The results of the May 6 Democratic primary will send either incumbent District Attorney Ron Moore or challenger Todd Williams to the fall election unopposed. Both men are North Carolina natives; both attended UNC Chapel Hill.
Moore has been DA since 1991. In the past several years, however, he’s come under scrutiny in connection with two controversial cases involving local law enforcement. In 2008, former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford was sentenced to 180 months in prison on corruption charges, and in 2011, a partial audit of the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room showed 115 items missing. City Council subsequently ordered a full audit, which Moore has declined to release, citing pending litigation.
“There are a lot of things I can’t talk about,” he says. “I wish I could give you some of it. I’m happy to release it, but I can’t until the case is over. … That’s not the way we conduct ourselves.”
On April 11, Moore debated his challenger in a packed fifth floor courtroom in the Buncombe County Courthouse. During the debate, Moore told Williams, “You’ve never tried a murder case. … If you’re going to stand up here and try death penalty cases, you’ve got to have adequate experience.”
Williams has been a defense attorney for 15 years, nine of them as a local public defender. In a press release, he said: “The office of district attorney should be renowned for its fairness and integrity in pursuit of justice. In seeking justice, the office must safeguard the rights and reputations of the innocent. To regain this reputation and trust, we need new leadership that will demonstrate the highest degree of integrity and professionalism.”
Retired Judge Gary Cash served as moderator. The candidates had two minutes apiece to answer each question.
What are the greatest challenges that you foresee facing the office of 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. … We also have tried to do more things such as add DWI court. We’re looking at adding a domestic violence component. We’re constantly striving to offer more services. …The whole N.C. court system has been underfunded historically. So that’s the biggest challenge. Getting the resources we need.”
Williams: “I believe that the biggest challenge facing the district attorney’s office in the future is to restore public trust and integrity in the criminal justice system here in Buncombe County. … We’ll do that by prosecuting [child abuse, domestic violence and other key] cases and other cases vigorously, reducing the turnaround for victims. It’s a fairness issue for defendants.”
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. … Those cases, where the ultimate punishment is sought, should not be rushed to trial, simply put. … Under my leadership, defendants will have a fair opportunity to prepare for that.”
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 capital cases work. … 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. Again, we’ve got to push to get the labs adequately funded by the legislature. 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.”
How would 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. 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. I would like to broaden out and create some additional specialized courts should the bar or judges be willing to do so. … 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. … Every court that we start requires money. … 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. … It’s all about resources.”
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. A few years ago, we developed a plan all across the state. We had an administrative court where we talk about cases and make plea offers. We communicate with clients. … 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.”
Williams: “I see this as an issue of fairness that could easily be corrected by the bringing of Buncombe County administration of justice into compliance with Chapter 7A. Throughout N.C., every DA’s office publishes a trial order. And for some reason, in this county, that’s never been done. 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.”
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 or the reported theft and tampering with evidence in the Asheville Police Department evidence room?
Moore: “People can allege anything they want, as we know with the media or in a printed motion. … A lot of things I cannot respond to. 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. … I did bring a page from the audit. … I’m happy to release it, but I can’t until the case is over. … It just goes with the territory.”
Williams: “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 the DA position, I’ve heard that the document could not be released due to the process of rights of the federal defendant who was the custodian of the locker room. That, I don’t think, was communicated very effectively with the community and has cast [doubt] all over the integrity of the DA’s office. Under my leadership, I will strive to communicate effectively with the community.”
Where there are allegations of prosecutorial misconduct directed toward the DA’s office — for example, disclosing exculpatory evidence 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 DA. That is an openness — a transparency 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.”
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 again you can allege anything you please. … 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. … 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.”
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: “The 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.”
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. … 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.”
Why should voters elect you as DA?
Williams: “I have committed my career to justice in that for 15 years I have served citizens of N.C. and provided individuals who were brought for prosecution with competent representation. … I understand how specialized court is set up. … 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.”
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. … The DA is leader in court. The DA is a leader to the staff. … 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. … Regardless of any allegations in motion, [the rest of the staff] has watched us work in this courtroom, know the quality of our work, know that we’re one of the best-run DA offices around, know that we have one of the best staffs around — which I am very proud of.”