Of the state’s 44 prosecutorial districts, only the 10th, which encompasses the whole of Wake County, is responsible for going after corrupt state government officials.
“The Wake County District Attorney’s Office, by its very nature of being located in the capitol city, carries a lot more responsibility,” said Peg Dorer, the director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.
It was a responsibility borne for 28 years by C. Colon Willoughby, Jr., who was first elected to the office in 1986. After announcing his plans not to seek re-election, six candidates entered the fray in hopes of becoming Willoughby’s successor.
It will not be an easy role to fill. Wake County voters will narrow that field down to two candidates in the May primary.
After Willoughby retired from the office March 31, Wake County District Court Judge Ned Mangum was appointed as interim District Attorney. Mangum will hold the position through Jan. 1, 2015 when the new elected DA takes office.
Responsibilities of the Office
A District Attorney operates as much more than just the chief prosecutor in their district. Richard Myers, a professor at the UNC School of Law and a former federal prosecutor, said an elected DA “wears multiple hats.”
“He’s going to be the chief policy-setting officer, he’s also going to the chief executive for a large organization,” Myers said.
Myers described that organization as a group of “very significant attorneys, working together with a single CEO.”
The District Attorney also oversees a large staff of investigators and administrative personnel. In addition, many cases require the DA to work with witnesses, victims, and outside law enforcement agencies in order to achieve a conviction.
In those instances, Myers said, “You’ve got a lot of people you’re responsible for over whom you have no authority.”
While it would be impossible for any one person to personally oversee the thousands of cases that flow through the Wake County courthouse each day, the District Attorney is responsible for establishing how those cases are dealt with.
“An elected District Attorney sets policy for the office, he is the ultimate backstop for that,” Dorer said.
In choosing which cases to prosecute and how they should be pursued, the DA must serve both the interests of justice and the interests of the people they were elected to serve.
“If prosecutors are out of touch,” Myers said, “they won’t get re-elected.”
No Perfect Background
Before he was elected, Willoughby worked as an attorney in private practice – although he did serve a brief stint as interim District Attorney in 1983.
Of the six candidates, only two, Republicans Terry Swaim and John Walter Bryant, are currently working for private law firms. The other four include Republicans and current assistant District Attorneys Jeff Cruden and Jefferson Griffin and Democrats Benjamin “Boz” Zellinger, also a current ADA, and Superior Clerk of Court Nancy Lorrin Freeman.
Myers said while having worked as a prosecutor prior to serving as District Attorney would be helpful, it is certainly not mandatory. In addition to casework, the office requires a variety of business-related skill sets that are more likely to be honed in private practice.
In a recent interview with The Record, Willoughby said that having worked on both sides of the table allowed him insights into the job he might not otherwise have had.
“Doing criminal defense work for seven years made me a better prosecutor,” Willoughby said. “It allowed me to evaluate the cases better, to structure pleas in such a way that the public was protected and the defendant felt like that was the proper thing to do.”
Making the switch from private practice has its difficulties as well.
“Someone coming from outside who’s never been a prosecutor has never had to make all of the ethical decisions that come with the role,” Myers said.
It is these ethical decisions that set their role apart from that of most other types of attorneys.
“Their job is to pursue justice, not to win cases,” Myers said.
A High Profile
Due to its location in the state’s capitol, the Wake County District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted a fair share of political corruption cases over the years, including those of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Black.
Phipps was convicted in 2003 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Willoughby said the prosecution of Phipps helped to restore public confidence in government.
“I think that the public was well-served and we were able to expose what had gone on in government that should not have gone on,” he said.
State-level public corruption cases make the Wake County “one of the highest, if not the highest profile District Attorney’s Office” in North Carolina, said Myers.
Many of these cases require the office to work in conjunction with federal prosecutors.
“We participated in some other investigations that were prosecuted federally,” said Willoughby. “They do attract a lot of public attention.”
Willoughby said that prosecuting a public official carries a unique set of challenges.
“You prosecute someone who by very definition has been popular and was elected, people have demonstrated their support for them by putting them in office,” he said, “so you have a hill to climb in order to show what happened and convince people that this is not right.”
Although any elected position brings with it the baggage of partisan politics, the District Attorney’s Office by its nature is not designed to operate in an overly political fashion.
“When seeking justice,” Dorer said, “politics shouldn’t play into those decisions.”
The consensus is that Willoughby, a Democrat, never let politics affect what kind of defendants or cases he chose to pursue.
In some instances, however, the intrusion of partisanship has been inevitable, such as the recent swath of protestors who were arrested for civil disobedience at last year’s Moral Monday rallies.
“The more political aspect of that would have been choosing to decline those prosecutions because you agree or disagree with the position of those people,” Myers said.
Willoughby offered pleas to all of the protestors. However, a number of the protestors chose to have their day in court.
Myers said the situation demonstrated how the DA can easily become “embroiled in political situations” not of their own choosing.
When pursuing what may be a politically unpopular case, Myers added, “it takes moral courage and it takes a capacity to stand your ground, defend your office and allow justice to be done.”
A Growing Office
Since Willoughby began serving in 1987, both the office and the county have almost tripled in size. Although technology has helped ease the expansion, Willoughby said managing the increased number of people presents its own set of challenges.
Funding for the office, which comes from the general legislature, has not always kept pace with this growth.
“Our technology is probably more antiquated than what businesses have,” Willoughby said.
Budget issues have also led to a limited Victim’s Compensation Fund and had an affect on the office’s ability to consistently attract and hold on to dedicated personnel.
As Wake County continues to expand, the challenges that come along with that, including an increased case load and a larger staff to oversee, will serve to make the office of District Attorney ever more complex for whomever inherits Willoughby’s position.
“It’s a complicated job,” Dorer said. “It’s amazing there’s that many people that want it.”