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Massachusetts Treasurer Steve Grossman said fellow Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Attorney General Martha Coakley is trying to re-write her positions on key issues, including a 2012 state law barring parole for habitual offenders.
Coakley joined Grossman and the three other Democratic candidates during a recent debate on The Boston Globe's website. She answered "no" when asked if the state should "have a three strikes law, which we do?"
In 2011, Coakley urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would eliminate parole for three-time violent felons.
"I believe that dangerous repeat offenders are one of the great threats to public safety," Coakley wrote in testimony for the bill, adding that it "proposes common sense amendments to our habitual offender laws to more effectively punish dangerous repeat offenders and protect the public."
Grossman said Coakley's testimony in 2011 shows she is willing to abandon "positions she has championed for years" to woo Democratic primary voters.
"In a race as important as governor, Democratic voters should not - and need not - settle for a candidate whose stances on core progressive values and issues are as squishy as Martha Coakley's," Grossman said in a statement Thursday.
Coakley campaign spokesman Kyle Sullivan said Coakley is opposed to three-strikes laws like those in California and Texas where the third conviction for even minor offenses could result in a life sentence.
He said those laws differ from the 2012 law that Coakley still supports. Under that law, a felon convicted of a third serious violent crime would receive the maximum sentence under those crimes and couldn't be paroled before the full sentence was served.
"It's unfortunate that Steve Grossman doesn't understand this or chooses to ignore these facts and instead launches baseless political attacks," Sullivan said.
The exchange between Grossman and Coakley's campaign is the harshest yet in the crowded and increasingly competitive Democratic primary for the seat currently held by Gov. Deval Patrick, who is not seeking re-election.
Among those who advocated for the new law was Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was raped and murdered in 1999 by a man with 27 prior convictions.
In her statement to the Legislature's Judiciary Committee in 2011, Coakley referenced the Gosule case and the case of Woburn police officer John Maguire who was gunned down Dec. 26, 2010, after responding to a botched jewelry heist. Maguire's killer, Dominic Cinelli, was a career criminal who'd been paroled the previous year. Cinelli died in the shootout with police.
Melissa Gosule's sister Heidi Gosule said Coakley supported the family, but opposed an earlier version of the bill that would have created a "three strikes and you're out" model.
"When it became an enhancement of the state's habitual offender law, she supported it," said Gosule, who worked under Coakley when Coakley was Middlesex District Attorney.
Patrick signed the bill in 2012 despite what he described as strong reservations about the absence of any judicial discretion in the sentencing.
A Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll found Coakley leading the pack in a five-way Democratic primary with 56 percent of voters backing her compared to Grossman (11 percent), Juliette Kayyem (4 percent) and Joseph Avellone and Donald Berwick (1 percent each), with 27 percent undecided. The poll of 600 Massachusetts voters from Jan. 29-Feb. 3 has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Two Republicans - Charlie Baker and Mark Fisher - are also running for governor as are three independent candidates - Jeff McCormick, Evan Falchuk and Scott Lively.