The Buncombe County district attorney oversees a growing court system with a big caseload. The holder of this office has considerable power over how individual cases are handled, whether plea bargains are made, and how crimes are punished (or not) by the court system.
For 20 years, Democrat Ron Moore has been top gun at the county courthouse, and for the last 12, he's run unopposed in the general election. But this year is different. Republican Bridgette Odom, a Buncombe County native who once worked as an assistant DA under Moore and is now in private practice as a defense attorney, says the time has come for a new face in the DA’s office.
“I have a new perspective; I've seen all sides of the issue,” Odom tells Xpress. “I have a broad perspective on poverty, crime, family dynamics and how the whole process ties together. Ron's been doing strictly prosecutions for 20 years. When you see things from just the DA's side, you get narrow in your focus.”
Moore, though, defends his record, citing his experience and adaptation to a rapidly growing caseload.
“We still continue to deal with a tremendous volume of cases on a daily basis. As our population grows, we deal with more cases, even though our crime rate's down,” he notes. “We've pleaded over 3,000 felonies in District Court — that meant they didn't come up here to Superior Court — and that gives us more time to devote to serious cases and try more of them. We figure we've saved the state $2.6 million, and the sheriff hasn't had to hire more jailers. We continue to try to work in a court system that has always been underfunded and probably always will be.”
But Odom says improvements are needed in everything from training to bail bonds (“The DA needs to participate in those decisions; you have people get out and recommit offenses”) to the way prosecutions are carried out.
“The way domestic-violence cases are handled needs to be changed,” she maintains. “Currently the DA's office allows the victim to make the decision about whether or not to proceed, and in many circumstances, there's enough evidence without solely having to rely on the victim.”
According to Odom, Moore's office cuts too many plea bargains, “especially with regard to sexual-assault crimes. I do understand that there's a system and a process — you can't bog the court system down with too many trials — but I understand there are many cases that could go to trial but don't.”
Moore, however, says: “We don't have that much court time. ... In the state of North Carolina, less than 2 percent of the cases go to jury trial. We have tried, in the time I've been here, between 40 and 93 trials a year. When I first got here, we had 30 pending murder cases, and we tried 11 of them the first year. We established that we could and would try you. We've always tried to deal from a position of strength in the plea deals we make.”
Citing such steps as disposing of traffic tickets quickly, helping establish Nuisance Court (“1,500 hours of community service in seven months”) and the worthless-check program (“$1 million in fee revenues”), Moore maintains that on his watch, Buncombe County has achieved a more efficient court system with “one of the most current dockets in the state.”
For her part, Odom has a number of suggestions for making the system work better. She supports separating Traffic Court “to make it in-and-out, quick and efficient” and promises to continue the Nuisance Court program. Odom also says she'll “reach out to the community, the agencies that provide support, have an open door and just be accessible.”
Moore, meanwhile, stresses his experience. “You run a small company every day. I've spent a signficant amount of time down in the Legislature, trying to get laws passed or stop bad things from happening. That experience, building the network and the friendships, is something that takes some time to get.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or email@example.com.