DA candidates respond to issues
by Anna Oakes
The 24th Prosecutorial District will know who its next district attorney will be at the conclusion of the May 6 primary election, as only three Republicans are running for the seat. Early voting begins April 24.
The Watauga Democrat asked each candidate for district attorney to provide responses to a series of questions for publication. Today's issue includes biographical information about each candidate, as well as their responses to six questions. Responses have been edited for punctuation, spelling and space requirements.
To learn more about the candidates, plan to attend a candidates forum scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 28, in the large Superior Courtroom in the Watauga County Courthouse, located at 842 W. King St. in Boone. Doors will open at 5 p.m.
Occupation: Private attorney and managing partner for Miller & Johnson PLLC; chairman of the Watauga County commissioners.
Bio: Nathan Miller was raised in the Deep Gap community of Watauga County. He is married to Crystal Miller and they have one child, Lillian Sue Miller. He graduated from Watauga High School, UNC-Chapel Hill and St. Mary's University School of Law. Miller's entire law practice has been centered in Watauga County, where he has tried numerous criminal trials before juries and judges. Miller is currently the chairman of the Watauga County commissioners and an Eagle Scout.
1. I am running for district attorney because I am the most qualified individual running to lead that office. I am the most qualified because I have the courtroom expertise and I also have the management experience to manage the day-to-day operations of the largest law firm in the district. My goals include fixing the inefficiency and injustices of the office. The backlog of cases in Watauga County is ridiculous, and the criminals who committed heinous crimes and received slaps on the wrist must be stopped.
2. DWI and drug cases are a large amount of the workload in the criminal court system. Due to changes in the state law, most DWIs are not plea bargained, which is a good thing. The defendant either pleads guilty or has a trial. The problem is that those who wish to have a trial have to wait years to get that trial. Cases that could be tried are continued for months because of inefficiency. The plea bargains given to people who use drugs and commit heinous crimes must be curtailed, so that the violent members of society are put in prison and not out on our streets.
3. I would work tirelessly to ensure that sexual perpetrators are punished to the fullest extent of the law. Too many times, sex offenders are let go by the courts because paperwork was not properly completed. In addition, the present DA's office has shied away from prosecuting the hard cases where the victims are really young or mentally challenged. These are the most vulnerable people in our society, and their protection will be my upmost priority.
4. When I am elected, one my first priorities will be to use court time more efficiently to decrease the heavy caseload burdening the office. My office would stop asking for large breaks in court time to get prepared, as the preparation will take place before court. In addition, the office will be open to the public from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. as it should be. The employees of the district attorney's office are first and foremost public servants, and under my watch the office will be accessible to the public.
5. Court time must be used efficiently. Preparation for cases needs to be done prior to court. During court, the judge should be hearing cases or taking pleas. For the superior court backlog, the DA's office must be prepared to handle cases all week long instead of ending the weeks early on Tuesday or Wednesday. Another way to ensure that the backlog is fixed is to utilize a criminal backup calendar during civil court week, so if all the civil cases are dealt with, the judge and jury can then handle criminal cases.
6. A couple policies I would fix include ensuring that assistant DAs come to work at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. or later. Though this may seem like common sense, there is presently no policy asking or requiring this and as such, employees come and go as they please. I would also ensure that the DA's office takes a position as to sentencing. Once a defendant is found guilty, the judge asks the DA what position they take as to sentencing. More often than not, the DA tells the judge they take no position. That means the people are not taking advantage of an opportunity to be heard as to punishment and the judge will only hear the defendant's argument of why they should be punished lightly. These are only two of the many changes I would incorporate.
Occupation: Assistant district attorney.
Bio: I live with my husband, John, and our two kids Lilly, 5, and Reed, 3, in the Rutherwood community in Watauga County. We are members of Boone United Methodist and our kids attend Greenway Baptist Child Development Center for preschool. I graduated from Appalachian State in 1998 and then graduated University of Oregon Law in 2003. I was sworn in as an assistant district attorney in 2003 and have held that position ever since.
1. I am running for district attorney because I have worked for 11 years as an assistant district attorney and have the knowledge and experience to lead the office in pursuing justice for crime victims of the 24th Judicial District. The District Attorney's Office has always had a career prosecutor leading the office to show younger prosecutors that our criminal justice system has no place for politics, and justice needs to be served even-handedly and without prejudice. If elected, I promise to continue to serve the people of the 24th Judicial District without a hidden agenda, without politics entering into any decision to prosecute or not, and to aggressively uphold the criminal laws of North Carolina.
2. DWI cases statutorily are not given the punishment they deserve. I believe that DWI charges should be handled as if they were an assault on our community. Every time a drunk driver gets behind the wheel they are putting all of our lives, our children's lives, our friends' lives at risk. If elected, I will fight to ensure that the most egregious of drunk drivers, those that are more than twice the legal limit, will serve jail time for first offenses. I will continue offering first-time misdemeanor drug possessors a deferral if they seek drug education classes and do community service. I will not tolerate drug dealers in our community and will seek prison time if convicted.
