Candidate Watch: Wake County District Attorney Election

Raleigh criminal defense lawyer Joe Cheshire said it best when he told the News & Observer:

“[Wake County elected District Attorney] Colon [Willoughby] is a very nice man and I think he has brought a real steadiness and integrity to our justice system here,” said Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh defense attorney who has challenged him in court on numerous occasions over the years. “I go all over the state and I see an awful lot of turmoil of all different kinds in prosecutors’ offices, and we haven’t had that here.”

While defense attorneys often disagree with particular decisions or policies of the Wake County District Attorney’s office, for nearly 30 years – over 7 terms – he has run a scandal-free office that has been steady and done credit to Wake County’s Courthouse.

If you think that’s faint praise, you need to consider that the Wake County District Attorney is responsible for prosecuting many of the political corruption cases and politically sensitive cases such as the Moral Monday cases, in addition to the normal run of the mill crimes associated with a county that is nearly 1 million people.

Also consider that the same thing – steadiness – cannot be said of surrounding counties. While the prosecution of Raleigh DWI lawyer James Crouch in 2011 for issues involving altering court documents in DWI cases is a scandal of sorts that brought down a sitting District Court judge, it did not implicate Mr. Willoughby’s office. (Indeed, the DA’s office moved quickly to resolve the matter, recognizing the pall it cast over the courthouse.)

While Judge Leon Stanback has restored steadiness to Durham County’s DA office, this comes after two elected Durham County DAs – Mike Nifong and Tracy Cline – were removed from office for misconduct.

Johnston County has had its own problems: A DWI fixing scandal led to the conviction of defense lawyers, a Johnston County prosecutor, and a deputy clerk of court.

Wake County has not had issues like that.

Who Might Run?

UPDATE: Judge Mangum told supporters on Facebook that he is filing for re-election as District Court Judge, and will not seek the DA’s office.

The News & Observer reported that District Court Judge Ned Mangum is considering a possible run for the office. While District Court judges are elected in non-partisan races, Judge Mangum is a registered Republican. As I said on earlier this week, this year is likely to be a Republican year because of the inevitable backlash against the president’s party in an off-year election during his second term. In addition, Wake County is a swing county that went for Obama in 2012 because moderate Republicans crossed over, but elected a Republican in the open congressional seat, and has a Republican dominated county commission. (The Wake County School Board has gone back and forth, and is now led by the Democrats, but probably only because the overly politicized nature of the School Board’s redistricting plan encouraged Democratic voters to come out, and offended moderate Republicans.)

Whoever can win the Republican primary will have a good start on the general election. While others might throw their names in the hat, Judge Mangum, if he chooses to run, has many of the right credentials. He grew up in Raleigh, graduated from Broughton High school, went to State for his undergraduate degree, then got his law degree from the University of North Carolina.

After law school, Judge Mangum was an assistant district attorney in Wake County working for Colon Willoughby, where he prosecuted serious felonies – violent crimes, murders, gang-related offenses, robberies, and burglaries. He was known as a tough prosecutor.

He joined the District Court bench in January 2008, and was elected in 2010. He is running for re-election, although state law would require him to give up that re-election campaign if he were to choose to run for District Attorney.

Judge Mangum is well respected among his colleagues, and on the defense side of the bar. He is very smart, and regarded as fair. Importantly, he gives both sides a fair hearing before making a determination.

Obviously a Judge’s job is different from a prosecutor’s job, but in many respects the elected District Attorney has to be able to listen to different sides, including the defense bar, even while deciding to vigorously prosecute crimes.

As a defense lawyer, I probably wouldn’t agree much of what any District Attorney decides – such is the nature of the adversarial system. However, I could be sure that someone like Judge Mangum would give a fair hearing, and would not be full of surprises that ruin the steadiness that Wake County has come to expect from its elected District Attorney for 28 years.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.