C. Colon Willoughby Jr. served as Wake County’s District Attorney for 28 years. On March 31, he left the office to return to private practice. Prior to stepping down, Willoughby spoke with Record reporter James Borden about his time in office and the changes and challenges he has seen across nearly three decades of service.
Before your election in 1986, you were appointed interim District Attorney in 1983. How did that come about?
There was a temporary vacancy in the spring of 1983, and Gov. [Jim] Hunt appointed me to fill in as acting DA for about six weeks during May and June. At the end of the time my services were needed, I went back into private practice.
I had had an interest in the office and was trying to evaluate whether to run or not, and the governor knew of that and of my interest, and so he put me in it in a temporary decision.
What induced you to run three years later?
After having served briefly, I was intrigued by the office and I thought it would be an exciting, interesting position to have, and so I went and talked to folks around the county and found support for a change and filed and ran.
Have you made a concerted effort to keep politics out of the courtroom?
I think we’ve all had as our goal to keep partisan politics out of the courthouse, and I think if you look at the history of Wake County we’ve done a good job of that, dealing with cases based on the facts rather than political affiliations.
I’m apparently not much of a politician because I’m still in the same place I was 27 years ago — that’s a long time without a promotion for most jobs.
Did you ever consider running for another office?
I had, but my wife had me lie down and let the feeling pass. I had given some thought to it over the years, but I’ve enjoyed this job, it continues to change and I’ve been fascinated with it. It’s provided me with plenty of challenges and I’ve enjoyed the work I had here.
What was the most compelling aspect of the job?
The part that drew me to the job was, I was involved in the private practice of law. I enjoyed the trial of criminal cases, but as a private practitioner, you only got those cases that came to you to be retained. As a DA, I would get the opportunity to look at all the cases and to choose cases that I was particularly interested in to try, so that’s what initially attracted my attention. To be involved in cases I thought were important and significant and were of interest.
How did your time in private practice serve you as District Attorney?
I think having worked on either side gives you insights, and I think having done criminal defense work for seven years made me a better prosecutor. It allowed me to evaluate 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. I think it helps, I think if someone has done both sides, regardless of which one they’ve done first, I think it makes them a better lawyer.
What are some of the cases that have really stood out to you over the years?
I think there are a couple of cases that would come to mind. One involved the poisoning of Ann Miller – a poisoning in which Ann Miller was the defendant for the poisoning of Eric Miller. I brought a special proceeding and took the matter to the North Carolina Supreme Court in order to get information from a dead man’s lawyer and to be able to go forward with the investigation and prosecution of the person most culpable. That was a fascinating and interesting case, and it took a couple of years, I had to go to the Supreme Court twice to get that information, but I felt like the public was well-served, and we were able to secure a conviction in a case where it might not otherwise have happened.
Also though, the case of Meg Scott Phipps, which was a public corruption case involving the then-Commissioner of Agriculture Ms. Phipps, was one of the first major public corruption cases handled in the area, and 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 and the jury responded properly. I felt like that helped restore public confidence in government.
I also participated in some other investigations that were prosecuted federally, I worked in a number of those and they do attract a lot of public attention.
Does the added scrutiny make handling those cases more difficult?
Ordinarily when you prosecute a public official you prosecute someone who by very definition has been popular and elected; people have demonstrated their support for them by electing them and putting them into office. So you have a hill to climb in order to be able to show what happened and convince people that this is not right.
When you handle these cases you have to be especially careful that all of the things you do, not only do you have to do the right thing, but you have to be careful to do it in the right way that you’re transparent and the public understands what has happened and understands why you’re doing things and supports that.
Sometimes because of the crush of business we may not be as patient and transparent with explaining what we’re doing, and I think in those cases you have a special duty to do that.
If the public believes you’re unfairly prosecuting someone, they quickly lose faith in the office. It’s a very delicate balance to walk.
What were some frustrations you’ve had over the years?
Whenever you close cases, particularly when there are victims involved, you feel as though you haven’t been able to address the person’s grievance and you have a hollow feeling from it.
But I think probably one of our frustrations has been the scarce resources that have been available both for the prosecution and for victims. We have a very modest victim’s fund in North Carolina, you know, we need more money. To pay for funeral expenses, for direct injuries to people that are hurt physically, things like that. Sometimes the people that are most victimized by crime are those that are least able to afford it financially. That’s an obligation I think we ought to take on as a society, is to protect those people that are victims of crime.
The legislature sets the Victim’s Compensation Fund each year, and we have used that to make some reimbursements. I would love if we had some perpetual funding of money, like part of the court costs or something from the court system, or a direct grant the legislature to adequately reimburse victims for their injuries. I think that would be appropriate and I think the public would support that.
It’s just an innocent victim and all the sudden you have someone that doesn’t have any health insurance and they get a gunshot wound because they happened to be working in a convenience store late at night and got robbed. I mean certainly as a society we ought to rally around this person and say, ‘you know, this was not their fault, they were in a position where they were not able to protect themselves.’ As a society, let’s try to protect people in that category.
There’s a board that makes decisions for the fund, and I think they do a very good job. They have to make difficult decisions about how much and who to be able to compensate, and there’s just not enough money to go around.
How else have budget issues affected the office?
