”

“Let the word go forth, as my hero said,” said Sutter, making a clear reference to the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. “The legislature has given me a tool and I am going to use it.”

Claiming to fear for one’s personal safety in the event of providing information and testifying, Sutter said, will only fall on deaf ears. He said a witness protection statute offers the option of relocating a cooperative individual to any county or district within the state.

One of the changes Sutter has effected since being in office was the hiring of Sherrie Nobre as his chief of witness services. Nobre, who has 20 years experience working for district attorney offices in both Suffolk and Bristol counties, came on board two months ago.

She said that once she has a chance to explain the witness protection program to someone who is worried about testifying the result is usually positive.

“It’s not difficult to convince them,” Nobre said.

Sutter said it didn’t take long before he started getting feedback from prison officials and police, that his tough tactics of denying bail and seeking significant jail terms for serious offenders was making an impact.

“The buzz the prison guards were hearing was that, ‘Hey, this guy is serious,’” he said. “And the cops after about six months said they were seeing less guns on the street.”

Sutter said if anything he and his staff are just gaining steam.

“I’ll keep pounding this drum. It’s different now than before,” he said.

Taunton police chief optimistic

Police chief Raymond O’Berg said in all his years with the Taunton department he’s never seen the kind of cooperation that exists now between his department and the District Attorney’s Office.

“It’s a level of cooperation we did not have before,” O’Berg said. “It’s nice to know we can pick up the phone and talk to someone.”

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” he said, echoing Mayor Crowley’s turn of phrase.

O’Berg said the recent arrest of Timothy Cassidy in the murder of city resident James Madonna — which took nearly two weeks of investigation by state and Taunton police, before he was apprehended in Georgia —  stands as a perfect example.

“It was the most cooperation I’ve ever seen,” he said.

O’Berg is also pleased that Sutter has expressed an interest in reopening investigations of cold cases, specifically unsolved murders.

Sutter said shortly after coming into office, he sat down with various police chiefs including O’Berg, who, he noted, he has “always thought highly of,” in order to listen to their concerns.

O’Berg, he said, “asked for more continuity of prosecutors.”

As a result, Sutter said, he increased the number of prosecutors in Taunton District Court from three to four. He also said he’s added a total of nine prosecutors throughout the county since being elected.

This was made possible, he said, by reallocating budget resources — which included reducing the number of both witness-victim and community outreach advocates on the payroll.

Sutter switched the community outreach program to one relying on volunteerism. And he said he’s following through on his campaign promise that those advocates remaining on his staff should become trained paralegals.

Having more qualified paralegals, he said, will prove an asset in court by facilitating the entire legal process.

“At the first call of the trial list I want to be able to say, ‘We’re ready for trial and we’re ready to start,” Sutter said.

An integral part of that strategy, he added, will be establishing “closer relations with police prosecutors.”

O’Berg said he appreciates the fact that Sutter has shown himself to be more than just a tough talker.

“They’re not plea bargaining out the serious cases anymore,” O’Berg said.

Referring to former DA Walsh, he said “they just pushed through a case regardless of the seriousness of it.”

Sutter, on the other hand, is “looking for committed [jail] time.”

Future plans

Sutter is focused on pursuing what he calls “major violators” — repeat violent offenders, drug and gun dealers, gang leaders and, perhaps most importantly, those who physically abuse children and infants.

“We will be much more aggressive in information gathering for major violators, the worst criminals,” he said.

“We have a group here that wants to do something dramatically different,” in terms of identifying and prosecuting offenders.

Sutter said he’ll release details of this plan later in the year. But he did go on record saying that he’ll seek reelection when his first four-year term ends in 2010.

A calling in life

Sam Sutter said he knew from the time he received a degree in American Civilization from Brown University that he wanted to some day run for political office.

But first he spent three years traveling the globe as a tennis pro. From 1976 through 1979, he taught and played in locales such as Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Isles, Hong Kong and Singapore.

His visits to India with its massive poverty and South Africa, whose government at the time still subjected its black population to apartheid, opened his eyes in a way that books never did.

“I saw the world, and it changed my perspective,” he said.

He gave up the tennis circuit and went on to earn a law degree from Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville.

Following his eight-year stint as assistant district attorney to Paul Walsh he opened a law practice in Fall River for seven years, specializing in criminal defense and, to a lesser degree, personal injury cases.

Sutter and his wife, Dottie, live in Fall River with their two 17-year-old sons and a daughter, 4.

In his office, on the wall behind his desk, hangs a reproduction of a Life magazine photo portrait of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, both of whom were murdered in the 1960s by men with guns.

It serves as a reminder as to why he continues to remain idealistic in the face of man’s inhumanity in the new century. But it evokes a personal memory as well.

In April of 1962, when JFK was president, Sutter visited Washington, D.C., with his mother. After touring the Supreme Court building a court officer asked Mrs. Sutter if her 9-year-old son would like to see the president.

Shortly thereafter a black limo appeared and stopped. A rear passenger window opened and Jack Kennedy looked out and waved. Sutter said he was no more than 20 feet away.

“It was a magical moment,” he said.

cwinokoor@tauntongazette.com

Taunton Daily Gazette