Putting criminals away is a thankless job ... but somebody has to do it.
For the last 35 years in Mecklenburg County, District Attorney Peter Gilchrist has been that "somebody," overseeing the prosecution of thousands of lawbreakers -- simultaneously pissing off convicted criminals and victims of crime who may not appreciate the length of a sentence, among other issues.
Now, he's hanging up his suit jacket and retiring. While he's respected by some in the legal community, it's not a stretch to say others are looking for a change in the district attorney's office.
Even, according to a Dec. 13 article in The Charlotte Observer, Police Chief Rodney Monroe has spoken out against some of Gilchrist's policies -- especially his record of dismissing cases.
In Mecklenburg County, 52 percent of felony cases get dismissed, the Observer reported. In contrast, 27 percent of felonies in Guilford County are dismissed, and 31 percent of felony cases are dismissed in Wake County.
So, who wants to be the new public punching bag?
To date, two men -- City Councilman Michael Barnes and attorney Andrew Murray -- have said they want to take that job and hope to have your vote in November (or earlier if there is a primary election). Filing to appear on the ballot doesn't begin until next month, but one notable name won't appear: John Lassiter. He's already bowed out of the race, citing his business and family obligations as the reason why he has chosen not to run.
"The obligations of my business and the opportunity to spend time with my family are more important in the coming months than engaging in a campaign or preparing to take on the critical role the district attorney will play in improving the criminal justice system in our county," Lassiter said in a statement.
The former city councilman and mayoral candidate threw his support behind fellow Republican Murray.
"During my consideration, I have had time to talk with my longtime friend Andrew Murray and I am convinced that it is the time for a person with his experience, skills and background to serve the people as our next district attorney. As a former prosecutor, successful trial lawyer in both civil and criminal courts, and a committed veteran serving as a commander in the Coast Guard Reserves, Andrew brings the management skills, trial experience and broad relationships needed to lead the district attorney's office," Lassiter stated in an e-mail to the media.
In this and future issues, Creative Loafing will speak with the candidates vying for the job to find out what their plans are for the office. This week, Murray, who spent four years in the district attorney's office (1992 to 1996), makes his case.
Creative Loafing: The public has a perception that there is a "revolving door of justice" in the district attorney's office. How can that be fixed?
Murray: More emphasis needs to be focused on significant cases and making sure that somebody doesn't show back up. Then you get the sensationalism that this person was in jail and out on probation, and they've done it again. It only takes one or two cases like that to create a perception that everybody is getting out of jail. Peter has spent a lot of his time on getting more resources and more district attorneys to that office. It is now significantly staffed due to his valiant efforts, and now more focus needs to be spent on prosecuting those who tend to be career offenders, gang members and violent offenders. The public perception needs to be addressed. The district attorney's office does an excellent job of prosecuting cases, especially those that are significant cases. But there is a perception that there is a revolving door and whether that is correct or perception, that is something that I intend to go in and evaluate.
What are some other issues in the district attorney's office that you think need to be addressed and can lead to more cases being prosecuted?
There are resource problems that need to be addressed in that office. I'll give you an example: The federal government sends me a discovery file, and I get thousands and thousands of pages on several discs -- and I can receive it within a month. In the state system, it takes them months to compile that, and it is done by the old-fashioned copiers. And I receive boxes that they have to mail or deliver. Can you imagine the cost and the time and the man power to do that? If you consider that none of it is searchable on the computer and DA's have to find pages rather than being able to scan through a computer and highlight pages. That is such an antiquated system, and it needs to be addressed.
What sets you apart from your opponent?
I get to see both sides of the fence, and I have for a long time. I understand both sides, and I know where resources need to be placed and how we need to strengthen the decision-making of the assistant district attorneys to make correct decisions and make correct evaluations of cases. Let's not forget, that's what the district attorney's office is about. It is about equipping and trying cases. So, I am the unique one that has expertise to be able to oversee and have done the job.