Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Brian Aus
Full Legal Name: Brian Michael Aus
Date of Birth: August 17, 1954
Home Address: 5826 Wilma Drive, Durham, NC 27712
Mailing Address (if different from home):PO Box 1345, Durham, NC 27702
Campaign Web Site: www.BrianAusDurhamDA.com
Occupation & Employer: Attorney at Law, self-employed
Years lived in Durham: 35 years
Home Phone: (919) 943-2819 Work Phone: (919) 806-4235
1.What do you believe are the most important issues facing the District Attorney’s Office? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?
The most important issue is the public’s lack of trust in the administration of criminal justice in Durham. There is an appearance that race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status affects the outcome of a case. The DA’s Office seems to be giving away the courthouse through far too lenient plea bargains. Two recent examples illustrate this problem. Raven Aboroa savagely stabbed his wife and unborn child to death. Eleven of twelve jurors decided that he should get life imprisonment without parole, yet before a re-trial, he was allowed to plea guilty without admitting guilt to manslaughter and will serve no more than another eight years in prison. A grossly-drunk Raul Herrera killed Brian Edward Kiley when he ran into Mr. Kiley’s vehicle at 80 miles per hour. Herrera got off with a plea bargain which allowed him to be placed on probation. These kinds of deals do not protect us.
In order to rebuild the trust, there must be a change in the mindset in how the Office works, it must be professional and there must be transparency.
The District Attorney’s Office will no longer have the mindset that it is reactive to issues that concern us and instead will be proactive. To that end, I will be the point man for the Office and I will be personally responsible for meeting and working with our citizens groups, religious leaders and civic leaders in combating crime while respecting the rights of everyone. I will go to the schools to instill in our children the idea that education and civility is to be valued as opposed to gang-banging. I will work with the School Board to eliminate out-of-school suspensions, which only reward bad behavior and feed the school-to-prison pipeline through gang activity. There will be no need for “liaisons” designated from my Office to deal with some new ad hoc group, because I will be the Liaison and the groups already exist in Durham—they are just waiting to be used.
Secondly, there will be no such thing as “good enough for government work” when it comes to performance by the District Attorney’s Office or law enforcement agencies. Our job is not merely to get convictions, but to assure that justice is done for all, regardless of race, gender or social class, as there is no value in a conviction procured by unethical or unprofessional conduct. The District Attorney’s staff therefore will be highly-trained, professional, ethical and compassionate in their actions. I will personally discuss and attempt to solve investigative and training issues with the Sheriff and Chief of Police. The DA’s Office will be present at major crime scenes to assess the evidence when it is fresh and not merely rely on written reports. I will completely reorganize the District Attorney’s Office to make it responsive to the needs of law enforcement and efficiently utilize court time to the benefit of all.
Third, operations in the DA’s Office will be transparent. There will be no after-news-cycle deals to avoid public scrutiny. The bottom line for the public’s rebuilding trust is communication. When the DA’s Office makes a mistake—and mistakes will be made—the public will be told about them. When possible, I will inform our citizens of the progress, or lack of progress, of an investigation.
2.What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective district attorney? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
I have a Masters of Science in Public Health which involved training in public administration, environmental science and engineering; this gives me the formal training needed to administer public offices and to obtain grants. As to practical experience, I served as a Principal Investigator/Project Manager on contracts with the United States Environmental Protection Agency during the Carter Administration and was involved in drafting responses to Requests for Proposals for federal, state and private projects. I also know how large law offices operate: I served as an intern with Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, Colorado and was one of the original Assistant Public Defenders when the Public Defender Office for the 14th Judicial District was established in Durham in 1990. For almost 30 years I have worked with various DA and Federal prosecutor offices in North Carolina and know how they handle prosecutions.
3.Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
I do not believe in the Death Penalty on religious grounds. From my experience as a defense attorney, I do not believe it is a deterrent to crime. The District Attorney also has discretion on First Degree Murder cases to proceed non-capitally and attempt to have a murderer imprisoned for Life Without Parole. That being said, the General Assembly has yet to abolish the Death Penalty, and as District Attorney, I cannot simply ignore it for my personal benefit and moral comfort. I believe that there are certain cases where 12 citizens of Durham must decide whether to recommend to a judge that a First Degree murderer will be sentenced to death. Two that come to mind are the kidnapping, rape and murder of children and the murder of law enforcement officers in the line of duty. I do not say this lightly, as I know what it feels like to have had one of my clients executed by the State of North Carolina and to hear two others sentenced to death. Those experiences will haunt me for the rest of my life.
4.The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?
As I previously stated, I believe the District Attorney’s Office must be proactive and not reactive. Putting people in prison for committing crimes simply is not enough to stop other people from committing crimes which obviously results in even more people being victims of crimes. The District Attorney must work to break the cycle of poverty, lack of education, lack of marketable skills and substance abuse that leads to criminal behavior.
