Residents won’t cast ballots in Wake County’s municipal race until next fall, but who they back in the March primary for district attorney could reshape the criminal justice system’s approach to everything from high-profile murder trials to low-level marijuana crimes.
District attorneys don’t write the law, but they enjoy immense power in interpreting it—they decide whether to press charges against police officers who shoot citizens, or whether to pursue a case as capital.
In the March 2022 primary, both major candidates are Democrats. They couldn’t be more different.
For the last seven years, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has taken a measured approach to prosecuting in the increasingly liberal county. Her philosophy, she says, is that it’s her job to enforce the law, not allow personal political beliefs to guide policy. While the number of capital cases has decreased over the last decade, Freeman says the death penalty is still warranted for the most egregious of crimes, and she’s pursued it in several high-profile cases.
“At the end of the day, the legislature is the one who makes the determination as to whether [capital punishment] remains on the books or not,” Freeman told the INDY during a recent phone interview. “While I certainly have discretion in those cases in which I seek it, I personally believe that I’m sworn to uphold the law. To come out and say that I would never seek it I don’t believe is appropriate.”
Freeman’s challenger Damon Chetson disagrees. If elected, he vows to use his discretion to effectively end the death penalty in Wake County and stop prosecuting certain nonviolent misdemeanors such as marijuana possession.
“The Democratic voters in this county are progressive and yet we have a prosecutor who, in some ways, is far more regressive than Republican prosecutors in other counties, particularly on the death penalty,” Chetson told the INDY.
Freeman and Chetson will face off at a forum hosted by Emancipate NC this week, fielding questions on criminal justice reform and racial equity.
The debate will be moderated by Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, who says the county’s DA “is the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system” and that the candidates must be “fully vetted by the community so an informed voting decision can be made.”
“This office has the power to radically transform the experience marginalized people have when justice is involved,” Blagrove says. “As public servants, DAs should be guided not by upholding racist traditions and systems rooted in creating inequitable results but instead by policies that recognize the deep biases baked into the system and using the power of the office to undo past harms and create a more just system moving forward.”
For Chetson, that starts with ending the death penalty. In 2013, the Racial Justice Act, which said race could not be a factor in seeking the death penalty, was repealed. Courts, however, have since ruled it retroactively available for the 145 inmates on death row at the time. Sentences in those cases are now eligible to be reheard in court. The outcome could effectively end capital punishment in the state, experts say. If the first few cases uphold the statistical evidence showing widespread racial bias in jury selection on the part of state prosecutors, the evidence will be binding for subsequent cases in that district.
North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. There are now only 136 people on death row. State prosecutors just aren’t pursuing capital cases as often.
In 2019, Wake County sentenced Seaga Gillard to death for the murder of two people in a Raleigh motel, the district’s first successful capital conviction in more than a decade. But Freeman has unsuccessfully pursued capital charges in other cases, including against triple-murderer Johnathan Sanders and rapist and murderer Kendrick Gregory (both were eventually sentenced to life in prison).
But for Chetson, it goes further than the death penalty: he believes the county’s legal department needs to diversify from within, pointing to high turnover under Freeman’s tenure and her failure to hire more Black lawyers.
“This is a county that is 25 percent African American and to not have people in the DA’s office reflect the diversity is really appalling,” Chetson says.
Freeman says a small pool of potential candidates and low starting salaries have made retaining diverse hires difficult—often, candidates are poached to higher-paying jobs within a few years. She’s hired 16 Black candidates since taking office in 2015, she says, and there are currently six on staff. Here, Freeman agrees with Chetson: it’s a problem, but one she’s committed to improving.
“We know we have work to do in evaluating the criminal justice system and improving the way it offers services and protects our community,” Freeman says.
The debate takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday at Chavis Community Center.
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