Buncombe County DA candidates discuss issues in public forum
April 22, 2018
ASHEVILLE — Drugs, immigration, cash bond and — to nobody's surprise — body camera footage were among key points of discussion between the two Democrats running for Buncombe County district attorney at a recent candidate forum.
Asheville area attorneys and residents packed a Superior Court room in the county courthouse to watch incumbent DA Todd Williams and primary challenger Ben Scales square off in the 28th Judicial District Bar Association's candidate forum Thursday night. The event was the only public forum in which both lawyers participated.
During the hour-long forum, Williams and Scales answered questions submitted by Bar Association attorneys, which ranged from the recent police beating of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white Asheville police officer to a song about marijuana cultivation written by Scales.
Williams, who won his seat after defeating incumbent Ron Moore in 2014, consistently painted himself as a proven reformer who has already made good on many campaign promises.
Scales — who labeled himself a "Bernie Sanders democrat" — said that Williams hasn't done enough to bring progressive change to the DA's office, relying heavily on the police beating case and his marijuana decriminalization platform to make his case.
Body cam footage
When asked why he hadn't asked the State Bureau of Investigation sooner to investigate the conduct of police officer Chris Hickman, who in August beat alleged jaywalker Johnnie Rush while on duty, Williams shifted the blame to the police department.
“In the future there can be no delay in reporting this to the District Attorney’s Office," he said. "There has to be clear communication between the DA’s Office and APD or any other law enforcement agency in our county.”
Williams acknowledged that "when there is a delay, you might have a denial of justice," but he said that he was only given a copy of the video weeks after the beating, and he said that SBI refused to investigate at that point.
"That's just not a good enough excuse," Scales said in his rebuttal.
He said that Williams "wants to throw APD under the bus on this one," even though the DA could have launched a criminal investigation into Hickman's behavior after watching the body camera footage of the beating.
Williams said that investigations are not the job of his office.
“If the DA’s office is going to blur the investigative and prosecutorial roles, I think you’re going to run afoul of some very serious ethical obligations that will jeopardize careers,” he said.
Williams' office did press criminal charges against Hickman after graphic footage was leaked to the Citizen Times, which published the video in late February. The fact that the video was leaked could jeopardize the case against Hickman, who has since resigned his post with APD, Scales said.
Both candidates said that under ideal circumstances, they wouldn't allow the video to be released to the public until after it had been used as evidence to prosecute the former officer.
“The key is being transparent with the public after justice has been served,” Scales said.
Dealing with drugs
To the apparent delight of Scales — whose platform consists of marijuana decriminalization — drugs were a topic of discussion at several points throughout the forum. Williams also used the drug discussion to highlight some of the changes he's made during his tenure.
One of the lighter moments of the forum focused on Scales' musical career. He is a songwriter, who has written a song called "Growing Marijuana in my Yard" — the chorus of which is reminiscent of "Coming around the Mountain."
Scales was asked whether singing a song in which he "basically advocates criminal acts" is behavior befitting of a district attorney.
“Let’s throw it back a hundred years," he responded. "If I was singing a song about freeing slaves, I would think I would have the same level of support among certain people in Buncombe County as I have with a law that is as unjust and unfair and unwarranted as the prohibition on marijuana, and I will never stand down from that belief.”
At other points during the debate, Scales mentioned that he won't pursue personal-use marijuana possession or cultivation charges, regardless of weight. He did, however, agree with Williams that the DA should continue to prosecute cases that rely on police searches based solely off the odor of marijuana.
"I’m not going to let people go just because marijuana was the reason that they got caught,” he said.
Williams said he'd let the voters decide whether Scales' songs would affect his ability to serve as district attorney.
Williams said that the creation of the Veteran Treatment Court and his oipioid diversion programs are both examples of his commitment to pursue justice over convictions for addicts.
On the topic of opioids, Scales said he'd push for the creation of “safe injection sites” in the county, where people could use drugs that had been tested under the supervision of medical professionals who could help prevent overdoses.
In the wake of recent federal immigration raids that netted more than 15 arrests in Western North Carolina, both candidates said that it is important for Buncombe County's DA to keep immigration status in mind while prosecuting.
Scales said that, following a model set forth by a Philadelphia DA, he would create an "immigration counsel" in his office, separate from the rest of his staff. It would be that attorney's job to review cases against immigrants who might face deportation if convicted of a crime.
That attorney would help advise immigrants and pursue options that might avoid deportation, Scales said.
"Right now, many people in the immigrant community feel scared to talk with law enforcement," he said. "They feel scared to talk with the district attorney’s office about their cases because they fear deportation or detention.”
Williams said that he's already created programs that have helped immigrants avoid deportation based on minor convictions. He said the Justice Resource Center, created during his tenure, and his diversion programs for immigrants help ensure that the migrant community is able to move through the justice system without fear of deportation.
"I really felt like we had to have new options for how to dispose of cases in the court house," he said. "That’s why we created diversionary programs where we don’t require an admission, we don’t require a plea, we don’t require anything formal in the court.”
Any admission of guilt, Williams said, will show up on the radar of immigration authorities, who might then pursue detention or deportation.
Early voting in the Democratic primary has already started. May 8 is election day.
Because there are no Republican or Libertarian candidates for Buncombe County District Attorney, the primary will decide the next DA.