It must start in the schools. I will lobby for the continued support of Truancy courts in all schools, but especially elementary schools, because when children are missing school, something is wrong, and it often is because there is something wrong at home. When I served as a Truancy Court Judge, it amazed me how often the truant student’s parents had previously been my clients with their own host of problems. Even worse was when several weeks later, I see these same children show up in Juvenile Court on criminal charges. As District Attorney, I also will lobby the Board of Education to end out-of school suspensions. This year the Durham Public Schools have had over 6,000 out-of-school suspensions of less than 10 days—that is at least 6,000 days that children have been rewarded for bad behavior by being sent home. What kind of message is that? Parents have to work and these children are then left to their own devices, from which nothing good is going to come. Out-of-school suspensions breed gang activity which ultimately feed the school-to-prison pipeline. This has to stop. I will support programs such as Rebound and Becoming A Man [BAM] to instill in children the proper values of citizenship and understand the value of education.
We have to support and expand funding for substance abuse treatment, development of life skills and employment skills. As one of the instructors in the Sheriff’s Substance Abuse Treatment And Recidivism Reduction [STARR] Program at the Durham County Jail for 20 years, I am thrilled to have graduates approach me on the street to tell me how well they are doing and thanking me for giving them the tools to be productive. These programs work.
There is tremendous mistrust by the public of the criminal justice system, and some of it is deserved. People will not come forward to report criminal activity if they feel they will dismissed or disrespected or become the next target of a crime because they perceive that no one has their backs. This can be fixed by listening to the public and promptly responding to their concerns. I realize, however, that as District Attorney, not everyone will be willing to come forward to complain to me. Town Hall meetings won’t work as attendees invariably will be polarized and the entire matter will degenerate into a shouting match. People will speak with their religious and civic leaders. I want to meet with these leaders on a personal, regular basis to hear about issues that concern Durham. I can then discuss our citizens’ concern with the Sheriff and Police Chief to possibly remedy some problems. I may not be able to resolve all problems, but if people see that you are trying, they will start to have trust in the system.
I also believe the District Attorney’s Office needs serious restructuring. Law enforcement has complained to me that they have no “go-to” persons to speak with. Defense lawyers don’t know who to talk to about serious cases. Often it is more than a month before an Assistant District Attorney is assigned to a case. Cases therefore get continued, valuable court time is wasted and justice is delayed. I believe that Section Chiefs should be assigned to oversee the prosecution of specific types of crimes, for example, homicides and sex offenses. This will assist law enforcement in their duties and help make the administration of justice more efficient. The DA’s Office must be a 24 hour/7 day a week operation that can respond to major crime scenes to assist law enforcement officers in the development of a case when it is fresh. I also want more efficient use of court time for misdemeanor cases in District Court. The court house opens at 8:30 am yet nothing happens until after all defendants’ names are called, which typically is not until after 9:30 am. We have scores of lawyers sitting around doing essentially nothing during this time. I will collaborate with the Clerk of Court and District Court Judges to have negotiations begin at 8:30 am so that disposition of cases can start as soon as possible.
5.Prior to Leon Stanback’s taking office in an interim role, the District Attorney’s Office went through tumult during the tenures of his two immediate predecessors. What went wrong, and how will you avoid similar setbacks?
The problems that have bedeviled the Durham District Attorney’s Office for almost a decade were to some degree not related. The Duke Lacrosse case was a rush to judgment that I felt was spurred to some extent by Mr. Nifong’s political naïveté. The case should have been developed more thoroughly before anyone was arrested; the concerns of all of the Durham Police that were involved in the investigation should have been reviewed. Trying the case in national news did not change the facts and only made our home look stupid. The vitriolic attacks on Judge Hudson that resulted in Ms. Cline’s removal may have been with all of the best intentions, but was entirely improper and unethical. We lawyers have certain rules of decorum that we must follow. When we have problems with what a judge does, there are appellate courts to decide if the judge is wrong. Again, the spewing of such venom did not change the facts and only made us all look stupid.
The common thread, however, that runs though the problems experienced with the last two tenures was a failure to fully communicate with law enforcement and to have law enforcement properly develop very serious criminal cases before even thinking about proceeding to trial. This can be fixed by making sure that the Durham Police and Sheriff’s Office are fully aware of the needs of a prosecutor in any given case; they are not the trial lawyers and don’t pretend to be. They want the DA’s Office direction and we must make sure they get it.
6.The Durham Police Department had a difficult year in 2013, which included controversies over officer-involved shootings, struggles with community relations and undisclosed bonus agreements for drug informants. Some people believe the DA’s office and DPD don’t see eye-to-eye. If you assume office, what will be your advice for police officials?
