1. What uniquely qualifies you to serve as District Attorney for Robeson County?
Over my career as a prosecutor here in Robeson County, I have prosecuted thousands of cases. The unique difference I have that qualifies me to be the next district attorney of Robeson County is that I have substantial jury trial experience. I have tried multiple cases in Robeson County courts, including violent felonies and murder cases, both capital and non-capital. This asset is important considering that we have over 100 pending murder cases.
Our community should elect a district attorney that has been trained to talk to and guide victims through the criminal process, especially when they have suffered through a traumatic experience. The trauma of testifying and enduring a trial can be difficult and devastating for victims. The district attorney must have the experience, patience, sensitivity, and skill to help achieve justice and closure for victims. My experience as the sole prosecutor for child abuse, sex offenses has provided me with the compassion and passion to advocate for victims
During my tenure in the District Attorney’s Office, there have been many significant changes in the criminal justice system. The volume of cases has risen steadily over the years. I know what has worked and what has not worked to keep criminal cases moving efficiently through the criminal system.
Starting next year, our office will lose a significant amount of prosecutorial experience through the retirement and departure of several people. The next district attorney needs to have as much experience in the Robeson County District Attorney’s Office, both in and out of the courtroom, to lead the office beginning next year. I have more legal experience than any other candidate, more experience as an assistant district attorney, and I have the most trial experience of any other candidate.
2. You have worked in the District Attorney’s Office as an assistant district attorney. Where are the areas that you believe could be improved in how the office operates, and how would you accomplish that?
The District Attorney’s office receives limited funding and resources from the state despite the high crime rate and large case volume. We need additional personnel, both staff and prosecutors to help move cases through the criminal system in a shorter period. At the present time, it does not appear that any additional resources will be allocated beginning Jan. 1, 2019. With that in mind, one area of improvement should be assessing responsibilities and duties of all staff. If elected, I will assess the current responsibilities of all staff and attorneys as well as the needs of the office for efficiency. Based on that assessment, I will develop a case management system to optimize the disposition of cases in a reasonable time. Staff members may need to be cross trained such that they don’t get overloaded or suffer negatively in their performance.
As it relates to the backlog of cases in both District and Superior Court, I propose we address our oldest cases first. I intend to review pending cases to determine the proper resolution of cases, whether by plea, trial, or dismissal. If it is appropriate for any case to go to trial, we will calendar the case as soon as feasible given the availability of court settings.
It is my goal to set specific time frames for the disposition of new case. A framework will be developed wherein things will be done within certain time increments. This will reduce the time that cases are pending in the criminal system. In the management of any organization, periodic evaluations of progress should be ongoing to achieve improvement and success. I will consistently review the results of the case management plan and make any adjustments necessary to accomplish this goal.
3. For lower level crimes, is prison the best option, in light of the high cost per inmate and high recidivism rate? Would medical, counseling, and other diversion programs be a better use of resources, and provide better results for the community?
Prison is not necessarily the best option in some cases given other possible programs available. However, that determination must be based on a balanced approach that considers the current offense and offender’s prior criminal history with the interest of the community’s safety. If the offender is a first-time offender and it is a low level, non-violent offense, under our current sentencing guidelines mandated by the North Carolina Legislature, that person will often not face a mandatory prison sentence. Where appropriate, we currently utilize probation to give offenders an opportunity to stay out of prison if they comply with certain conditions.
Additionally, we utilize other resources to give those individuals a second chance and avoid a criminal conviction. Deferred prosecutions may be available for those who comply with certain conditions, such as drug testing and treatment, community service, and other requirements. If successful, the charges are dismissed. A similar program is available for lower level drug possession cases. Lastly, we use prosecutorial discretion to dismiss charges if an individual fulfills certain requirements. Teen Court is available as a diversion program to give teens the chance to avoid a criminal conviction.
The programs described above are already available and are forms of diversion programs. While I support the implementation of other diversion programs to address underlying issues of behavioral health and substance abuse in offenders, I believe the success of those programs are based on the quality of the treatment programs available. Those programs must be a cooperative effort by the whole community — medical, mental health, law enforcement, and others, to be successful, as well as be available for anyone with underlying issues regardless of whether they face criminal charges. Unfortunately, without sufficient funding, it is difficult to establish and maintain new quality and comprehensive community based behavioral health programs.
4. What are the greatest challenges that you foresee facing the office of District Attorney in the foreseeable future, and how do you plan to meet those challenges?
The greatest challenges immediately facing the District Attorney are the backlog of criminal cases and the large volume of cases that come into the criminal system regularly each year. We must address both of those issues immediately.
We have a significant backlog of cases pending in criminal courts, including over 100 murder cases. We must aggressively work to reduce the backlog. If elected, I will begin addressing the backlog on the first day starting with our oldest cases. As I stated before, we will review each case, beginning with the oldest, to dispose of them in a timely manner, either by dismissal, plea or trial.
Another significant challenge facing the office will be the departure of experienced prosecutors primarily because of retirement. The next District Attorney must recruit qualified and experienced prosecutors to fill those vacancies as quickly as possible.
5. How important is it to you for DA office to have a media representative assigned that ensures transparency with your office and the public in which you serve?
