SALISBURY — A former Rowan County assistant district attorney and his former boss engaged in a heated debate about crime, conviction rates, court scheduling and a variety of other issues at the Rowan County Republican Party Candidates Forum for the district attorney Wednesday night.
Paxton Butler challenges incumbent District Attorney Brandy Cook in the primary election. Early voting begins April 28 and the primary is May 17.
Cook is seeking a fourth term after being elected the county’s first female district attorney in 2010 and re-elected in 2014 and 2018. Butler worked as an assistant district attorney under Cook for several years, but says he left earlier this year because he was unhappy with the bureau’s inability to stop crime in the community.
The debate unfolded after moderator Ted Blanton, a retired attorney and former district judge, asked each candidate to describe the presence of crime in the community over the past 15 years.
Cook pointed to historically low crime rates in 2019 and 2020 while acknowledging that crime has risen again in 2021. Cook said she will again work to reverse this trend by continuing to use Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal initiative with a “proven track record” that seeks to prevent those who have already been convicted from reoffending by threatening them with a lengthy federal prison sentence. Cook also said she would like to reduce gang-related violence through an already established task force. She highlighted the new tools the Salisbury Police Service is also using to tackle crime.
Butler said he feared Salisbury had earned the nickname “Shotsbury” due to “uncontrollable” gun violence. He criticized the county’s participation in Project Safe Neighborhoods for slowing down the court process.
“Here’s the reality: These cases are being charged locally and sitting in our courts for over a year while we wait for (Cook) and the federal government to decide what to do with them,” Butler said.
Butler said he would first pursue defenders aggressively in Rowan County and then allow them to be prosecuted federally.
“If we do that, we’ll send a message out here in the community,” Butler said.
The forum moved next to the current state of the Rowan County court system. Butler criticized Cook’s office for being a “revolving door of talented prosecutors” and criticized the lack of experience among current assistant district attorneys in the office. Cook hit back at those allegations, saying the bureau had 130 years of combined prosecutorial experience.
The candidates then broached the subject of conviction rates, which are used by some as a marker of the success of a district attorney’s office. Cook said conviction rates are important, but not as important as getting justice for victims. Butler said he had analyzed cases tried by the district attorney’s office since he left, which showed that Cook’s office had a conviction rate of 50% or less since then.
Cook rebutted, saying she likes to “see the big picture,” which shows her office has a 91% conviction rate for violent cases over the past 10 years. Butler said he was responsible for helping the district attorney’s office achieve this high conviction rate because of the cases he pursued while working for Cook. Cook also said his office has several jury trials ready to go before the COVID-19 pandemic brings everything to a halt.
When the candidates were asked how many murder defendants were awaiting trial and how many had been tried in the past two years, Cook said his office tried seven murder defendants in 2019, a “substantial feat for a small office like ours”. Cook said his office tried two last year and had one scheduled for September and will likely have another scheduled for August.
The debate then turned to the court of probable causes. Cook said the court is a place to solve low-level crimes that don’t have to go through Superior Court, allowing his office to focus on more serious cases. Cook said he resolved around 538 cases in 242 days in 2019 and 2020.
“We use this courtroom,” Cook said.
Butler doesn’t see it that way. He called probable cause court a “waiting pen” where cases sit in abeyance for over a year until something is done, wasting both time and money. money. Butler said the probable cause court can be improved and brought back to where it is a useful tool again.
The moderator directed the forum to the topic of case planning. Butler again attacked Cook’s office saying the calendar had been “sloppy” and claimed that previously rejected cases had been put on the calendar. He said he would restructure the district attorney’s office by adding a second assistant district attorney to the district court daily. He also said he would identify people who should be prosecuted immediately for serious crimes and would prioritize those cases.
Cook said his office is moving cases forward in a timely manner while also communicating with multiple parties. She mentioned that the court schedule was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic because they tried to reduce the number of people entering the courtroom.
The discussion on the scheduling of hearings turned into a debate on the current backlog of cases. Cook said she could not provide the exact number of cases on the waitlist, but again said her office could not move forward with jury trials for a year due to the pandemic.
She noted that her office had been working to authorize two sessions of the court to quickly resolve the drunk driving cases that have piled up during the pandemic. Cook said these sessions resulted in many offenders pleading guilty.
Cook said his office has been able to resolve the backlog since jury trials resumed.
“Once we were able to move forward, we were able to resolve cases much faster than the time of the pandemic,” Cook said.
Butler also couldn’t provide exact numbers on the backlog of cases, as he is unaware of those numbers, but he called the backlog ‘worse than it’s ever been. summer” and that the cases are “older than ever”.
“If you ask any lawyer in this town who practices criminal law, they’ll tell you the same thing,” Butler said.
He said he had reduced that backlog with an “ambitious approach”. If elected, Butler said he would revoke plea deals in the county, identify some people charged with serious crimes including murder and sex offenses, and try them if they do not plead guilty.
Cook and Butler were once again at odds over deferred prosecution – the practice of giving first-time and low-level offenders a chance to have their charges dismissed after completing probation, community service or restitution. Butler said deferred prosecution is underused and heralded it as a practice that can break the cycle of career criminals and prevent more and more criminals in the community.
“Being tough on crime doesn’t mean suppressing pity,” Butler said.
Cook said she was ready to give people a chance, but compared delayed prosecutions to giving offenders a slap on the wrist. She said it does not help victims of crime.
“If someone breaks into your home, your business, their case is thrown out,” Cook said. “No marks.”
Court Clerk Forum
In the hour leading up to the debate between Cook and Butler, both clerk contenders answered questions about how they would oversee clerical and recordkeeping functions at the Rowan County Courthouse.
Rebecca Saleeby and Todd Wyrick are running against each other for the position, which was filled by retired clerk Jeff Barger. Saleeby began her judicial career as an assistant clerk of the Superior Court before becoming a Rowan County magistrate. She then worked for the North Carolina Courts Administrative Office as a business systems analyst supervisor while teaching at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Wyrick has been a Rowan County magistrate since 1985 and has received several promotions during that time. In 1999, Wyrick was appointed a scheduling magistrate. In 2014, he was appointed Chief Magistrate.
The two candidates often agreed during the forum. Both said they would hire employees who are knowledgeable about the law and have strong interpersonal skills as they work with members of the general public on a daily basis. Wyrick said he would like to bring more diversity to the clerk’s office, including bilingual employees. Saleeby said she will focus on cross-training office workers to ensure they can answer any questions and back up if needed.
Both said ensuring the accessibility of public records is paramount to the position. Saleeby said she would like to implement an online system that makes it easy to access or request records without having to go to the courthouse.
Wyrick said he would like to advocate for county funding and support for more file storage.
The Rowan County Republican Party will hold forums for District Court nominees and Superior Court nominees Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Stanback Auditorium at the Rowan Public Library.