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The tarnished legacy of retiring DA Peter Gilchrist

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Zachary Montognese, 20, was shot and killed execution-style by a friend he was trying to help. Police believe he robbed Montognese to fuel his drug habit.

Montognese's distraught family was victimized a second time by the Mecklenburg County prosecutor's office. The prosecutor handling the case told them he planned to offer a five-year plea deal to Montognese's killer — that he was doing them a favor by sparing them the pain of a trial. When they insisted that they wanted a trial, they got nowhere.

For 18 months, the Montogneses harangued Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist, appearing on local television and in Creative Loafing. Eventually, the prosecutor's office was embarrassed into adding an armed robbery charge to the plea deal at the last minute, bringing it to 12 years for murder.

It wasn't an isolated case. Gilchrist spent his years as district attorney enabling criminals with plea deals so outrageous that you could argue his prosecutors often victimized crime victims twice.

An analysis by CL of the period when Montognese was killed showed just three life sentences for murder and dozens more under 20 years. In most of America, you'll serve at least five years for armed robbery, with eight to 10 being pretty standard. Here, armed robbery is treated as a sort of aggravated shoplifting. Criminals often get probation after their charges are pled down and quickly resume their crime sprees.

No prosecutor has the resources to try every case, and as Gilchrist liked to remind everyone, plea deals with criminals are necessary. But Gilchrist and his staff were never forced to cut plea deals that resulted in single-digit sentences for murder or probation for armed robbery. That was their own doing — a standard they set that defense attorneys came to expect.

For years, Gilchrist's office blamed his plea deals on budget shortfalls. Then, after a public outcry that started on these pages, his budget was increased by millions. But nothing changed.

Mecklenburg County now has 79 prosecutors while Wake and Gilford counties have just 43 and 33, respectively. Yet Gilford obtained 5,885 felony guilty pleas compared to 4,529 for Mecklenburg, the Charlotte Observer reported last year.

For years, cops complained about Gilchrist's office dismissing prosecutable charges and cases. The numbers bear them out. As the Observer reported, prosecutors here dismissed 52 percent of the felony cases they handled. Wake and Gilford County prosecutors dismissed 31 and 27 percent. Worse yet, despite Gilchrist's bigger budget, last year his office cut plea deals in murder cases 64 percent of the time (see my column published two weeks ago). The statewide average is 48 percent. Dawn Welshans lives with the legacy of those statistics.

Her son Chad was murdered in 2003 by Jesse Myers, 17, and Albert Dietz, 19. Both were charged with first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon. After the charges were knocked down to second-degree murder in their plea deals, Myers got just 12 years for the crime and Dietz got 13 years. Both live a short distance from Welshans' home, and she dreads their release later in the decade, when they will still be young and able to start their lives over.

Scottland Belk, 39, got angry with his mother for refusing to let him have her car. He beat her skull in with a baseball bat and then strangled her to death. America's Most Wanted helped track Belk and his wife down as they conned their way across the country, pretending to be Hurricane Katrina victims. Belk was originally charged with first-degree murder, and despite an earlier federal conviction for bank robbery, his charges were knocked down to second-degree murder as part of a plea deal. He got 15 years.

Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell once told the Observer that he didn't believe Mecklenburg's problem was a lack of prosecutors, but the way Gilchrist ran the office. I now think that Gilchrist was better suited to the role of defense attorney, advocating for the lowest sentences for criminals.

"Life is cheap here," a homicide detective once told me. "If your prior record isn't too bad, you'll be out in less than 10 years for murder."

That cheapening of life is Gilchrist's legacy. When he officially retired last week, victims and their families breathed a sigh of relief.

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