Buncombe County District Attorney debate: Challenging questions before May 6 primary election

Challenging opponent Todd Williams (left) and incumbent District Attorney Ron Moore (right) debated in front of a packed courtroom on April 11. (Mountain Xpress/Hayley Benton)
Challenging opponent Todd Williams (left) and incumbent District Attorney Ron Moore (right) debated in front of a packed courtroom on April 11. (Mountain Xpress/Hayley Benton)

In front of a crowded, chandeliered courtroom on the fifth floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse, incumbent District Attorney Ron Moore fought for the continuation of his elected position in a debate with challenger Todd Williams on Friday, April 11.

Three debates were held during the evening: a debate between Moore and Williams for District Attorney, a position that Moore has held for the past 24 years; a debate for the position of District Court Judge, between current Judge Ed Clontz, J. Matthew Martin and J. Thomas Amburgey; and a debate for Superior Court Clerk.

Retired Judge Gary Cash moderated the debates and reminded the audience that Tuesday, May 6, is the primary election, in which one of the two democratic candidates will move on to reelection unopposed, encouraging everyone in attendance to participate.

Following Cash’s questions, the candidate had two minutes to answer. The opposing candidate then had two minutes to respond to the other’s thoughts.

Here’s the full-length audio recording of the District Attorney debate and the District Court Judge debate (which starts around 38:00). The transcription below is not the entire text from the debate, but it covers a reasonable majority.

Cash: Mr. Moore, what are the greatest challenges that you foresee facing the office of the District Attorney in the foreseeable future, and how do you plan to meet those challenges?

Moore: Well, it was always resources. When I first started as DA, we had six assistant DAs, and [we are] now blessed to have 15. But we continue to have more and more cases. Buncombe County has gone from 160,000 to a quarter of a million people since I’ve been DA, as has the state with the same percentage. So we continue to need more resources.

We also have tried to do more things such as add DWI court. We’re looking at adding a domestic-violence component to the Department of Social Services soon. We’re constantly striving to offer more services with the Department of Resources.

I’ve been to Raleigh many times, trying to make the system better, trying to get more help. Just recently we signed the agreement with Park Ridge Hospital to test the blood in DWI [cases] so we can try to catch up on our backlog.

The whole North Carolina court system has been underfunded historically. It has been. It used to be 3 percent of the budget, and now it’s down to around two. So that’s the biggest challenge — getting the resources that we need.

I’d want to thank the commissioners for building the building. We now have a space. Now we need the personnel and the equipment. This forum needs wireless. We have electronic discovery. We need wireless in here so that we can access the electronic discovery information [while] sitting in the courtroom. We don’t have the ability to do that right now, and we don’t have the paper files anymore.

So, things like that. Just getting the technology, being able to do our work, getting the personnel. We lost three people this year in the legislative and legal system, both cutbacks. So we need help to provide services, so that if you come to the DA’s office, you have somebody that you can talk to that has a minute to talk to you, so we can staff reports adequately, deal with the public, and continue to deal with the more and more work and changes in laws that we have to deal with every day.

Williams: I believe that the biggest challenge facing the District Attorney’s office in the future is to restore public trust and integrity in prosecutions in the criminal justice system here in Buncombe County.

This past week, for instance, I received the endorsement of Dr. Olson Huff. Dr. Huff is a nationally renowned pediatrician, and the Olson Huff Center at Mission Children’s Clinic is where investigations for child abuse and sex offense occur. Dr. Huff stated to me that he felt the turnaround for child abuse cases is lagging, and it’s time for a change. Dr. Huff’s belief is that the DA’s office is not prosecuting child abuses vigorously enough at this juncture.

We need to restore the integrity of the DA’s office. We’ll do that by prosecuting these cases and other cases vigorously, reducing the turnaround for victims, and also it’s a fairness issue for defendants. I believe that’s the biggest issue facing the DA’s office in the future.

Cash: Now Mr. Williams, I’ll direct this question at you. What is your position regarding the speedy trial of capital cases?

Williams: Capital cases are extremely complex. Capital cases involve numerous experts. They’re very expensive to bring to trial. Capital cases require second counsel. They require an engaging expert. They require, very often, psychiatric expertise, in addition to other experts in forensic sciences. Those cases, obviously, the Supreme Court has said, “Death is different.” Those cases, where the ultimate punishment is sought, should not be rushed to trail, simply put.

That’s a fairness issue, and under my leadership, defendants will, should capital punishment be sought, defendants will have a fair opportunity to prepare for trial.

Moore: Well, first, you’ve never tried a murder case. And you’re not qualified to sit first chair as a defense lawyer because you’ve never tried a murder. So I’ll tell you how the capital cases work.