There have been times when our funding has been more restricted than others, and limited our ability to get witnesses to come from out of state and the ability to go to witnesses. It’s limited the ability to get specialized training for prosecutors in areas you need like DNA testing and dealing with child victims. Sometimes in our system we’ve been better funded than others and unfortunately we’ve been in an economic situation for the last five years that has restricted things that were available like that, and I think it’s regrettable.
Have there been a lot of changes to the frequency or type of crimes prosecuted in Wake County over the years?
We’ve seen it ebb and flow, it goes in cycles over years. We’re in a downward cycle right now, thank goodness. One of the things that I’ve seen is an escalation, at least locally, in cases involving violent juveniles, that trend has not necessarily been national. Here I think in the last 18 months we’ve had maybe seven juveniles charged with homicide, which is startling. I think that problem is indicative of other problems in society.
Once upon a time juveniles shoplifted and were truant in schools and did petty theft or something, but weren’t involved in sexual assault and homicide, and we’re seeing cases like that now that are startling to us. We have to find a way to deal with violent juveniles; although they don’t represent a huge number of cases, the trend here at least in our area has been startling.
We had one case last year involving a 13 year old who shot a 14 or 15 year old and killed him. We had a group of 13, 14, 15 year olds that beat an adult male to death. We had a 15 and a 16 year old who went in and killed two people in their home in a home invasion.
We don’t have the presence of gangs that some of the larger metropolitan areas have, but we have had some and some of the homicides in violent crime, we’ve seen the gang influence.
These kinds of things are sort of a wake-up call to some underlying issues in society that we need to deal with and address.
I think crime prevention is a good goal for law enforcement and prosecutors across the country, there have been some good community prosecution models. We have done some of that here in Wake County and the city of Raleigh.
I think that with crime, if we can prevent it, whether it’s violent crime or drug abuse or other types, prevention is much more preferable than prosecution. I think it’s a noble goal for all of us. Some of it starts in Pre-K, early childhood intervention, youth programs that are available to kids who after school don’t have wholesome activities or adult supervision. The Boys Club, the YMCA, any of these things in the community are all part of crime prevention.
How has Wake County’s approach to prosecuting first-time drug offenders worked out?
I think the recidivism numbers from that are pretty good. Recently in the last couple of years the state has moved to expand statewide those kind of things to do what we refer to as deferred prosecution, to divert those cases out of the system, to get those people treatment, education, sometimes community service to make sure first time offenders don’t come back.
I think the idea, for most folks it’s very rare for someone to go to jail on a first offense for a drug violation unless it’s a trafficking level. So if we can get people through that process so that they don’t have a criminal record, so that they’re educable and employable, then we’ve enhanced the likelihood that they’ll be productive, tax-paying citizens as opposed to being a drain on society.
We do significant amounts of deferred prosecution in other nonviolent cases, both misdemeanors and felonies for first-time offenders, with theft, vandalism, things like that. Even some fraud offenses, if it’s the first time they’re arrested on misdemeanor felonies for property offenses, they are normally offered the opportunity to do some kind of deferral.
At what stage does your office become involved with a criminal investigation?
It depends on the case. With most cases, law enforcement does the investigation and makes the arrest without consulting the prosecutor’s office. In cases that are particularly difficult, serious or high profile, they’ll often contact our office. In a homicide case or a corruption case, they will work much more closely with the prosecutor’s office to make sure things are being done correctly and we believe there’s sufficient evidence to go forward on the charge and are willing to prosecute the charge before they make an arrest.
How has the office grown in your time there?
It about tripled. When I started, the population for Wake County was about 350,000 and it’s about 950,000 now. The office had 15 assistants when I started and I think its got maybe 43 assistants now; both the county and the office have nearly tripled.
Has technology helped ease this expansion?
Just managing the increased number of people presents its own set of challenges. Technology has helped, although in the court system, our technology is probably more antiquated than in business; we could benefit from better technology and better use of the technology that we have.
The decision to increase our funding gets made by the state legislators, so prosecutors around the state continue to press for better management systems and better information systems to make their job where they can be better managers.
We’ve set systems in place to deal with cases internally, we’ve moved to handling discovery with an electronic transfer of information when we can so we don’t have as much paper in the system as we once did. I think our goal would be to continue to move in that direction, to try to get the flow of information from law enforcement to the prosecutor and from the prosecutor to the defense ultimately to the point of being a completely electronic transfer of information.
Why did you choose now to step away from the office?
I wanted to announce early enough so those people that were interested in the office could file and it would be an open process. I didn’t want to do something where it looked like I had orchestrated or anointed someone to be the next District Attorney. I think the people should make that decision.
Once filing was closed and I had an offer that I thought was a good offer for me, and so I decided it was a good time for me and allow the electoral process to take place and let the people select a new District Attorney.
What kind of work will you be doing at McGuire Woods once you leave the District Attorney’s Office?
I’m planning to work on dealing with governmental investigations, regulatory agencies or criminal justice agencies who might find themselves investigating the activities of businesses. You know, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, the Food and Drug Administration, all of these folks that do investigations that can be either civil or criminal or some mix of civil and criminal sanctions.
Hopefully in that kind of work, we’re able to avoid the courtroom and resolve things through settlements; hopefully we’re keeping people out of court as much as possible.