ADDISON COUNTY — John Quinn has served as Addison County State’s Attorney for 24 years and was a deputy state’s attorney for seven years before that.
More than anything, in looking back over his three decades prosecuting crimes here he says he appreciates the citizens who’ve supported him.
“I hope they think I’ve done a good job,” he said.
It’s pretty clear that most of them did. He only once faced an opponent in the race for the elected office.
On Monday, Quinn, 59, announced that he was retiring from the office he has occupied for majority of his career.
ADDISON COUNTY STATE’S Attorney John Quinn is retiring from his post later this month after serving the county for 31 years.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
A Vergennes native, Quinn was hired to be Addison County State’s Attorney Richard English’s deputy in April of 1978. When English retired in 1985, Gov. Madeline Kunin appointed Quinn to replace him. He’s won every election to the office since then.
Among those lining up to thank Quinn for his service to the county and state were Middlebury Gov. James Douglas, who recalled not only several high-profile cases Quinn prosecuted, but also his band, which occasionally entertains crowds around the county.
“John’s been a public servant for many years and served our county well,” said Douglas, a Middlebury Republican. “He’s always had strong support in our community … We wish he and (and his wife) Maggie well.”
Quinn said he was already thinking about retiring at the end of the year when last week he received one of the 300 or so letters sent to state employees asking if they would consider early retirement in order to help balance the state budget. The decision for Quinn was easy.
Quinn said he doesn’t have any specific plans at the moment. “Hopefully de-stress,” he said. “I’ll take some time to decide what I want to do for my next career.”
There was plenty of stress in the job as the county prosecutor.
“I’m not going to miss the numerous phones calls in the middle of the night about untimely deaths and search warrants, and going to the scenes of untimely deaths,” Quinn said.
The workload, too, has grown over the years. When Quinn started in the state’s attorney’s office there were maybe 400 or so cases a year. Now there are around 800 criminal cases and another 100 to 150 juvenile cases and various other hearings.
Nevertheless, Quinn this week called it “a wonderful job.”
“I don’t think people understand how much power a state’s attorney has to make sure people are held accountable for their crimes, but also that people are not unfairly accused or charged with crimes they didn’t commit,” Quinn said. “I’m proud of the fact that I never brought a case against a person I didn’t honestly think was guilty.
“I developed a sense of responsibility to keep the people of Addison County safe.”
Quinn has seen society change over his career and changed his prosecutions to reflect that.
That is most obvious in the prosecution of two crimes: drunken driving and domestic violence.
“When I first stared, (the blood alcohol limit) for drunk driving was 0.15 percent,” Quinn recalled. Today the limit is 0.08 percent.
“Pretty often we reduced the charge to negligent operation,” he continued. “Over the years as we’ve become more educated about the dangers of being impaired when you’re driving a ton of metal down the highway.”
“Domestic violence cases were unheard of when I started. If there was violence in the family people thought that was between the husband and wife. Now we have a significant number of cases.
“There was a change in the law (but) I think it was also a societal change because we saw that domestic violence affects the children, it affects the community. We want a society that is not so violent.”
Quinn is proud of that change as he has seen up close how getting abusers counseling often ends the cycle of violence.
During his long tenure, Quinn has prosecuted around a half-dozen murder cases, as well as several high-profile drug and accident cases. One cased etched in Quinn’s memory is the drug trial of John A. Zaccaro Jr. in April of 1988. Zaccaro was a former Middlebury College student and is the son of Geraldine A. Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic candidate for vice president. He had been charged with selling cocaine in 1986. Media from throughout the world converged upon Middlebury to cover the case and the trial.
“It was probably the most publicity any case has ever had in Vermont,” Quinn said.
After a lot of legal maneuvering by Zaccaro’s team of lawyers, an Addison County jury ultimately found Zaccaro guilty of selling cocaine to an undercover officer, rejecting the defense’s assertion that their client had been entrapped.
That verdict was preceded by a lot of legal jockeying, Quinn recalled.
“I got a lot of pressure in that case from the defense and the defendant’s family — they really wanted to resolve the case for a misdemeanor, but I really had a strong feeling that we wanted to send a message that drugs are something we will not tolerate in Vermont,” Quinn said.
Gov. Douglas also recalls the Zaccaro case, and this week he lauded Quinn for his fair handling of the case in spite of the intense scrutiny it brought.
“It’s always difficult when the national media focus intently on a case in a small community,” Douglas said. “John was as cool and calm with that case as he always is and he handled it as if the defendant was John Smith, not the son of the vice presidential candidate.”
In a letter to Douglas stating his intention to retire, Quinn urged the governor to appoint Chris Perkett, who has been deputy state’s attorney for four years, to become acting state’s attorney until the next election.
“I think Chris is highly qualified. He has lots of training and education,” Quinn said.
For his part, Perkett said he definitely is interested in being appointed state’s attorney, and he is planning to run for the office in the 2010 election regardless.
Whoever gets the post, Quinn said there is one quality that is essential: good judgment.
“The big responsibility of this job is to make decision every day that affect people’s lives — what crime to charge, recommendations to the court about appropriate sentences, those are really weighty issues,” Quinn said. “Good judgment and the ability to balance the competing interests involved in every case that results in a satisfactory level of justice — that’s what a state’s attorney needs to have.”
Quinn already has turned over the work of the office to others and will come in only as needed while he takes unused vacation time. His official last day is Aug. 31.
As well as appreciating the citizens who’ve backed him over these past three decades, Quinn said he also appreciates those with whom he has worked most closely.
“The people I work with, the people in my office, most of the lawyers, the court personnel, I’ll miss them,” he said.
And looking back 31 years, Quinn can say his was not the career he expected, but the career he ended up wanting.
“I still smile that I had in my head when I started that I was going to work for six months and then go out in private practice,” Quinn mused. “I found that the prosecution of crime turned out to be satisfying.
“It’s been an interesting career.”