Three district attorney candidates address top priorities, strategies

Apr. 30, 2014 @ 05:50 PM

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The three candidates for district attorney for the 25th District, which covers Caldwell, Burke and Catawba counties, each sat last week to answer questions posed by the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce, which will be broadcast on Caldwell TV.

District Attorney Jay Gaither talked about his experience as DA for the past 12 years, and what the job entails.

“Obviously the calendaring of cases and the prosecuting of criminal matters inside the district are the priorities,” Gaither said. “Advising law enforcement would be the second-largest time-consuming part of the laundry list of responsibilities. This is the fifth-largest district in the state, and the largest multi-county district, with more (law enforcement) agencies than any other district. What we are to do as district attorneys is to provide public safety in the communities. In the past 12 years, we have done that exceptionally well.”

David Learner, a former assistant district attorney now in private practice in Morganton, talked about the speedy disposition of cases in the court system.

“It goes back to utilizing your resources,” he said. “We should have some discussions on cases prior to indictment. I’ve seen cases that have been evaluated and indicted and charged as first-degree murder and then plea-bargained to manslaughter. Either it wasn’t a first-degree murder case or it was given away. You shouldn’t over-charge people. You need to understand your cases. To move things in an efficient fashion, you have to have a plea policy. If I give you an offer today, April 23, I will tell you your client will accept it the first day of May or it’s gone, it’s off the table. Don’t come in to trial court on the third day of May and say, ‘Oh we want that plea bargain.’”

Scott Reilly, a former assistant district attorney who is in private practice in Newton, said that overcrowding in the Caldwell County Jail is the “biggest problem area” in the entire 25th District, and said that he would move additional resources to Caldwell County, including himself, until the problem is remedied. He said he would go to the sheriff, get a list of all the inmates awaiting trial and make that list a priority. He said long waits for trials not only costs the county money but it’s a “slap in the face” to the victims who have to wait just as long to see justice served.

In discussing the challenges facing the DA’s office, Gaither talked about the high number of cases handled by his office.

“In this district, we have about 3,500 superior court cases filed a year, and about 18,000 misdemeanor cases filed a year,” he said. “The ability to be able to take those cases to trial is very limited. If you were able to do about 100 jury trials a year district-wide, that would be a very big year. Clearly, you need to be able to go into court strong, you need to be able to win and the defense bar needs to know that when you tell them that this is where you are headed, that that’s where you’r going to go. I think that’s one of the reasons for our success. We’re not running a backlog at this point.”

Learner also talked about managing court dockets, and where he feels the current administration is lacking in this area.

“We are currently running a deficit in that job performance at this point in time,” Learner said. “We are not getting our cases timely tried. It is not fair for the crime victims to have to wait a year, or two, or three for the perpretrator of a violent crime or a crime against a child. There’s no closure for victims of crime when the perpetrator is sitting in jail burning our local tax dollars. It’s not fair to the defendants. They’re entitled to a speedy trial. On defendant waited three years for a trial and was found not guilty. How do you compensate that?”

Reilly said that as a litigator who has tried more than 200 cases before juries, he would bring a new, active philosophy to the office, as opposed to Gaither’s approach of being an administrator.

Leaner contended he is the best option to Gaither. “Mr. Reilly accepts a huge amount of campaign contributions from defense attorneys. It’s a conflict of interest. I am the only candidate that was not involved in the Zahra Baker plea bargain,” he said.

Gaither said he has been successful as district attorney. “We have a low crime rate, we have safe communities. We really need to look to the future and do more for the children in our communities,” he said.