3. As district attorney, I would see to it that sexual assaults are given the highest priority. I have a proven track record of being tough on sexual offenders, whether it be child sex offenders or rapists. These are the criminals that if released from prison are statistically the highest reoffenders. I have seen to it that child molesters have spent a combined 1,000-plus years in prison and plan on continuing on the zero tolerance policy. Any sexual assault case needs to have an experienced prosecutor heading it up, but also a team of investigators, therapists and experts in order to achieve a just outcome and to avoid unjust prosecutions.
4. When I was picked to become the chief prosecutor for the district, one of my first actions was to reopen our Watauga office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We have five offices throughout the district, and all of them have the office hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and if elected I will continue with those public hours.
5. If elected, I would continue on the path I have set in place to clear our backlog of cases within 12 months. When I became chief prosecutor, one of my duties was to handle all homicide cases throughout our district. Watauga County alone had six open homicides, and within nine months I handled all of them. Next I set out on tackling the backlog of felony cases. While we still have a few older cases that need to be disposed of, our office is now indicting cases and getting them before the court within eight weeks. The toughest problem facing the next DA is the DWI backlog in Watauga County. I have started to address this problem by meeting with heads of local law enforcement, courtroom clerks and our judges and putting on a "super" district court session with four ADAs and two judges. With two courts running simultaneously for one week, we were able to cut our DWI backlog by 25 percent. If elected, I plan on running these "super" district courts until our backlog is resolved. DWIs are serious crimes and need to be handled swiftly in our court system.
6. If elected, I would strive to improve our communication with other local agencies whose resources could lessen the burden on crime victims and their families. I would like the DA's office to be part of a team that sees to it that all victims have a voice before the case goes to trial, during the trial and even after the criminal case is completed.
Bio: I was raised in Yancey County and graduated from N.C. State and the Wake Forest School of Law. As an assistant district attorney, I have managed large caseloads and significantly reduced backlogs of felonies. I have extensive experience prosecuting serious assaults, first-degree murder, breaking and entering, trafficking in drugs and crimes against children. I am now a partner with Bailey and Banks PLLC. Gretchen, my wife of nine years, and I have a 2-year-old son.
1. I am the candidate with the experience as a prosecutor and the values to best lead the district attorney's office. Over several years as an assistant district attorney, I realized I was passionate about seeking justice for victims of crime and their families and was skilled in the various aspects of prosecution. My favorite part of the job was preparing and trying cases in the courtroom, and if elected, I will be a hands-on leader, actively working alongside the assistant district attorneys. I will bring expertise, accessibility, efficiency and professionalism to this office. I am the only candidate certified as a specialist in state criminal law by the N.C. Bar. I will focus on violent and habitual felons and seek to keep drug dealers behind bars. I will be tough, but fair, and treat everyone with respect.
2. No. The 24th District court system needs to change in these areas. First, we must decrease the backlog of DWI cases. I would explore bringing back a specific DWI court program and work with our judges to limit the number of continuances allowed for DWI cases. We must utilize habitual offender laws to keep drug dealers behind bars. I would strengthen the current drug court program and work to expand it into all five counties so that low-level drug abusers are given resources and supervision needed to turn their lives around. I served as the lead prosecutor in drug court and would draw on this experience if elected.
3. As an assistant district attorney, I treated these crimes as one of my top priorities. Prosecutors must understand that victims of sexual abuse suffer tremendously, and I will seek to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent. If elected, I would seek to work as a team with law enforcement and community agencies in order to prevent and combat these crimes.
4. I would increase efficiency of court time in these ways: 1) have cases prepared prior to weeks of Superior Court trial weeks, so the week doesn't routinely end early as it does now; 2) ensure that we communicate effectively and thoroughly so that witnesses, victims and law enforcement officers are prepared and present for court; 3) closely supervise and work with all of the assistant district attorneys in managing their caseloads. I am committed to maintaining my primary office as district attorney in Watauga County, with the office open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. I am also committed to establishing regular office hours for Avery, Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties.
5. I would increase efficiency both in and out of court sessions. Currently, court routinely breaks down early during trial weeks. I would make sure the district attorney's office is well prepared for court by having cases fully analyzed, witnesses prepared and trials ready to go when court begins. In district court, I would work with judges to limit the number of continuances so cases are dealt with swiftly.
6. I would seek to make the office, and in particular the elected district attorney, more accessible to the public, victims of crimes and their families and law enforcement. I will work to resolve cases quickly by using court time more efficiently. We must also ensure that witnesses and victims of crimes are well prepared for court sessions. I would increase the presence of the district attorney's office on local task forces and committees seeking to reduce crimes and help victims of crime in our district. Finally, I would increase the input given by the prosecutor during sentencing hearings.