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An open letter to District Attorney Andrew Murray

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Chris Radok's murder was the first of 2011 and the first to occur on your watch. As Mecklenburg County's new prosecutor, you'll help determine the value of his life. How your office handles this case will set the tone for those that follow.

It will show the county's defense attorneys whether single-digit murder sentences are still in vogue and our lackadaisical judges whether you have a backbone.

This is the most clear-cut of cases. This was no brawl between gang members or drug deal gone wrong. Radok, 55, had no criminal record. The accused killer, convicted felon Antoine Young, 29, has a long one. Young liked to steal cars and break into homes — crimes for which he often got probation.

This time, it was Radok's home Young broke into. When Radok came home from work and surprised him, according to police and news accounts, Young allegedly stabbed Radok multiple times during a violent struggle, including defensive wounds on Radok's hands and arms, and stole his SUV.

This case is important for another reason, though. At the initial hearing last week, no one showed up in court to speak for Radok, WCNC reported. Because I worked for years with Radok, a former photographer at Creative Loafing, I know he had no family. His parents passed away and he had no wife or children. A brother he kept in sporadic touch with lives on another continent. Under your predecessor, things like that mattered. A murder victim without a loud-mouthed advocate would start the legal vultures circling.

Under Gilchrist, this kind of case often resulted in a plea deal so sweet that Young would see the outside of a prison again before his hair grayed. I'd be the only other person who'd ever bother to read the thin, pathetic, 10-page case file containing the plea deal and the perfunctory signatures before it was sent to gather dust.

Young is charged with first-degree murder and is eligible for the death penalty. Other charges include robbery with a dangerous weapon and larceny of a vehicle. Here's how this case would have been handled in the past.

Given the brutal, violent nature of this murder and the fact that it occurred in the midst of a felony, in most functional criminal justice environments, it would be first in line for a long sentence ... but not here. Months from now, when the media had forgotten and family still hadn't chimed in on Radok's behalf, the plea bargaining would begin.

Gilchirst's formal written operating policy was to give up at the beginning of the process, so there wouldn't actually be any "bargaining." His prosecutors were instructed to offer the lowest possible plea deal right from the start. They would drop every other charge but the murder — prosecutors elsewhere often use ancillary charges to get defendants more prison time — after downgrading the murder charge to second-degree or manslaughter. Since most of Young's past charges have also been plead down in plea deals, his prior history would likely land him in prison for 12 to 15 years under Gilchrist, though I've seen as little as seven years in cases like this. If questioned, Gilchrist would claim his office was underfunded or something.

The DA's office is no longer underfunded, Mr. Murray. You have more funding per capita than Wake County does, and Wake's prosecutor gets more convictions.

The crusade for that funding began in this column and, ironically, in the passenger seat of Radok's car. Radok, then a photographer for CL, made many of my early crime stories possible by sitting for hours with me while I staked out the city's roughest spots, including what was once one of the East Coast's largest open air drug markets on Charlotte's west side.

Radok's assignment was only to take a few pictures for my stories, but he loved an adventure and spent days of his own time casing the city's crime hellholes with me, taking the shots that made my stories come to life — and, to be truthful, making it safe enough for me to get the stories done at all. Thanks in part to Radok, the City Council shut down an entire street where gun battles were once common.

Now we're watching you, Mr. Murray.

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