If this year’s primary race for Buncombe County district attorney seems a bit familiar, that could be because it’s happened before. After then-defense attorney Todd Williams upset six-term officeholder Ron Moore in the 2014 Democratic primary (with no Republicans or Libertarians competing), Ben Scales collected nearly 8,000 signatures to get on the general election ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.
In the end, Williams claimed 62 percent of the vote while Scales managed 38 percent.
When Williams decided to take on Moore, Scales told Xpress he had been interested in doing the same but was pressured not to run in the primary to give Williams a better shot at their shared goal of unseating Moore (see “Signature Events: Scales, Knight Mount Petition Drives in DA Race,” June 4, 2014). He also said he felt law enforcement should be nonpartisan and that he didn’t “agree enough with either of the major two political parties to affiliate with them.”
Despite what he may have thought four years ago, Scales decided to run as a Democrat in 2018, saying, “I didn’t have a party backing me, and my opponent did. This time I’ve got a much better team and I’m running in the primary. Neither of us have anything beside our names on the ballot.”
This time around, Scales is running even more explicitly from the left. Buncombe County, he says, deserves a progressive DA who is willing to “take on the tough issues, to take on corporate defendants, to focus on crimes that matter the most and to develop and rebuild relationships in the courthouse and between law enforcement that have been broken over the past 3 1/2 years.”
In addition to the priorities Scales lists in his candidate questionnaire, he also aims to increase personnel diversity in the DA’s office and go after environmental crime. He says he wants to improve plea deals to make them hard to turn down, thereby reducing the number of cases going to trial, and he’d like to set up more resources for victims of crimes and witnesses navigating the legal system.
He outlines a plan to install an online portal to help people follow cases to completion. “I think that we need to have more transparency in that office,” he says.
While pursuing those objectives, Scales says he will push aside “insignificant crimes.” He doesn’t plan to change his stance on marijuana. “I won’t prosecute adult possession of marijuana for personal use at all,” he says. “The district attorney has full authority to prosecute cases according to the … priorities of the office. And it’s not going to be a priority in my office to prosecute those cases.”
Constraints of the office
As the incumbent, Williams is running from a different position than last election, and that’s a double-edged sword. For instance, Scales has criticized Williams’ handling of the ex-Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman case, in which Williams announced felony assault charges against Hickman on March 8. Since Williams saw enough in police body camera footage from Aug. 25 to immediately dismiss charges against Johnnie Rush (the Asheville resident who was beaten by Hickman), Williams should have immediately initiated a criminal investigation, Scales says.
Meanwhile, Scales concedes that Williams has limited ability to respond to concerns about the case: “He can’t say anything that might taint the jury pool, and I’m not similarly constrained.”
To hear Scales tell it, Williams has failed to deliver on many of his 2014 campaign promises. For instance, Scales says, “I was with a bunch of my African-American friends today … and they were very disappointed in Mr. Williams. And if four years from now people feel like I’ve lied or was not genuine in what I promised today, then I would expect that they would vote me out of office as well.”
In response, Williams says he has accomplishments to show for his time in office. Just as importantly, he says, he knows how to do the job. In an email to supporters though, he defended his handling of the Hickman case. “After my multiple requests for an investigation, four of which were made prior to the release of the video, I finally received the investigation March 6 and it gave us what we needed. The investigation, not the leak, and not public outcry, mandated charges.” Williams clarifies that a charge is an accusation and does not presume guilt.
In response video directed at William’s email, released on Scales’ campaign Facebook page, Scales dismisses Williams’ position: “Mr. Williams wants to pretend he doesn’t have the power to initiate investigations himself. That is flatly untrue, and proven to be untrue by his own actions. When he finally got around to taking out the charges, he used his own investigator to do so.”
“Going into it, I understood that it was a public, elected position. But in terms of the duty to communicate effectively with the public about issues that are both emotional and nuanced where there are ethical obligations to preserve due process and have procedural competence in individual cases, that I have to say is probably the chief lesson of being the DA of the last three years,” Williams reflects.
He says he learned how to manage a sizable staff and keep morale up in a contentious and difficult law enforcement position, as well as successfully trying major cases such as first-degree murder. He’s had to flip his learning as a defense attorney to the other side of the courtroom but says, “That is where I feel probably the most natural in this position is in the courtroom.”
One thing that surprised Williams about the job was what he calls the “workaday” aspect of it. “There is a real ‘put your shoulder to the grindstone’ component, to manage both the staff and the caseload and then be sure that all the wheels are turning in sync so that we’re pushing cases through, we’re staying in proper contact with victims, that the DAs are producing at a proper clip,” he says.
In his last campaign, Williams promised he would lessen the backlog of cases that can pile up by clearing more cases than come in and reducing the total caseload year to year. Last year, he says, his office saw 3,749 felonies filed and disposed of 3,824. Progress toward clearing a backlog of misdemeanors was more dramatic, he says, with 11,603 filed and 13,208 disposed. Those actions reduced the local jail population, with 7.6 percent fewer people in the jail than last year on average. The jail population is down 9 percent for male prisoners and up 2 percent for females, an increase Williams attributes directly to the opioid crisis.
Things have changed in the four years Williams has held office. Last time around, mention of opioids was rare; now both candidates are highlighting the crisis as a major issue. Williams says he has worked in partnership with other agencies and organizations to create two new programs to deal with the fallout from the crisis. In addition to an existing drug treatment court, the county now convenes a veterans’ treatment court and offers an opioid diversion program, which provides first-time offenders rehabilitation as opposed to punishment.
Williams says veterans are particularly at risk for drug abuse because they may use drugs to manage physical pain, while also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
On the diversion front, Williams says his office, in conjunction with police, is now able to offer precharge diversion for young drug offenders, a power stemming from prosecutorial discretion. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done creatively to think outside of the box,” he says, “to create these diversion programs to offer new forms of recovery and opportunity for offenders and move cases in a more efficient and just way.”
In addition to the opioid epidemic, Williams says he is monitoring another disturbing trend, although the data don’t yet confirm it. “We have seen a tick up in violent crime in public housing in Asheville, and you know, that is a very worrisome concern that the impact of violent crime is falling disproportionately on public housing and poor communities in Asheville.” To adequately address problems there, he says law enforcement needs trust and support to prosecute those accused of wrongdoing. Thus, Williams says, recent challenges to public trust and the credibility of law enforcement mean turning that around “is going to take a lot of transparency and diligence.”
While it’s not unheard of for DA and sheriff candidates to endorse one another, in this case, both Williams and Scales are staying out of traffic on the sheriff side of things. Both say they hope the best man wins, reserving judgement until after the primary, but both also expect that the winner of the Democratic primary will be the next sheriff.
For more information on this race and others, see Mountain Xpress’ 2018 primary voter guide.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated from the print version to include new statements from Williams regarding his handling of the Hickman case and a public rebuttal from Scales.