In this county, we’ve tried many capital cases. I’ve stood right here in front of this jury box and asked for death a hundred times. The biggest problem in death cases right now is resources, where again are backed up by the lab. It takes years to get DNA. Nobody is rushing death penalty cases to trial. And I’m curious, Mr. Williams, when you get a chance, if you would actually seek the death penalty in a case since your record is being morally opposed to it.

But anyway, nobody’s rushing anybody. Back when I first got in office, we actually tried death cases six, eight, 10 months. Now it’s usually two years if we’re lucky because we’re waiting on stuff from the lab. You can’t get DNA. You can’t get rape kits back because the lab is backed up. Again, we’ve got to continue to push, as a prosecutor, to get the labs adequately funded by the legislature. Until we do that, you’ll have plenty of time to get ready.

The question is, more importantly, if you’re going to stand up here and try death penalty cases or murder cases, you’ve got to have adequate experience. The folks in my office that try them, we have a training regimen. You start out trying misdemeanor appeals that are a little bit more serious, then you sit in the chair as a relief counsel on death penalty cases. [Assistant District Attorney] Kate Dreher and I have probably tried as many as anybody in the state in the last 20 years.

But you’ve got to have some ability to know how to nurture and foster young attorneys so that they have the skills and the knowledge and be available for them to be able to know what to do in a death penalty case.

Cash: Mr. Moore, should the DA’s office provide discovery in the District Court cases in the general practice?

Moore: Again, that would be absolutely a resource issue. But are you talking about the felony cases or the district?

Cash: All District Court cases.

Moore: Well, all District Court cases, no, because we don’t have discovery. Police officers don’t bring us anything. Most things you see in a District Court case when we open and show up with a citation, with a warrant, that’s about all we know about it. So we don’t have any discovery to give. It’s a rare case when we have any discovery.

I’m reasonably satisfied with the lawyers who go in to talk to the assistant DAs about what the case may be about, but we do literally hundreds of thousands of cases in District Court every year, whether it’s a speeding ticket, whether it’s driving with a license revoked. And the lawyers in those courts know they have the ability to come to our office and have a driver’s license print out and know [what] the status of their clients’ licenses are and know why they’re revoked, or what their penalty may be for driving drunk for their second or third offense in so many years.

So again, it would be a resource issue for anything we did have, but for most of the District Court cases there are, there’s no information provided from law enforcement other than what’s in the files that show up in public files.

Williams: Well, this is a fairness issue. Discovery is not only provided to folks who are prosecuted in Superior Court and District Court and felony matters. However, quite frequently, misdemeanor prosecutions are extremely important to the defendants that are brought before prosecution in Buncombe County court.

I have been in contact with an individual who was prosecuted. And I believe he was prosecuted to jury trial here on misdemeanor child abuse, in this courtroom. And he ultimately lost his job as assistant principal here in Buncombe County.

Discovery in misdemeanor cases is essential to ensure fairness and allow defendants: No. 1, the opportunity to prepare a defense in District Court rather than be tried by ambush, and No. 2, perhaps, reach settlement and conserve judicial resources.

So under my leadership, where possible, we will institute a misdemeanor discovery program.

Cash: Mr. Williams, how do you believe your approach to running the office of DA if you were elected would differ from that of your opponent?

Williams: First of all, I want to create a supportive, team environment among the assistants in the office. I want my assistants to feel they have discretion to do what they need to as they work their doctrine in court, and in addition to that, I will continue the policies that work in the DA office.

I want to say right now that this DA has done a good job in starting adult drug treatment court and DWI treatment court. In addition to that, I would like to broaden out and create some additional specialized courts should the bar or the judges or other participants in the system be willing to do so.

I believe that a veterans treatment court is essential to provide the needs of veterans who have suffered traumatic brain injury, PTSD, have other specialized needs, having been to serve overseas, suffered injuries, went into combat.

I’ve talked to police officers who’ve stated they’re seeing petty crime, homelessness and other issues that can be alleviated. I hope we can bring some mental health professionals into our system and increase our public safety through our expansion of specialized treatment courses.

Moore: We have nuisance court. We have domestic violence court. We put all those cases in the same court every Wednesday. We did that years and years ago. …

[About veterans’ court:] There’s finally apparently money available from the feds to start such a court. Every court we start requires money. All of you know we have special days for different courts on different days. Frequently we have to hire a special judge to come in and hold that court and replace the regular judge. …

We’re getting ready to start a special domestic violence court, if you will. It’s rolling out probably in the middle of May. … What we’re going to do is wind up having violence assessments of people and decide who should be in this court. And if they make bond, they’ll be wearing GPS monitors.

All the specialized courts are great, but it takes clerks. Every time we do an extra court, [we have to find another clerk, and we’re] perpetually short-handed. … I have to have [an assistant] DA. The public defender has to somebody who’s got the time to go to a special court because every day we run somewhere between three and six courts here in this system. Every day there are three district criminal courts. Every Wednesday there’s a fourth one. Sometimes we’re running two Superior Courts. It’s all about resources.

