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The gloves are off in the race for Niagara County district attorney.

Incumbent Matthew J. Murphy III says bluntly that his opponent, Andrew A. Ligammari, is unqualified. Ligammari says Murphy is more interested in political maneuvering for judgeship than in doing his current job.

The two are vying in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, which almost certainly will be tantamount to election.

No Republican candidate is seeking the position. Murphy will have the Conservative, Liberal, and Independence Party lines, so he could continue in the race if he loses to Ligammari. Ligammari has no such fallback position; to win the $119,800-a-year post he must win the primary and the general election.

Murphy, 47, is running for his third four-year term. The City of Lockport resident is married with three children. He is the son of former 139th District Assemblyman Matthew J. Murphy Jr. and the brother of television sportscaster John Murphy.

He sees the main issue as "crime is down, and the district attorney's office is doing a good job," while conceding, "I don't claim to be the only reason crime is down."

He pointed to "innovative" programs such as those involving domestic violence and child abuse, and Project Exile, which transfers weapons-possession cases for sentencing in federal court.

Ligammari, 48, of Porter, is an attorney in private practice in Niagara Falls. He is married with three children and two grandchildren.

Murphy's resume includes serving as assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo from 1979 to 1986. He had a private practice in Lockport for five years before defeating Peter L. Broderick for district attorney in 1991. He was re-elected without opposition in 1995. He earned his law degree from Union University, Albany Law School, which is affiliated with Union College.

Ligammari was a Niagara Falls police officer from 1969 to 1979. He was shot in 1976 in the former Forum Lounge on Main Street while trying to arrest a burglary suspect. The bullet remains lodged between two ribs.

After leaving the police force, Ligammari earned a law degree from the University at Buffalo Law School and was an assistant district attorney under Broderick from 1989 to 1991.

Murphy and Ligammari challenge each other courtroom experience.

Murphy said said he has handled 50 felony trials. "This is basically a trial lawyer's office," he said. "We have to be able to try cases and judge the quality of evidence."

Asked how many felony cases he has handled, Ligammari replied: "As far as I can remember, I think I've had a couple. It's not an issue. . . . The complexities of that office have made the district attorney's job administrative."

Murphy says he personally has prosecuted about 10 cases in his eight years in office. "I won all but one," he said. "I usually have my hand in two or three cases at a time."

Ligammari, whose private practice includes criminal defense, personal injuries and divorces, said a trial is a trial, felony case or not. "If we're going to use the term 'trials,' I've probably had three times as many as (Murphy) has," Ligammari said.

He would rather talk about Murphy's aspirations to become a judge. Ligammari charges that Murphy has appointed a significant proportion of assistant district attorneys from the Republican or Conservative ranks to curry favor with GOP leaders who might look favorably upon him if a vacancy opens up in State Supreme Court.

He criticized some of Murphy's recent appointments, including naming Holly Sloma, daughter of major GOP contributor Henry M. Sloma of Lewiston, an assistant district attorney.

Earlier this year, Murphy said Miss Sloma was the best qualified applicant at the time the job was opened.

Ligammari called that "an insult to attorneys who have had applications on file."

Ligammari noted that Murphy will not pledge to serve the full four years if he is re-elected. "That's an issue that betrays the confidence of the voters," Ligammari charged. "He'd leave his office in the hands of a Republican governor to fill." Gov. Pataki would appoint an interim district attorney if Murphy left.

While not denying he would like to be a judge someday -- saying, "I don't think there's any shame in wanting to better yourself" -- Murphy noted that all State Supreme Court seats are elective, and the nominations usually are controlled by Erie County politicians.

Murphy charged that Ligammari switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 1997 because he wanted to run for Family Court judge.

Ligammari confirmed that, although he eventually decided against running for judge. He said he became a Republican in 1991 in deference to Broderick, his boss at the time and a Republican. Before that, he was a Democrat.

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