As the top law enforcement official in Durham, I intend to regularly meet with the Chief of Police and Sheriff to discuss exactly such matters. I want to review all policies, whether it be for paying informants, where road blocks are set up, reasons for stopping motorists or dealing with officer-involved shootings and advise them were necessary about improvements that can be made to restore the public’s trust in the entire criminal justice system. I will advise them that calm, immediate communication with the public, even when there is nothing to report yet, is the key.
This brings up another important matter which fuels such controversies. I represent law enforcement officers. I am sometimes called to the scene of an officer-involved death. It amazes me that no one from the District Attorney’s Office is present, not for the purpose of prosecuting the officer, but to simply assess the situation. The public expects and deserves to be informed as quickly and fully as possible of what has occurred by the top law enforcement official, which is the District Attorney. Initially this may only be a statement that we are investigating the situation, but silence from the DA’s Office only makes people feel someone is hiding something and causes problems such as the civil disturbances that arose after young Jesus Huerta died in the back of a police cruiser.
7.The overwhelming majority of defendants in Durham take plea deals rather than push through to trial. Is this healthy?
Plea bargaining can be healthy for Durham if done properly. We must first understand that the criminal justice system can not function without plea bargaining. If every criminal case in Durham were tried, we would probably need at least an additional 100 courtrooms staffed with additional judges, prosecutors, clerks and deputy sheriffs. That is not possible. This is the reason the practice of plea-bargaining occurs in every jurisdiction in the United States.
But that does not mean that we have to give away the court house with plea bargains. There must be serious consequences arising from a criminal act in order to protect the public and promote respect for the law. On one hand, people who commit violent crimes must be imprisoned for the protection of us all. On the other hand, non-violent offenders should receive some punishment, but can be supervised within our community. Drug offenders require supervision and treatment.
8.On any given day Durham courtrooms are filled with African-American faces. Is there anything wrong with that? If so, what’s the solution?
Yes, there is something wrong when one group of our citizens is so grossly over-represented as criminal defendants. But what is just as wrong is that a large portion of those African-American faces are victims.
The solution is not simple. I believe a large part of the problem is due to the hopelessness created by poverty which fuels substance abuse, mental health issues, theft and violence. Over the almost 30 years that I have practiced law in Durham, I have seen this hopelessness pass from generation to generation due to absent parents for various reasons, which leads to the child’s absence from schools, which leads to no education, no employment, and ultimately to crime. That is the reason that I have been involved in this community for all these years as a member in the Mental Health Board, the Criminal Justice Partnership, Sentencing Services, Truancy Court and as an instructor in the Sheriff’s STARR program in the Durham County Detention Center. We have to break this cycle for everyone’s benefit.
9.What is your experience in juvenile court? What can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?
I have represented children in Juvenile Court for 24 years. Unfortunately, I have continued to represent some of them as adults. Again, there is no simple solution to preventing delinquency. Many of the children have absent parents and have no suitable role model. Some suffer from mental health and developmental problems because their mothers were substance abusers when pregnant. Some children, just like adults, suffer from mental health and developmental problems for no other reason than they were unlucky. Then again, some kids are simply seeking to fit in and get in trouble.
As I have stated in previous answers, I believe that the Durham Public School system needs to stop most out-of-school suspensions. When I got in trouble in school, I sat on the bench outside of the principal’s office, got a lecture and was put in detention where I did more work; I was not rewarded with being sent home. When the school system sends these children home, we have the recipe for gang involvement. We should not be waiting for delinquency to occur. Instead we need to be identifying at-risk kids and employing programs such as Becoming A Man and getting them involved in extra-curricular activities.
10. There has been a recent effort to divert juveniles charged with nonviolent misdemeanors into programs that could potentially wipe their slates clean. What are your thoughts on this?
This is an excellent idea that has just been implemented in Durham. Kids’ brains are not wired like adults and we need to remember that. Kids will do stupid things. They will steal stuff and do drugs. That includes 16- and 17-year olds that we prosecute as adults. We are one of only two states in the Union that prosecute 16- and 17- year old children as adults. I don’t want these children to be ruined for life just because of poor choices made due to immaturity and peer pressure.
11.If you’re assumed into office, will you retain the current stable of ADAs, or will hire new prosecutors?
That is a personnel issue which, under our laws, generally is improper to answer with specifics. All Assistant DA’s serve at the pleasure of the elected DA. I expect everyone on my staff to be professional, ethical, compassionate and respectful to everyone. I will set forth policies on how cases will be handled. I will not tolerate a breach of my rules of conduct and will render discipline accordingly.
I know that there are dedicated persons currently on the staff that require training. It is my goal to have every ADA able to competently prosecute cases before a jury. I will require extensive in-house training in off-hours to achieve the goal of having the best DA’s staff in the State of North Carolina.
12.What are your thoughts on the death penalty?
The Death Penalty goes against my core values, but as I discussed in Question 3 above, it is the law of North Carolina.