“A lawyer is an individual committed to justice,” Todd Williams declared during a debate with longtime Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore in April 2014. “For 15 years, I have served citizens of North Carolina and the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
In a hotly contested Democratic primary, Williams defeated Moore, the 24-year incumbent, by a large margin, garnering 68 percent of the vote. He then faced a challenge from Ben Scales, a local attorney specializing in marijuana defenses and entertainment law. Collecting nearly 8,000 petition signatures, Scales won a spot on the November ballot as an independent. Yet Williams once again prevailed handily, claiming 63 percent of the vote. He was sworn in as DA on Jan. 1.
During the campaign, Williams promised to bring fairness, rule of law and “a new perspective to the office,” vowing to “restore public trust and integrity in prosecutions in the criminal justice system here in Buncombe County.”
Mountain Xpress sat down with Williams recently to talk about what he’s doing to carry out those promises, what’s going well and what the challenges are after six months on the job. Here are excerpts from that interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Mountain Xpress: During the campaign, you said you wanted to bring both change and continuity to the district attorney’s office. What has changed, and what’s stayed the same?
Todd Williams: Well, [the recent expunction clinic] is part of my vision for broadening the definition of what our office supports in the community. In addition, we’ve forged ahead with the child advocacy center, something that I identified pretty early on in the campaign. Buncombe County had a child advocacy center probably up until about 1990 or so. The core of a child advocacy center is a multidisciplinary team composed of law enforcement officers, lawyers, prosecutors, DSS social workers and investigators, medical professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists. The multidisciplinary team meets during the investigatory interview with the victim, and the idea is that the center works to reduce the number of interviews and contacts that ask the child to revisit the trauma. You know, if you break all of those [agencies] apart, you might have six, seven, a dozen interviews of a child: ‘Who touched you? Where did they touch you? How many times did they touch you? Did it hurt?’ The idea is to get that done all in one interview. It reduces trauma.
Will the center be up and running soon?
We’re working on it. We had a transition in the Child Abuse Prevention Services office, and it’s not clear what role they’ll have. It’s a nonprofit, and Geoff Sidoli was just appointed executive director. We have a memorandum of understanding that will govern how child abuse cases will be handled, and I wanted his input, because CAPS is going to be a real player.
The second piece is the Family Justice Center, which just appointed its director and will probably come online in 2016. It’s still sort of in flux as to whether the advocacy center will actually be housed in the Family Justice Center. But I think the piece the DA’s office is most concerned about is how the cases are put together and how the interviews with minors are done.
The other big, exciting change is Veterans Treatment Court, which had its inaugural calendar call July10. For the first time, we’re taking people with dual diagnoses into the program. In the past, those cases have been untouchable: The only option was to prosecute them, because there were too many issues. But in conjunction with the VA and the services they offer, the idea is that we take folks into this program at an early stage, identify what their issues are, get them on track in a real treatment modality, while criminal sanctions are hanging over their head. They’ve already pleaded guilty; they know they’re going to prison if they don’t comply. But the carrot is, they get this treatment, and if they complete Veterans Treatment Court, they get the charge dismissed. And if they’re eligible, they can come to the expungement clinic and get the charge removed from their record.
That could be a really powerful tool.
Really powerful. These are vets who have served our country overseas, who’ve been wounded, and I think they deserve special treatment.
In the past, there’s been some reluctance to establish a lot of special courts, largely because of cost, staffing, etc. How are you addressing those challenges?
The Governor’s Crime Commission has identified Buncombe County as a “catchment area.” There’s another Veterans Treatment Court down near Fayetteville, for obvious reasons; we have this VA Hospital here in Asheville. Once this gets off the ground, the goal is to serve as a Veterans Treatment Court not just for Buncombe County, but for Western North Carolina. Somebody down in Raleigh, someone in the federal government, has determined that it’s a good idea and that, ultimately, it will probably give us some cost savings.
So potentially, the Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court would be serving an area extending all the way to Cherokee County?
Right now it’s hard to know. I think, most immediately, neighboring counties (Haywood, Henderson, Madison) are probably the ones we’d branch out to first. But we don’t know what our demand is going to be.
How would that work?
A judge and a DA will have to screen the case through our Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court. I believe the defendant will have to agree to be supervised here in Buncombe County.
Because we haven’t confronted all these issues, I can’t go into great detail about it yet. But I think it’s something we can find a way to do.
Did Ron Moore ever actually create the domestic violence court he campaigned on? You recently proposed a domestic violence unit: Is that a replacement for the domestic violence court?
No, [the previous administration] put all of the domestic violence cases in one courtroom, on Wednesdays. What we’re trying to do, with the county’s assistance, is create a domestic violence trial unit which will include two prosecutors rather than one, and two victim’s witness legal assistants. That’s our proposal: One more of each, and a dedicated investigator who prepares these cases for trial. Right now, you’ve got an ADA and a victim’s witness legal assistant who are constantly running, doing two things at once all day long. That leaves very little opportunity to interact with victims.
