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Wednesday, 01 October 2014 14:25

District attorney race pits colleagues against each other

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fr da raceJim Moore and Ashley Welch have been on the same team for years, working side-by-side in the district attorney’s office to put criminals behind bars, seek justice for victims and keep society safe in the seven western counties.

 

Both are at the top of their game. They’re the heavy hitters called in for the biggest, toughest and most horrific cases. They’re the coaches for other assistant district attorneys who need help constructing cases. And they’re the backup for detectives trying to build the right evidence for a water-tight case.

But now, these long-time legal allies are locked in a bitter battle for who will win the title of chief district attorney.

A fast-paced, lively forum featuring the two district attorney candidates was held at the Colonial Theatre in Canton last Sunday, sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Drugs in Our Midst anti-drug abuse coalition.

For an hour, the candidates plowed through a nonstop barrage of 20 questions, with just two minutes to stake out positions on everything from prescription drug abuse to shortcomings of the legal system to their management style.

Moore, who’s been a lawyer for 28 years and prosecutor for 16, touted his longer legal career.

“Experience does matter,” Moore said. “The difference is my longevity in this district. I have handled homicides in all seven counties.”

But Welch, who’s been out of law school only 11 years, held her own.

“I am known for being tough, but fair. Aggressive and consistent. I am an open book. You know what you are going to get from me,” Welch said. “You won’t find anybody who works harder than I do. I work unbelievably hard.”

Their success as prosecutors has depended on the ability to win over strangers in a jury box with words, so it’s not surprising that both were well-prepared, fast on their feet, didn’t dodge questions and managed to hammer home campaign platforms — all within the confines of two-minute replies.

Most attending the forum already knew who they would vote for, donning buttons, stickers or shirts with the name of their favorite candidates. But exit interviews with audience members at the forum were devoid of the usual polarization and staunchly staked out positions.

For the most part, neither camp saw the opposing candidate as an abhorrent choice. In fact, most acquiesced that either would likely do a fine job.

The district attorney’s race is partisan — Moore is running on the Democratic ticket and Welch on the Republican one.

Both said they would prefer it if the race was non-partisan, however, like judge’s races are, since party persuasion really has no bearing on carrying out the duties of the prosecutors office.

The following recap of their stance on top issues is taken in part from the forum and in part from follow-up interviews.

 

Chip off the block

Both Welch and Moore said they would take a more active role trying cases and be more visible to the public than the current DA, and their boss, Mike Bonfoey. Bonfoey is retiring after 10 years as district attorney.

“I plan on trying cases in all seven counties. People need to see their elected district attorney,” Welch said.

Moore agreed.

“I am still going to be in the courtroom. When you are out there like that you are open and accessible to the public, not behind a locked door in the office,” Moore said.

Welch was ultimately more willing than Moore to draw a distinction between herself and Bonfoey, however. She even pointed out her perceived weaknesses of Bonfoey’s administration, from strained relations with some law enforcement to treatment of assistant prosecutors.

Candidates were asked in the forum what changes they would make.

“Well, not much to tell you the truth,” Moore said.

Welch said the opposite.

“I think there is a lot that needs to change,” Welch said. “If I didn’t think there was a lot that needed to change I wouldn’t be running.”

Welch cited the need for better communication with victims, law enforcement and the public. Cases shouldn’t be dismissed or charges lowered without the courtesy of telling cops and victims whom the case affects.

“I am hearing that complaint over and over again,” Welch said.

Moore’s “not much” comment when asked what he would change was primarily in reference to staff allocation, however. He pledged not to shuffle the assigned territories of assistant prosecutors or get rid of anyone.

In terms of the tone and tenor of the DA’s office, Moore said he would do a better job answering and returning calls to victims and law enforcement, something he elaborated on in an interview after the forum.

“I am not Mike. Though we are good friends and he has been an employer of mine for 11 years, I would do things differently than he has done,” Moore said. “I tend to be more public. I tend to be more open.” 

