It’s clearly a stock image but a disturbing one nonetheless: a sideward shot of a woman’s face, her eyes fear-stricken, as she is pinned down by a man’s hand smothering her mouth.
The image appears on a June 29 blog post on the website of Raleigh criminal defense attorney Damon Chetson’s law firm. The post, entitled “How to Defend against Statutory Rape Charges,” goes on to explain how to do just that. (There’s only one way: get a defense lawyer. Any claims that you didn’t know that the victim was underage or that the encounter was consensual “isn’t enough to protect you.”)
The race between the two Democrats running in the primary for Wake County district attorney has been ugly for a year now.
Last May, Chetson, who is challenging two-term incumbent DA Lorrin Freeman, sent a grievance-filled letter to the INDY that, among other things, alleged that there are no Black or Latinx prosecutors on Freeman’s staff. Freeman defended her hiring practices and asserted that attrition of prosecutors is an issue that DA offices across the state have to contend with.
Since then, attacks against Freeman, including from an anonymous Substack account called Raleigh Watch, have trickled out on social media. Chetson, who has shared several of the Substack reports to his campaign’s social media accounts, told the INDY the Substack account is not connected to his campaign.
Some of Chetson’s and Raleigh Watch’s critiques against Freeman are well founded. They go after her for seeking the death penalty, for instance, which she has done six times in eight years as DA—securing capital punishment in one case—or for her seeming reluctance to punish law enforcement officers who abuse their power (in her eight years in office, Freeman has not prosecuted any of the 21 officer shootings that happened in Wake County).
Some are a bit more of a reach: the Substack account accuses Freeman of acting unethically in a case she is prosecuting for the Granville County district attorney. Another claims that her office “made history for illegal race discrimination” after a state appellate court overturned an armed robbery conviction after one of Freeman’s prosecutors didn’t seat a Black juror.
Up until now, Freeman has seemed unperturbed by attacks on the job she has done as Wake DA.
But her campaign fought back last week, sending out a mailer that contrasts her with Chetson. Under Freeman’s own headshot, next to a green checkmark, reads the line “Fighting for Us: Working to Stop Abuse of Power.” Under Chetson’s photo with a red X beside it, the heading “Sex Crime Lawyer: Promoting Tips to Beat Rape Charges.”
Freeman confirmed the mailer is from her campaign. She referenced the image of the woman on Chetson’s website and wrote in a text message to the INDY that her campaign “chose not to use the picture … because we were concerned it was insensitive to victims.”
In a follow-up conversation with the INDY, Freeman said the mailer is “a contrast piece of what my work has been about both in terms of my community involvement and service, and then what [Chetson’s] political background and history is and the way he markets himself in his current role as a defense attorney.”
Freeman says that Chetson and “other special interest groups” are working to try to define Chetson as “the real progressive in this race.”
“They have been attacking me for months on a wide range of things, about my operation of the office, my effectiveness, and whether I can keep the community safe,” Freeman says. “The question is, is [Chetson] going to keep our community safe? The way that he defines himself and wants to be seen is something the voters need to be aware of.”
Referencing the website image, Freeman says the way Chetson “markets himself” is different from other defense attorneys in the community.
“The fact that he blogs about things, like how to beat drug trafficking charges, and this picture he has of a woman being pinned down with her mouth covered on his website … to me that shows an insensitivity to victims that’s not your run-of-the-mill ‘I’m out here defending somebody’s constitutional rights,’” Freeman says. “This is something different that, to me, shows an insensitivity and effort to promote oneself that, certainly, the voters have a right of deciding if that’s what they want in a DA.”
Chetson, who was preparing for a trial scheduled this week, declined to respond to Freeman’s comments.
“Democrats rejected the sorts of attacks by my opponent when Republicans tried them on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson,” Chetson wrote in a text message to the INDY.
In a statement, Chetson wrote that he is “focused on making the case to end the death penalty in Wake County, stopping the prosecution of adult-use quantities of marijuana, ending pay-for-play justice in Wake County, and building a diverse Wake County,” adding that he plans to “rebuild” the DA’s office after it has lost “more than 20 of the 43 assistant prosecutors” in the past three years “due to leadership problems in the DA’s office.”
“In talking to thousands of Wake County voters over the past year, the people of Wake County care about these issues and approve of my experience with more than 25 jury trials, my commitment to the accused and victims who I’ve represented, and my plans to implement sensible progressive reforms,” Chetson wrote.
Freeman and Chetson look to be running a close race. Campaign finance reporting through December 31, the latest that data is available, shows that Freeman has raised $80,574 and spent $34,355. Chetson raised $57,786 and spent $53,560.
Others in the local legal community criticized Freeman for the mailer, noting that Freeman’s husband, Robert Padovano, is a criminal defense attorney who practices in Johnston County.
Karl Knudsen has worked as a lawyer in Wake County for more than 40 years, including as an assistant DA. He wrote in a social media post that he was “deeply troubled” to find Freeman’s mailer attacking Chetson “for being a defense attorney who has the audacity to offer to defend people accused of committing sex offenses.”
“She did so by cherry picking one small part of [Chetson’s] description of the types of cases he handles,” Knudsen wrote. “Defending individual people (who are BTW presumed to be innocent) who are charged with sex offenses is not the same thing as defending the practice of committing sex crimes, but many people cannot make that distinction, and this attack will no doubt be emotionally effective on many voters.”
Lindsey Bivens Granados, another local attorney, called Freeman’s mailer “a disgraceful, shameful, cheap shot at her opponent.”
“Attitudes like Ms. Freeman endorsed in her ad cheapen our profession and increase animosity between the DA’s office and the criminal defense bar, and lessen the overall level of professionalism and collegiality we should have in the courthouse,” Granados wrote.
But Freeman maintains she’s not criticizing Chetson for his work.
“This is not about being a defense attorney,” she wrote in a text message to the INDY. “I have tremendous respect for what they do. This is about letting the voters know who Damon Chetson is and how he chooses to define himself.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Follow Editor-in-Chief Jane Porter on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.