The biggest obstacle to prosecuting these cases is keeping the victims in court, especially if you have a full docket, you don’t get to a case by the end of the day, and the case is continued. Someone’s missed work; they have to come back. Our domestic violence trial unit is aiming to improve contact with victims, improve their support.
With whom are you partnering on the project?
We will probably put a victim’s witness legal assistant and maybe an investigator over in the Family Justice Center. Helpmate, I think, will have offices there. So we’ll have folks in the building who can be in contact with victims and know what’s happening in these cases at the earliest possible point, rather than just getting a file 30 days later.
When folks appear in court and it’s really contentious, that’s got a really poor aura about it. A lot of folks are obviously not happy about what they’ve been charged with, and a lot of folks aren’t happy about having to confront their abusers. Others are reunified with whoever they abused. They want dismissals; they want all this set aside. There’s so many conflicting emotions in that courtroom that it undermines a victim’s resolve to prosecute.
Have you had a chance to dig into case files and establish some other priorities for this term as DA? What’s next?
We are clearing cases constantly. We began with trying to identify which folks have spent the most time in jail: There were several people who had confinement periods of over 1,000 days. Those were the cases we thought were most pressing. We are certainly prioritizing around the age of the case and the seriousness of the matter.
What have you done to increase transparency in the DA’s office and improve communication with the community?
What can I say? I have a Twitter account, I have a Facebook page, I’m talking to Mountain Xpress, I’m talking to WLOS, I did a half-hour sit-down with WCQS, I’ve been on Asheville FM.
So your approach has mostly been to be more personally available?
I try to be responsive to the media as well as to the community. Yes, sir. But it is kind of cheesy to say, “I have a Twitter account.”
In your eyes, what is Ron Moore’s legacy?
Ultimately, that is most properly answered by, perhaps, the media or the public. But he was district attorney for 24 years, and that’s a remarkable achievement. And I’ll just say, I think the legacy is still developing.
How does it impact you to be the next DA?
(Laughs) Well, obviously, when you run for something like this, you have an idea about what you’re getting into, but in terms of the meat and potatoes, it’s a shock to the system to be the DA. To run the public relations operations in addition to prosecuting cases, and to be on call during the night to give advice to law enforcement. It’s certainly been a big transition from legal work, where I could sit down in my comfy chair and put on my reading glasses to slog through the discovery of the evening. This is a more constantly on call kind of job. But being the first new DA in 24 years has an upside, too. I think a lot of people are very excited, and it’s certainly exciting to me. So there’s a lot of work, it’s hard, but I’m enjoying it.
Ron Moore was known as a guy who’d sit down with young people charged with crimes and “scare them straight.” Do you meet with young people who’ve broken the law, to try to change their ways?
I haven’t done that. I am not foreclosed to it, if a parent thinks it might make an impact. I don’t know if my personality is really conducive to that: I’m a lawyer, and I think our work should be done largely in the courtroom.
Going around to schools, talking to folks in appropriate forums about how they can get in trouble via sexting or DWI or domestic violence issues, that’s certainly part of the job description. But sitting somebody down and scolding them? No, we haven’t done that.
But Moore definitely had an impact, probably changed some folks for the better. He probably did some good work through those sessions.
Tammy Hooper is slated to start work July 20 as Asheville’s new police chief. How do you anticipate her leadership will affect your office?
I’ve talked to some folks at APD, and they seem excited about her. The impression she’s given many is that she’s a hard worker and very intelligent. She seems to be the kind of person who might be able to provide the attention the department needs, which is to focus on internal policies and procedures. That’s the message I’ve been receiving from folks at APD.
And we certainly want to construct the best possible relationship with the leader of that department, so I look forward to her starting, and any way that I can assist her, I will.
Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan endorsed Ron Moore. What’s been your experience working with the Sheriff’s Department so far?
They’re just consummate professionals, and Van is as well. I am really impressed: They’re working some very difficult cases, and I feel they’re doing very good work. They’re a friendly, professional group.
You just finished your first murder case that was sentenced: the Gary Jenkins case.
Actually “Pat” Patton handled that. In regard to the question about continuity and change, Pat is one of the pieces of continuity: He’s been with the office for, I want to say, 22 years.
He was the only DA handling it. And it was a hard case in that, apparently, both the victim and the defendant were drunk, and it was [a deadly assault situation]. Getting to first-degree murder under facts like that would be hard. I will say, in the hearing, it looked like Mr. Jenkins was truly remorseful. He gave what we call a statement of elocution that looked like a real heartfelt statement. Anyway, he pleaded guilty and took a 24- to 30-year plea.
What would be triggers for you for seeking the death penalty?
The triggers are identified under N.C. statutes 15A-2000. You have to have some of those aggravating factors present.
But if those conditions exist…
Yes, it is in the DA’s discretion. A common capital aggravator is ‘extraordinarily heinous, atrocious and cruel,’ like a torture situation.
What about your personal take on the death penalty?
I have lots of personal feelings about the law: This came up repeatedly during the campaign in regard to marijuana. We really need to enforce the law, and in an appropriate case, we will seek the death penalty.