 

The police vote

Welch portrayed herself as the candidate that the law enforcement community is rooting for. Welch was assigned exclusively to Macon for several years before advancing to a “big-cases” prosecutor who went wherever she was needed, mostly across the five western-most counties.

“One of the things that struck me as odd and surprised and disappointed me is that my good working relationship with law enforcement in Macon wasn’t the norm,” Welch said.

That is something that needs to improve, she said.

“You cannot talk down to them. You cannot demean them. When I ask law enforcement ‘Why are you so supportive of me?’ they say ‘You talk to us like you are just one of us.’ They don’t want to be disrespected in emails or talked down to in the courtroom. The mentality of how we treat law enforcement is from the top down. I am going to demand that law enforcement deserves our respect.”

Moore challenged the notion that Welch had a lock on the law enforcement vote.

“I am glad she challenged people to go and ask law enforcement. Please, go and ask them who they support,” Moore said. “From what I hear, I enjoy far more support than she does. I have a great rapport with law enforcement through all seven counties regardless of what she may think.”

Welch has the endorsement of a few sheriffs in the district, both current and former. However, all the sheriffs who have openly endorsed Welch are Republican, like her.

Moore, however, hasn’t seen open endorsements from Democratic sheriffs or police chiefs. While no Democratic lawmen have come out publicly in support of Welch, they likewise haven’t publicly endorsed Moore.

Candidates were asked at the forum to address a public perception that charges are routinely dropped and reduced for some drug dealers, putting them back on the street

Moore and Welch both said there are explanations, but those should be communicated better to law enforcement.

“We have got to work with law enforcement when they are building a good case so you have people in the DA’s office that are willing and able to prosecute them,” Welch said.

Moore agreed the prosecutor’s office could work more closely on the type of evidence and evidence threshold that’s needed for charges to stick.

Moore said he is known for always being accessible. 

“I am known for being there when they need me,” Moore said. “That communication is vital to making better cases.”

Both candidates pledged to be tough on drunk driving and drug dealers. But they also said substance addiction treatment can be more appropriate than jail time for drug users who don’t have other crimes on their record.

 

The geographic battle

A race that spans such a large geographic territory — all the seven western counties — creates a unique dynamic when it comes to home turf advantage.

Moore hails from Haywood, the biggest bloc of voters in the district, easily outnumbering in population three or four of the smaller western counties combined.

Moore is better known in Haywood, where he goes to church and has coached myriad youth sports, and that could help him there.

But Welch could pull in a larger share of support from the far west, where there’s resentment of Haywood’s dominance over the judicial system. She downplayed the advantage that would give her in the far west, however.

“I think there will be some that say ‘You know I think it is time we have someone from the west running this office,’ but if you see an enormous number of votes coming from the five western counties, I think it will be because people in the west know who I am,” Welch said.

Haywood has historically been home to the majority of judges and prosecutors. But that is starting to balance out, with more judges now hailing from counties other than Haywood.

But there hasn’t been a district attorney from a county other than Haywood for 30 years.

While there are smaller offices for prosecutors to work out of in the other six county courthouses, the main office is in Haywood. Moore has questioned whether Welch will move the main DA office out of Haywood if elected.

The last time there was a DA from outside Haywood — namely Marcellus Buchanan from Jackson County — he moved the main DA’s office to Jackson.

Welch squashed that rumor, however.

“I don’t plan on moving the DA’s office anywhere,” Welch said, citing that the bulk of the population and cases remain in Haywood. And if nothing else, there’s just not room in any of the other courthouses, particularly not in Macon or Jackson, Welch said.

Still, Welch said she will be attuned to the entire district. 

“The people in Graham County and Macon County are no less important than the people in Haywood County,” Welch said.

Welch said she would make the rounds to all seven counties regularly. But living in Macon is an asset, she said. She is in the middle of the seven-county district and can get to any county in under an hour.

“It can take you two hours to get from Haywood to Cherokee and that’s not good,” Welch said.

