Candidates for Buncombe Count District Attorney

While incumbent District Attorney Todd Williams claimed 62 percent of the vote when he faced then-unaffiliated candidate Ben Scales in the 2014 DA general election race, Scales says things will be different this time around. For one thing, Scales is challenging Williams as a Democrat, which Scales says gives him a better basis for an effective campaign.

Since no candidates have filed to run as Republicans or independents, the winner of the Democratic primary will gain the general election victory as well.

As might be expected, Williams is running on his four-year record as DA, citing improvements in the efficiency of the office in moving cases through the system. He says he’s also launched diversion programs to help those who need treatment for drug addiction or who are minors to receive rehabilitation services rather than punishment. 

Scales, meanwhile, says Williams hasn’t delivered on promises he made during the last campaign and that he dragged his feet on charging former Asheville Police officer Chris Hickman with a crime. Williams saw police body camera footage of Hickman’s interaction with city resident Johnnie Rush shortly after the Aug. 25 incident. But Williams didn’t bring charges against Hickman, Scales says, until public outcry following the release of the video put pressure on the DA.

Scales also says he’ll stop prosecuting cases for adult possession of marijuana if elected, calling such cases “insignificant crimes.”

Click on the name of a candidate to jump down to their responses:

Ben Scales

Experience: Defense attorney

Website: www.scalesforda.com

Endorsements: Asheville City Council member Brian Haynes, Asheville City Council member Sheneika Smith, local activist Nicole Townsend, local attorney Victoria Jayne, local activist Dewana Little, community leader DeWayne Barton, elementary school teacher Paige Duft, middle school teacher Elzy Lindsey, 103.3 FM founding member Kim Roney

The Netherlands

Name three actions taken by the District Attorney’s Office in the last four years that have had a direct impact (either good or bad) on citizens in Buncombe County. Why are these actions significant? 1. Williams attempted to privatize the pretrial diversion program for low level offenses – another example of the “guilty-until-proven-wealthy” mindset that permeates Williams’ office. 2. Williams’ office lied about consulting with  officers in case with career criminal Ronald Patton, offering plea deal for time served. Patton had been arrested after using officer’s taser. Rather than prosecuting Patton as habitual offender, the DA’s office mishandled the case, ruptured trust with police, and lied to the Court. 3. Williams opposed  releasing other officers’ body cam videos in the Johnnie Rush case in court filings and arguments, further covering up misdeeds of Officer Hickman and other officers that night.

What qualities should a good district attorney have? And how do you demonstrate them? A good DA heals and empowers community, focusing on serious crime and ending mass incarceration. This is achieved by ending cash bail for nonviolent crimes and the “guilty until proven wealthy” mindset, cracking down on police and prosecutorial corruption, and restoring trust throughout the courts, law enforcement and the community. This role can protect our land and people, like prosecuting those who profit from opioid addiction and holding corporate polluters accountable by prosecuting environmental cases in the state court system. Nationwide, progressive DAs are making rapid change through this county-level position that closely affects our daily lives. Let’s bring it home.

Citizens in Buncombe County have cast widespread criticism on local government institutions in the wake of the revelation that an Asheville Police Department officer beat an African-American Asheville resident in August 2017. A great deal of this criticism has to do with the response taken by officials after the incident. Do you think the District Attorney’s Office did enough to ensure the incident entered the judicial process within a reasonable timeframe? No, the incident wouldn’t have entered the judicial process whatsoever if Hickman’s video hadn’t been leaked. After being called out for his inaction by citizens speaking at the March CPAC meeting and my statements to press, Williams was publicly forced to prosecute Hickman. He had the same information in August as in March when charges were finally made ― without excuse for delay. His inaction brought undue media attention to the case, making it difficult to try Hickman in Buncombe County. The flames of passion and outrage have now further damaged the already tenuous relationship between APD and Asheville’s communities of color.

Todd Williams

Experience: Defense attorney, one-term incumbent

Website: www.toddwilliamsforda.com

Endorsements: State Sen. Terry Van Duyn, Sheriff Van Duncan, Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, Dr. Olson Huff, Clerk of Court Steven Cogburn, WNC Central Labor Council, former Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell

Todd Williams headshot

Name three actions taken by the District Attorney’s Office in the last four years that have had a direct impact (either good or bad) on citizens in Buncombe County. Why are these actions significant? 1. Initiated court diversion programs to offer restorative justice and rehabilitation. Diversion services are free of charge and designed to place offenders on a path to recovery without the stigma of criminal conviction. 2. Ordered investigations of Wanda Greene and police. Government must be held accountable for violations of the law to maintain public trust. 3. Initiated new programs for victims. The Family Justice Center offers a safe place where victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse receive wraparound services. The Mountain Child Advocacy Center uses a multidisciplinary strategy to protect children and reduce trauma.

What qualities should a good district attorney have? And how do you demonstrate them? I offer depth of experience and vision as your district attorney. I represented defendants at every level in court for 15 years as a public defender and capital defender. I am a board-certified specialist in criminal law. As DA, I have checked the abuse of power and prosecuted heinous crimes. I created new programs so that the courthouse offers not only punishment but recovery and opportunity through court diversion. We created wraparound services for vulnerable victims of violent crime through the Child Advocacy and Family Justice Centers. We have restored integrity and true justice to the DA’s office.

Citizens in Buncombe County have cast widespread criticism on local government institutions in the wake of the revelation that an Asheville Police Department officer beat an African-American Asheville resident in August 2017. A great deal of this criticism has to do with the response taken by officials after the incident. Do you think the District Attorney’s Office did enough to ensure the incident entered the judicial process within a reasonable timeframe? A DA must guarantee procedural justice in all cases. Charging decisions must be informed by facts presented in a criminal investigation. APD’s failure to immediately disclose the need for criminal investigation of its officer delayed justice. Within two days following receipt of the investigatory file and after due consideration of facts and law, I made a charging decision. I further proposed a policy that all police 1) immediately report suspicion of criminal activity by officers to the DA’s Office and 2) immediately join the DA’s Office in requesting SBI investigation. No more “self-investigation.” My office vigorously prosecutes criminal charges.*

*Williams requested that Xpress include the following statement with his answer, which Williams said the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers requires prosecutors to make when discussing a criminal charge in the media: “A charge is merely an allegation and is not evidence of guilt. All defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.”

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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