The District Attorney is responsible for overseeing criminal prosecution in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. From traffic tickets to sexual molestation cases to murders — the DA and the office’s assistant district attorneys see it all.
Gov. Mike Easley appointed Mike Bonfoey to be DA three and a half years ago, filling the vacancy left when sitting DA Charles Hipps passed away. Although Hipps’ term did not expire until this year, an election was held for the position in 2004, just 18 months after Bonfoey’s appointment. Bonfoey was unopposed then and is now seeking re-election in his campaign against fellow Waynesville attorney Donna Forga.
Bonfoey has 30 years experience as a lawyer versus Forga’s six. However, the election has become less about time spent in the courtroom and more about personality and management styles.
Forga has earned credibility as a hard worker with a reputation for getting things done, in part due to her personal mettle to further her education. Forga earned her degrees while a single mother, making her a self-made woman.
“I’m living my dream anyway, if I win or lose,” she said. “Who would have thought that a woman who was living on food stamps, in HUD housing, baking biscuits at McDonalds would ever be practicing law.”
Meanwhile, Bonfoey — known within the system for his intensity — has said that the biggest challenge of being DA is learning how to juggle.
“Dealing with all of these issues and dealing with the different personalities and the different people that a district attorney in this district has to deal with,” Bonfoey said.
There are seven sheriffs, seven boards of commissioners, 15 chiefs of police, 15 boards of aldermen and the Cherokee Tribal Council.
“Each and every area in the county, when they call upon me, they’re concerned with whatever question or issue that they’re addressing and I’m concerned about it too, but I’m also concerned about all these other people that are calling me,” Bonfoey said. “I try to handle it all, but obviously some things need immediate attention and some things can be delayed a short period of time.”
It’s a balancing act that pits working as an attorney against carrying out the administrative obligations of the job. Most of the time, Bonfoey isn’t the one in the courtroom.
“I’m trying generally the high profile, most serious cases, so I’m not in the trenches on a week-in, week-out basis,” he said.
The 30th Judicial District is the largest district in the state geographically. There are nine assistant district attorneys assigned to cover the area, with a higher caseload per assistant district attorney than the state average.
Nevertheless, the district average for disposing of felony cases is less than the statewide average — 210 days versus 245 days. In Haywood County, where the caseload is the highest, the average is 176 days.
Bonfoey says these numbers dispel what Forga has made a primary campaign point.
“I would like to get the number of pending cases down to a more acceptable level,” she said.
Pending Superior Court filings rose dramatically after Bonfoey took office in 2003. Case filings from 2003 to 2005 rose 27.1 percent. However, cases pending rose 116.5 percent.
“A lot of us who practice law are saying, ‘How did we get to this point?’” Forga said.
However, Bonfoey said that filings and pending cases are subject to a natural ebb and flow. Overall, state felony filings have risen and the district is no different. The mountains, perfect hiding places for methamphetamine labs, were victims of the epidemic as evidenced by the rise in drug cases. From 2000 to 2006, drug cases have risen 364 percent in Haywood County alone, and throughout the district they’ve risen 105 percent.
Allegations that there is a backlog of cases are wrong, Bonfoey said, citing his ADA’s larger workload.
“Oh yeah, we’re doing as effective a job,” Bonfoey said. “I’ve hired very dedicated people who are doing a super job. Part and parcel to that fortunately, knock on wood, we don’t have the number of murders that the urban areas might have or some other areas in our state. Knock on wood, we don’t want them.”
Forga said that a large part of the problem has been that there is over-scheduling within the DA’s office, with trial calendars coming out with more cases than any attorney could realistically prepare for.
“So what we end up with is this guessing game,” she said.
Bonfoey said it’s all part of the job.
“Assistant district attorneys have to be very nimble,” he said.
Defendants typically don’t tell the DA’s office how they’re going to plead to charges. Often, the decision isn’t even made until they get to court, Bonfoey said. If a series of defendants plead guilty, cases lower down on the calendar suddenly move up. If someone who might be expected to plead guilty doesn’t, then a case most likely goes to trial.
Forga said that she would like this system to change.
“I would like for plea offers to be made in writing,” she said.
However, the calendar can change for other unforeseen reasons — an officer gets sick, a defense lawyer has a conflict.
“So much of it is not in my control as a district attorney,” Bonfoey said. “We just have to be ready for all of the possibilities, and we generally are.”
Forga said that more can be done, though. Communication is key to effective operations through out the entire court system, Forga said.
“I think the process becomes more efficient when we know who’s on first,” she said. “People have said I don’t have a plan. I do have a plan, but it’s all dealing with the attorney’s goings-on with court.”
But improving DA office operations also would mean taking a step back from Bonfoey’s current role as an advocate for legal change, Forga said. In the wake of Bonnie Woodring’s murder at the Jackson County Reach Shelter, Bonfoey has proposed legislative changes that would bring more funding to shelters to improve security and increase charges for violence on shelter grounds. Forga said that’s not the DA’s job.
“The job of the DA is to fairly and justly administer the laws of the state,” she said.
Forga said that if elected she would no more consider herself an advocate than any other individual.
“My voice alone wouldn’t make anything happen,” she said.
“I guess as District Attorney I’m going to speak on any subject and champion any issue that’s going to help us prevent crime and prevent people from becoming victims,” he said. “In our society we should all do that just as concerned citizens.”
The benefit to the DA’s office is that working as an advocate may in turn reduce the crimes that come through the court system, Bonfoey said.