Mecklenburg County will soon have a new District Attorney which is something of a rarity here. Peter Gilchrist has held the office since 1975. He's retiring at the end of this year. Two candidates with very different takes on that office are vying to replace him: City councilman Michael Barnes, a Democrat and Republican Andrew Murray, a defense lawyer and former assistant district attorney.
The word experience has been tossed around a bunch in this race. Both Murray and Barnes say they have a lot of it, but that know-how is of a different variety.
Murray touts his experience in criminal court and his post as a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves. Barnes holds up his skills as a politician who builds relationships and finds resources.
Debates between the two have turned into a showdown of what the District Attorney's primary job should be.
"Being a DA is not simply making policy," said Murray at a debate earlier this month. "Being a DA is every day working with assistant DAs mentoring, training, making certain they have the tools and resources they need to prosecute and obtain convictions."
"We have over 80 career prosecutors in that office and the issue isn't that they don't know how to prosecute cases. They do. The issue is they don't have the resources and support network to do their jobs," said Barnes in an interview.
Both candidates agree the DA's office needs an electronic case management system that will allow files to be shared between magistrates and the police department.
Barnes says securing those resources will be a major part of his job, as well as playing ambassador and collaborating with other departments like CMPD.
Barnes' law practice focuses on civil matters like business and insurance litigation. Jeff Welty with UNC's School of Government says that experience would make Barnes unusual among DAs because most have a criminal law background.
"We have a few examples of elected DAs that didn't do substantial criminal law work before they were elected, but it's certainly a handful compared to the great majority who come out of a criminal law practice," says Welty.
Throughout their campaign appearances both Barnes and Murray have emphasized the need for transparency in the DA's office. They're in agreement that current DA Peter Gilchrist has fallen short on that.
Barnes wants to implement what he calls community prosecution. He wants to assign prosecutors to neighborhoods to work with police and residents to identify repeat offenders.
"If you have neighborhood leaders willing to help identify those people and police officers who are willing to help identify and a DA's office that's willing to participate in building good cases against those people, I believe you'll see a systemic change in how people are behaving in parts of the community and a systemic change with respect to how the justice system treats those people," says Barnes.
As a chair of the city council's budget committee, Barnes says he's identified $320,000 that would help set up such a pilot program. But, of course, city council would have to approve that. Police Chief Rodney Monroe has pushed for community prosecution. It's an idea that appeals to John Wall of the Hidden Valley neighborhood.
"A DA would get to know the residents in the district they're serving better and get a better sense of the kinds of crimes that are being committed and the impact on that community," says Wall.
Murray says that can be accomplished by other means. He wants prosecutors to go out in the community as liaisons, but continue to work cases as part of specialized assistant DA teams. Murray says if he had another thirty assistant DAs he'd be willing to give community prosecution a try, but not with current resources. Murray does want to push for more money, but isn't holding out much hope.
"Peter Gilchrist who is an icon in this community has spent 34 years trying to generate resources for the District Attorney's Office. I have no illusions, especially in the year we're in or in the next year that resources are going to drop out of the sky," says Murray.
Murray says his focus will be on keeping repeat offenders off the street by making sure prosecutors know the criminal histories of defendants before their bond hearings so they can advocate for higher bonds. He says too many prosecutors don't know this information at that point.
Murray's put a lot of his own resources into the race about $70,000. That represents roughly half of what he's raised according to his most recent finance report. Barnes has raised about $60,000. Two-thirds of that was rolled over from his city council campaigns.