It is very important to provide information to the media to share with the public about the work in the District Attorney’s Office. The office needs to provide information to keep the community informed about issues and concerns and, to the extent we can disclose information, let them know what we are doing to address those issues and concerns. Unfortunately, with the limited resources provided to our office, we do not have the financial resources to employ an individual solely for that purpose. I intend to maintain an open door policy with the public and will afford the media the same courtesy.
As it relates to specific information our office can provide to the public, as it relates to any case, charged or under investigation, about information not in the public realm. We cannot make expressions of an opinion of guilt of an accused individual. We cannot provide any information that could prejudice an accused’s ability to receive a fair trial. Essentially, we cannot disclose any information about a pending matter beyond what is contained in a public record at that time.
6. Robeson County ranks No. 1 in crime in North Carolina, which means a lot of cases and a backlog in the system. The Robesonian has long advocated for a Manhattan-type approach, that the state send in a team of retired judges, district attorneys, defense lawyers, or something to that effect, to help unclog the system to speak. Would you advocate for that? Do you think it is feasible? If not, how do you plan to reduce the calendar with existing resources?
I would welcome such an approach if there was appropriate funding. However, because of limited facilities and financial resources, I do not believe such an approach is likely or feasible. However, if elected, I would advocate for the permanent allocation of additional resources, through more prosecutors, judges, and clerks to allow us to expand our ability to hold court, both in District and Superior Court.
I firmly believe that we must maximize our use of our available resources, such as personnel and court time, before the Legislature would approve allocating more to use to address the volume of criminal cases. There is no indication of any change in the allocation of resources, so we must plan to address the issues with what we will have on Jan. 1, 2019. My intent, if elected, is to immediately implement a plan to begin addressing the backlog of cases by assessing the oldest cases first, as I’ve stated above. Additionally, we will set multiple cases for trial to ensure that trials occur during trial weeks in available courts. At the same time, we must implement a management plan to shorten the time cases are in the criminal system. This will also allow us to help reduce the time some individuals are in the Robeson County Detention Center awaiting trial.
7. How do you believe your approach to running the office of DA, if you were elected, would differ from that of your opponents?
While I cannot comment on the approach of my opponents, as I’ve stated above, my approach will be to immediately address the backlog of cases and implement a case management system to address the timely disposition of new cases. Also, I will immediately recruit experienced prosecutors to fill the vacancies in our office to minimize any setbacks in the efficiency of the office.
I believe communication is the key to good relationships, not only with law enforcement, but with victims and the community. I will make sure the District Attorney’s Office works closely with law enforcement, especially during investigations. I will make sure they have access to our office to answer questions and provide advice. I will maintain an open door policy of the District Attorney’s Office to make sure we are available to the public. I will make sure we talk with victims at early stages of prosecutions to inform victims of the process and their case. We will let them know what is happening and what will happen as their case progresses through the criminal system.
8. Robeson County is the most diverse county in the state of North Carolina. If elected, what specifically will your office do to ensure that all citizens are treated equally and without bias toward race, color, religious creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, age, genetic information, military service, or disability?
The criminal system is built to ensure that justice is to be applied fairly to all individuals, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, or any other difference. If elected, I will make sure that each case is reviewed and handled without regard to who they are, where they live, or who they know. As my grandfather told me many years ago, treat people like you want to be treated and you’ll never treat them wrong. I will treat everyone as I would like to be treated.
9. There’s been some buzz mentioned about a judicial redistricting that could align Robeson and Scotland Counties to merging and having one DA office. Do you agree with the proposal or do you have any alternatives which would be beneficial for the residents of Robeson County?
I am opposed to any proposal to redraw our judicial redistrict that would combine Robeson County with any other county. We currently face significant issues within our own borders that must be addressed. To combine our county with any other area would put additional strain on our office, both with resources and personnel, to effectively deal with our current concerns. As I’ve said before, our top priority is to immediately work on our criminal case backlog and volume. Combining our county with another would add more cases to manage and hinder our ability to reduce our backlog and manage our incoming cases.
10. Question to myself: Why is jury trial experience in Robeson County such an important factor in deciding who should be the next District Attorney?
Our next district attorney must have experience trying cases in a Robeson County court. Given our backlog and caseloads, we do not have the luxury of being in a position where our District Attorney can simply manage the office. The next district attorney must lead by example by trying cases with those working with him.
The district attorney is the head prosecutor. He or she is the one who has the experience to advise and guide the other prosecutors in the office. In some cases, an assistant district attorney needs guidance with a case, whether it is guidance on the direction to take with a case, whether to make a plea offer, and if so, what that offer should be. In other cases, the assistant may need advice on trial strategy. The district attorney is there to provide that guidance and advice, but he must have the trial experience in Robeson County to draw from. As prosecutors, we learn a great deal from the cases we have tried in Robeson County. We learn what juries think, how they see things, what is important or not important to them in reaching their decisions. A jury’s verdict helps us as we look at future cases. It helps us in reviewing cases and making decisions about our approach. The next district attorney must have trial experience in front of Robeson County juries to make those decisions and provide that guidance.