Security, crime and justice took center stage during a Council of Independent Business Owners breakfast April 1. The Asheville-based trade group’s meeting served as a forum for the three Democratic Buncombe County district attorney candidates: current DA Todd Williams, prosecutor and former Assistant DA Doug Edwards and assistant public defender Courtney Booth.
(Attorney Joe Bowman will appear on the ballot but announced March 14 that he was suspending his campaign to support Booth. No Republicans have filed for the DA race, meaning that whoever wins the Democratic primary Tuesday, May 17, will run unopposed in the general election.)
Among the subjects addressed by the candidates were strategies to reduce violent crime, prosecuting low-level crimes committed by homeless people and criticism that the DA’s office is too lenient on criminals. The relationship between the DA’s office and Asheville Police Department, as well as that between APD and the public, was also a hot topic.
Moderator Buzzy Cannady asked the candidates what they would do to address the increase in violent crime referenced at Asheville City Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting March 30. During that meeting, APD Chief David Zack shared a presentation stating that per-capita violent crime in Asheville had increased 31% from 2016 to 2020.
Edwards touted his prior work on gun violence reduction but also said the DA’s office should restore positive relationships with local law enforcement. “We also have to encourage good policing, and I will hold accountable law enforcement officers who commit misconduct,” he said. “But the district attorney must work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to work hard to reduce crime in our community.”
Booth responded by addressing what she referred to as overpolicing in Black communities and said she did not see the current DA’s office prioritizing reform in that regard. “It happens, because I see it, and I’ve seen it for almost 17 years [as a public defender],” she said, adding that the way Black communities are policed is “predatory.”
Williams focused on what he called “some positives” with regards to crime. “Homicides are flat to down, gun violence is flat to down — actually down 16%. Robberies are down substantially,” he said. He acknowledged that reports of aggravated assaults are up, with 295 reports in 2017 compared to 430 in 2021, according to Zack’s data.
Cannady then asked each candidate to address concerns that the current DA’s office isn’t tough enough on offenders. Booth said Williams’ approach was “still a law-and-order office” but argued that his attitude wasn’t effective.
Booth used the cash bail system as an example, stating it favors people who are wealthier. She cited a young man she had represented who was in jail for eight months under a $15,000 cash bond. “His family was poor — they couldn’t get him out,” she said. A jury trial eventually found the man not guilty.
Edwards reminded the audience that both Williams and Booth come from public defender backgrounds. (Williams served as a public defender for 14 years until his election as DA in 2014.) “If you think the DA’s office is not tough enough now — which I agree with, it’s not — then under Ms. Booth, it would be even more lenient,” Edwards said.
Williams addressed the criticism of his office by stating “It’s important to be tough. … It’s absolutely the job of the District Attorney’s Office, and we’ll continue to do it.”
Cannady also asked the candidates to address “trespassing, vagrancy, open drug use and sales [and] human waste in the doorways every morning,” issues he associated with the area’s homeless population. He asked whether each candidate would prosecute individuals “who break the law in this manner.”
“Yes. We will and we have,” Williams responded, before referencing issues with local law enforcement. He said he had spoken with judges about a letter Zack had sent him in December, in which the ADP chief had complained about the DA’s office dismissing thousands of charges for trespassing, solicitation and other low-level crimes.
Those judges, Williams continued, had complained that police officers rarely came to court to provide evidence in those nuisance crime cases. “We’re only as good in court as No. 1, the law, and No. 2, the evidence, because everyone who’s charged with a crime has to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
Edwards said he would also prosecute crimes that impact business owners. He then criticized Williams’ responses by claiming too many cases were being dismissed before judges could even consider them.
“We can pass the buck to the judges or to law enforcement for not enforcing the law or a judge telling [he] would like to see officers in court,” he said. “But there’s no reason for the officer being in court for that case if the case isn’t on the docket.”
Booth said she disagreed with prosecuting homeless people for Class 3 misdemeanors such as littering or urinating in public. “You’re not going to get anywhere by taking a homeless person who urinated in public and locking them in the county jail for 20 days,” she said.
While such people were in jail, Booth continued, “they’re going to lose all of their belongings, lose any place they perhaps were staying. And they’re going to start from scratch all over again — not that they had anything hardly to begin with in the first place.”