 

Shuffling the deck

A large part of the district attorney’s job is playing air traffic controller. The annual case load numbers around 50,000 in the seven western counties.

The challenge of managing such a huge court docket across a sprawling geographic district, spanning from Waynesville to Murphy, is daunting.

There’s seven courthouses, half a dozen district attorney offices to man, and dozens of court schedules in play, from traffic court to juvenile court, with crimes ranging from illegal dug possession to DUIs to child rapes to murders. 

The district attorney must dispatch a team of 10 assistant prosecutors over the vast region to get the job done. Welch and Moore have different approaches to how they would organize and allocate the team.

Moore supports the current structure that’s been in play historically: primarily assigning each assistant prosecutor to handle all the cases, big or small, for a given county. Smaller counties might share a prosecutor, while larger ones like Haywood have more than one assigned to the larger caseload.

“I have made a pledge to keep everyone in the exact same jobs they are in now. No changes whatsoever,” Moore said. As far as the staff goes I wouldn’t change anything.” 

But Welch said it is time for a change. While the current system worked for a long time, the caseload has grown.

“We have a lot more cases and a lot more serious cases to manage today,” Welch said. “Asking someone to get ready for a first-degree rape of a child takes more time than anyone can comprehend. If you have them in charge of a county and they are in district court until 5 p.m. on a Thursday trying a DUI case, but they need to be in court picking a jury on a Monday morning in a child rape case, that’s not good.”

So Welch wants to reorganize. Rather than prosecutors handling all the cases within a county — from a speeding ticket to a murder — prosecutors will focus on either Superior Court or District Court, but cover a larger area, perhaps even three or four counties.  

Moore said that system works in a larger urban district that’s not so spread out. Some prosecutors do only District Court, and others do only Superior. And while there could be seven courts going on in one day in Asheville, they all are happening in the same courthouse — not spread out over seven counties.

That’s why geographic territories work better out here, Moore said.

“You are going to be driving to all these different counties and that is more time lost on the road,” Moore said.

But Moore also said he doesn’t want anyone to worry about losing their job or having it changed on them.

Welch said her plan will better align assistant prosecutors with their strengths, however.

“Their talents are not being utilized appropriately,” Welch said.

The downside of assigning prosecutors to a particular territory has played out in Swain County. Its caseload is usually low enough that one prosecutor covered both Swain and Graham. But then a rash of several complex murders happened in those two counties, and the routine daily caseload suffered, creating a backlog.

“You put too much pressure on one person and no one person can do that effectively and that’s how you end up losing people. They get burned out and they quit,” Welch said.

But Moore disagreed.

“We have been given support whenever we needed help. All we’ve had to do was ask,” Moore said.

There’s also other reasons, including internal politics, that have been cited in part for the resignation of the assistant prosecutor over Swain and Graham.

Welch said it was disingenuous for Moore to claim he wouldn’t shuffle any assistant prosecutors if elected. Does that include putting pressure on people until they leave?

“What happens is you constructively fire people,” Welch said.

 

Loaded docket

A huge challenge facing whoever gets elected is a record number of murder cases pending in the seven western counties — around 12.

“I have talked to a number of older attorneys who remember back three decades and no one remembers the number of murder cases that have occurred in such a short period of time,” Moore said.

It will create a burden for the team of assistant prosecutors to keep the rest of the courts humming while handling the load of labor-intensive murder cases.

“It is a challenge but it’s one I think I am best equipped to handle due to my experience in trying not just murder cases but death penalty cases,” Moore said. 

State lawmakers decide how many assistant prosecutor positions each judicial district gets, and chances are slim of getting any more.

“The only way we can resolve any backlogs is take the resources we have and throw more of them at that problem until it is resolved. I am the additional resource we don’t have right now,” Moore said, saying he will be boots on the ground trying cases.

Welch agreed, and offered a similar solution.

“It is a huge challenge. We only have so many court sessions a year and you can only get ready for so many homicides at a time,” Welch said. “I am still going to try cases.”

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