Cash: Mr. Moore, regarding the issue of the calendaring of Superior Court criminal cases by the DA office, what is your opinion on whether this system should continue as it is or change in any manner?

Moore: Well, I believe the DA should still patrol the calendar. Here’s the issue: Of course, here in this county, most of our calendars now have five to 10 cases. In the old days, there were places where you had hundreds of cases on the Superior Court calendar every Monday — just because that was the nature of the beast.

A few years ago we developed a plan all across the state. Judge Winter and I [and others], we developed a calendar plan. We had an administrative court, where we talk about cases and make plea offers. We help communicate with the clients. We set plea dates. Eventually we get a trial calendar. Most of our trial calendars are five to 10 days.

There’s nobody sitting out in the other side of the bar that wants to run in here and have a trial. Most of the time you continue the case every time you get a chance because your client’s not ready for a trial, because bad things happen if they’re convicted. The best thing will be if they get probation, have to pay money, have to work, have to have debt checks and so on and so forth.

The only person in the whole system who wants to push things to trial is the DA because we have thousands of cases coming in every year. We have 46 or 47 weeks of court in this room. We have 2-3,000 court cases every year. So we’re the ones who want to push.

A judge from another county does not care if my docket gets down to a manageable size or whether it doubles or triples. We have to manage it.

We give you, we tell you, we talk to you the week before, which one’s first, second or third for trial. Sometimes things break down. If the bar wants that, I’m happy to do that. Be advised, I’m going to have to stick to it.

Williams: As DA, I see this as an issue of fairness that could easily be corrected by the bringing of Buncombe County administration of justice in compliance with chapter 7A. Throughout North Carolina in the districts that I practiced in, every DA’s office publishes a trial order. And for some reason, in this county, that’s never been done.

Again, I think it’s an issue of fundamental fairness to provide the defense counsel an opportunity to know and understand when witnesses need to be present. This is also for the convenience of the victims, so they can understand. …

It’s just a simple organizational tool that should be utilized, and it’s also the law. The law is to guarantee fairness. I will bring the DA office within the ambit of chapter 7A of the general statutes and comply with that law that requires the DA to publish a trial order.

Cash: Mr. Williams, do you have any particular thoughts on posing any term limits on the office of District Attorney?

Williams: Twenty-four years from now, I will be 68. I will not seek re-election at age 68. So uh, no I don’t have specific thoughts about term limits for the office of district attorney.

Moore: I think the public is the term limit every four years when they decide whether or not you did a good job. …

Cash: Mr. Moore, what is the duty of the DA when it comes to allegations of public corruption within his or her prosecutorial district such as in the case of Sheriff Bobby Medford here in Buncombe County for the reported theft and tampering with evidence in the Asheville Police Department evidence room?

Moore: First I’m going to read something real quick.

A bunch of folks have been sued … People can allege anything they want, as we know with the media or in a printed motion. Now, a few years ago there was something printed that I was part of the cartel. I was worried when I got a phone call about that. I was stunned. … But anyway, a lot of things I cannot respond to. A lot of things for 24 years, I have taken my lumps. I will continue to do that. If you’re the DA or any other elected official, you’ll have to do that too. Because there are a lot of things that I can’t talk about. I have a lot in my head. I wish I could give you some of it. I would love to, but I’m not allowed.

I did bring a page from the audit. Here’s one of the 15 volumes of the audit. I’ve read every page of it. … But there’s a lot of stuff in there. I’m happy to release it, but I can’t until the case is over. … That’s not the way we conduct ourselves. You know, there are rumors and there are innuendos.

I’ve put a lot of drug dealers in jail. I’ve had lots of relatives and mothers walk out of here and cuss at me. It just goes with the territory.

I hunt, fish, take my daughter to ballet and work.

Wiliams: As DA, I’ll do the best I can to avoid allegations of public corruption, No. 1. No. 2, in regards to the evidence locker, there I contend there is a public perception that the documents specifically have not been released for an unknown reason. Since I filed for this DA position, I’ve heard that the document could not be released due to the due process of rights of the federal defendant who was the custodian of the locker room. That, I don’t think, was communicated effectively with the community and has cast [doubt] all over the integrity of the district attorney’s office.

Under my leadership, I will strive to communicate effectively with the community. If there is an issue regarding an evidence locker room, I will be on the forefront of communicating with the community to ensure the integrity of our systems.

Cash: Mr. Williams, where there are allegations of prosecutorial misconduct directed toward the DA’s office — for example, disclosing exculpatory or failing to prevent witness intimidation on law enforcement — what response to those allegations is most productive?

