Carefully consider DA pick

By on October 6, 2013

scalesThe sudden death of Frank Parrish, the district attorney for North Carolina’s First Judicial District, left a vacancy that will be filled by Gov. Pat McCrory.

A campaign is already under way to persuade the governor to appoint Nancy Lamb.

Lamb, a Democrat, was elevated to chief assistant district attorney by Parrish in 2012, a position that placed her in charge of the office’s day-to-day operations.

After Parrish’s death last month, McCrory, a Republican, appointed Lamb acting district attorney until he decides to appoint someone to hold the position until the next election.

Parrish was up for re-election in 2014, and regional political observers were already wondering if the long-time D.A. would step down, seek re-election, be challenged from within the Democratic party or face opposition from a newly resurgent GOP.

His death changed the political calculus.

The person appointed to replace him will have one year to build name recognition, form alliances and run as an “incumbent,” an important advantage in any election.

Commentary

McCrory should base his decision on considerations other than geography and political affiliation.

At the time of Parrish’s death, the Voice had been running a series of articles highlighting concerns about the operation of the D.A.’s office.

The stories focused on a backlog of cases and examples of serious offenders receiving plea bargains with greatly reduced sentences rather than facing trial in Superior Court.

Most recently reported was the case of the reggae artist “Eek-A-Mouse,” who was charged with rape, extradited from Peru to Dare County and then saw his case transferred out of Dare County. The charges were reduced to misdemeanors and he was released to immigration authorities.

This case was under Lamb’s supervision.

There were two other stories we were working on when Parrish passed away.

The first involved two Pasquotank County deputies charged with 10 felonies in connection with the use of a county credit card to obtain over $13,000 in gasoline for personal use. The crimes, according to court records, allegedly happened between April 2010 and February 2011.

Rather than taking the suspects to trial, the D.A.’s office dismissed the felony charges, reducing them to misdemeanors and allowing the former law enforcement officers to make restitution to the county, a plea the county also agreed to.

The question raised was whether law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard, given other defendants have served time in this district on similar charges, even if restitution was made.

A second case we were looking at involved a Pasquotank Correctional Institute prisoner who was charged on May 10, 2010 with attempted first-degree murder on a government official. According to court records, he stabbed a prison guard.

He was eventually transferred to a state facility in Laurinburg, N.C.

Court records indicate the suspect was not served by the D.A.’s office until Oct.15, 2012, two years after the crime was committed. Since the suspect was incarcerated at another state facility, it is hard to understand why he was not served and brought to trial.

A motion to dismiss filed by his attorney alludes to the defendant asking court officials if he was, in fact, ever going to be charged.

We also discovered recently that the high-profile case involving Luis Rodriguez had experienced yet another bizarre turn.

Rodriguez is the defendant accused of running a flashing red light at the Colington Road/U.S. 158 intersection in 2011 and causing an accident that killed a man. The Voice traced the story of how Rodriguez was able to obtain a reduced bond in 2012 in a hearing presided over by Superior Court Judge J.C. Cole.

In that story, the Voice noted that the D.A.’s office had vigorously opposed the bond reduction.

But on Sept. 27, 2012, the D.A.’s office dismissed the amount owed to the court by Elizabeth City bail bondsman Matthew Gregory when Rodriguez failed to appear in court on April 23, 2012. He is still at large.

The bondsman had been on the hook for $50,000.

In court records reviewed by the Voice, the bondsman was required to submit to the D.A.’s office sufficient evidence to prove his client’s non-appearance was unavoidable.

What the bondsman submitted was an undated printout from a website that indicated Rodriguez was being held in a federal prison in Raleigh on the date he was scheduled to appear in court in Dare County.

The document does not show a date of incarceration for Rodriguez, and when the Voice and family members of the man killed in the crash, Joe Storie, checked with Central Prison in Raleigh, there was no record of Rodriguez being in custody on the trial date.

Instead, he was in custody at that prison in 2011, when he fled a hospital in Norfolk, was captured in Raleigh and picked up by Dare County law enforcement from the federal facility in Raleigh.

Why the District Attorney’s office did not verify whether Rodriguez was in custody is an answer the Storie family is still trying to uncover.

In 2012, the Voice also obtained a list of pending cases in this district from several county clerks of court in the First Judicial District.

Many of those cases had languished for as long as 700 days and included serious charges such as attempted murder, child molestation, kidnapping and domestic violence.

Shortly after the story appeared, the D.A.’s office cleared the docket by dismissing hundreds of lesser cases.

This past week we checked some of those files again and still found defendants, whom we were told were still in prison, who had yet to face trial for periods extending from 162 days to over 800 days.

We have also discovered that over the past year, a majority of Superior Court “terms,” which generally start on Monday and would include trials that would be completed over the course of a week, never occurred or were finished on a Monday.

In these cases, the D.A.’s office either failed to appear to prosecute the cases or showed up on Monday with a handful of plea bargains, dismissals and continuances.

The Voice tallied the results of a recent Superior Court session in Dare County.

Close to 250 cases were on the docket. Almost 40 cases were pleaded out, and over 129 were continued. No cases were tried, and judges and jurors were dismissed.

This pattern is repeated in other counties in the district and in many cases, the continuances are situations where the defendant had rejected a plea bargain, and rather than scheduling a trial, the D.A.’s office chose to schedule another administrative hearing.

While it may be obvious to some that Lamb deserves to be appointed to the District Attorney’s position until the 2014 elections, the track record of the office under her supervision as chief assistant leaves room for concern.

McCrory should invest the time and energy to query local clerks and other officers of the court before making a final decision on a person who is likely to be elected in 2014 by merely being appointed District Attorney this month.

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