Attorney General Martha Coakley suffered a setback Wednesday when she did not secure a conviction against Timothy P. Cahill, the former state treasurer who left the Democratic Party in a quixotic bid for governor.
But the amount of the damage from the hung jury and its long-term effects on Coakley’s political career, sparked a debate among political and legal analysts.
“I don’t think that she’s going to suffer tremendously,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.
Ubertaccio pointed out that Cahill’s characterization of Wednesday’s hung jury as a vindication was “not quite accurate,” pointing out that the deadlocked jury helps mitigate any political damage.
The mistrial, though, will not eliminate questions about whether Coakley should have brought charges against Cahill, who ran for governor in 2010 as an independent. Some analysts, including Ubertaccio, say those questions will be the most lasting impact on Coakley’s political fortunes. The case was the first major test of a new law and of her newly created public corruption unit, formed after criticism that she had not cracked down hard enough on political and government malfeasance.
After it was revealed in a civil lawsuit filed by Cahill that campaign e-mails showed his campaign was involved in the decision to run advertisements promoting management of the lottery, which he oversaw as treasurer, many Republicans demanded that Coakley file charges.
Cahill had been seen as a spoiler for the GOP, which desperately wanted to thwart Governor Deval Patrick’s reelection. And many Republicans blamed him after the election for distracting the party’s nominee, Charles D. Baker.
But as the case has moved forward, critics have begun to question whether Coakley, a Democrat, was taking on an easy target, since Cahill is an unpopular figure within the party. They also questioned whether the law, passed after former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi left in a corruption scandal, was vague in its requirement that prosecutors show that perpetrators had criminal intent in using state money for political gain.
Other observers said it was simply too hard to separate normal political behavior, taking out advertisements to promote management of the lottery with public money, from criminal behavior.
“I don’t see how you can draw artificial lines,” said Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil liberties lawyer.
“She blew it not because the jury was hung,” he said. “She blew it by bringing this prosecution. It’s abusive.”
Coakley said Wednesday that she had not yet decided whether to retry the case. But she stood firmly behind her decision to bring it and said that a single verdict should not define an entire office or an entire division within it.
“It was neither frivolous nor arbitrary for us to bring this case and to ask a jury to decide it,” she said. “This is our job. We have a Public Integrity Division whose job is to investigate and prosecute cases like this.”
But retrying the case could be difficult, because it would force Coakley to confront many of the same questions that have dogged her during the current prosecution. An outright acquittal could increase the size of the wound.
“She’s between a rock and a hard place,” said George D. Brown, a law professor at Boston College who chaired the State Ethics Commission under Governor William F. Weld, a Republican, and later served on a commission appointed by Patrick that drafted the anticorruption law used to prosecute Cahill.
“If she doesn’t, she’s conceding that her critics were right,” Brown said. “If she does, it’s not clear that they [prosecutors] have anything new that they didn’t throw at Cahill in the first case.”
Brown believes Coakley was right to become more aggressive on corruption cases, something previous attorneys general have also tackled, at points. But she chose a difficult case for her first effort and will suffer politically for it, he said.
Coakley has said on several occasions that she intends to seek reelection in 2014, rather than run for governor or senator. But at other times, she has left the door open for higher office.
Democrats continue to view her as a viable candidate and on Wednesday tried to minimize any potential damage.
Mary Anne Marsh, a veteran Democratic consultant, called the hung jury a “speed bump.” Just as a conviction would not have been a big trophy for the attorney general, an acquittal would not have been major setback, she said.
Democratic consultant Michael Goldman, said that he did not believe many people were paying close attention to the Cahill trial and that Coakley’s work opposing the Defense of Marriage Act and fighting utilities over their response to storms would matter more.