Williams: I will admit the mistake and move forward as your district attorney. That is an openness. A transparency of an issue. This is what I’ll bring. I’ll bring a new perspective to the office. The integrity of our system requires a swift response to problems, if there [was] prosecutorial misconduct, and I’ll strive to make sure there is no misconduct, of course. I will, as DA, take rapid action to address that.

And if that means bringing convicted defendants back to court for a new trial, a new hearing, a resentencing, I will do that. That will be a victory for our community. There’s no point in a fight about illegal convictions. The only way to obtain a conviction under the Constitution is without the taint of prosecutorial misconduct in evidence or in any circumstance.

Moore: I’m going to assume you haven’t read the 10,000 or so pages from the Innocence Commission case, and you would see that again you can allege anything you please because there’s a lot in there about who got DNA or what they did or did not do with it.

Now, just going briefly back to the transparency issue, in your flier you say that the evidence room — the city of Asheville commissioned an audit on the evidence room after the manager pled guilty. I’m the one that made them do an audit. Based on the audit, I’ve got the SBI and the FBI, and we were able to do the prosecution over in federal court.

Now if you read rule 3.6, you have a duty not to have stuff in [the] press about a pending case. Again, the Innocence Commission case I could talk about for two hours, however we’ve got pending litigation. …

Again, I’m frequently hamstrung about what I can say, but go read the 10,000 pages and then come sit down and talk to me.

Cash: Mr. Moore, what ethical issues arise, if any, for a DA in cooperating with the various law enforcement agencies in ones’ district. … What’s the proper ethical boundaries between the DA office and the law enforcement offices?

Moore: A DA’s duty, by law, is to advise law enforcement. That’s what we’ve done for years. They ask us for advice. They call us in the middle of the night. We help them do search warrants, and so on and so forth.

Every lawyer sitting in here that practices law on a regular basis, especially the drug cases that brought their clients into our office. We had the drug officer there. I sat in on the meeting. And the lawyers want us to talk to their clients to see if they can help themselves. Law enforcement asks our advice. Sometimes they ask us to be present. We try to give them good advice.

Williams: I want to create a law firm culture in the DA office. I will not see myself as a “top cop” as the DA is sometimes referred to. I want [Buncombe County Sheriff] Van Duncan to have complete control without interference from my office. Or the police chief or special agent in charge. They investigate. I am a resource to them. I think it only muddies the cases for the DA to get too closely involved with law enforcement.

Under my leadership there will be a blurring of lines as much as possible. I want to create a law firm environment within the office. I don’t want there to be any confusion. I will serve as an attorney, as the district attorney.

Cash: Gentlemen, as a final question, I’ll direct it at you first, Mr. Williams. Why should voters elect you as DA with particular reference to your history as an attorney representing criminal defendants as opposed to a prosecutor?

Williams: Well, I was looking at the rules of professional conduct today, and they had in the preamble, the very first sentence says, “a lawyer is an individual committed to justice.” I have committed my career to justice in that for 15 years I have served citizens of North Carolina and assisted them in the United States Constitution. And provided individuals who were brought for prosecution with competent representation. I have represented thousands of people. I served as a public defender liaison in adult drug treatment court for years. I understand how specialized court is set up.

Moreover I’ve been able to practice all over Western North Carolina. I have the perspective of having created close, collaborative relationships with a number of different DA offices. I have the experience over 15 years to handle this job. And for that reason, I am confident, and I am capable, and I’m asking for your vote May 6.

Cash: Mr. Moore, same question. Why should voters elect you to continue as district attorney?

Moore: For 23-plus years, I have stood in this courtroom and handled everything that came through. All the way from criminal cases through capital murder. I’ve prosecuted, as I said earlier, lord knows how many cases in front of the jury. The first year I was in office, we once tried three murder cases in 12 days. We tried 10 or 11 the first six months I was in office in the first year.

The DA is a leader in court. The DA is a leader to the staff. I’m an administrator to 35 people that work for me, give or take one, [so] you have to have some administrative experience, you have to have some trial experience to lead the DA’s office. You have no trial experience with serious cases. You’ve never tried a murder case.

Ron Payne, Forrest Ferrell, Judge Downs, Dennis Winner, those are four judges who have sat in this courtroom days, and weeks, and hours and watched what my office has done in 23 years. Watched what my staff has done. They have all endorsed Van Duncan, the sheriff, Jerry VeHaun as the head of emergency management. …

You’ve seen the letters that have gone out from the highway patrol. The officers with 30 years experience, the homicide detectives, the serious felony detectives, the head of the SBI, David Barnes … these are the people who know our work, they know what we do, regardless of any agenda, regardless of any allegations in the paper … regardless of any allegations in motion, they have watched us work in this courtroom, know the quality of our work, know that we’re one of the best run DA’s offices around, know that we have one of the best staffs around — which I am very proud of. Thank you.

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About Hayley Benton
Staff reporter, Clubland editor, coffee drinker, guitar player.

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