Ex-Durham District Attorney Roger Echols wants DA Satana Deberry to stop blaming him

Former Durham County District Attorney Rogers Echols and current DA Satana Deberry
Former Durham County District Attorney Rogers Echols and current DA Satana Deberry

Former Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols says he wants his successor, Satana Deberry, to stop the blame game.

“It has become increasingly clear that [the] Durham’s DA’s Office has and will blame or deflect in uncomfortable, difficult or unpopular decisions on me instead of owning their decisions,” he wrote in an email Thursday responding to a question from The News & Observer.

In a 938-word statement, Echols said Deberry’s administration has made “untruthful,” and “misleading if not patently false,” statements about his and his administration’s actions in some controversial cases.

Deberry defeated Echols 48.8% to 40.1% in the 2018 Democratic primary, with no Republican opposition in November, and she took office Jan. 1. Echols is now a prosecutor for the District Attorney’s Office covering Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties.

The cases Echols referred to include the fatal shooting of N.C. Central University student DeAndre Ballard, a plea deal for a teen who killed his grandmother, and federal officials taking over a case in which five men are charged with killing restaurant owner Hong Zheng.

Deberry spokesperson Sarah Willets said the current administration stands by its statements.

“We have not knowingly misrepresented the decisions or actions of the previous administration,” she said.

“This administration based our decisions on what is fair and just under the law, not what would be popular,” she said.

Hong Zheng killing

The background: On Wednesday federal officials issued arrest warrants against suspects accused of killing Zheng in April 2018.

What the DA’s Office said: Assistant District Attorney Michael Wallace, whom Deberry hired, said Echols had asked federal officials to take the case.

Echols’ response: The News & Observer emailed Echols asking him to confirm that he had asked federal officials to intervene.

In his statement, Echols said he has never “had a conversation or any type of contact with federal authorities,” on this case or asked them to intervene on this or any other case.

He also did not direct anyone else to make the request, and “I do not believe anyone made the request,” Echols wrote.

“I believe federal officers review most if not all gun cases in Durham which may be how the case got on their radar,” he wrote.

On Wednesday The News & Observer emailed and called Lynne Klauer, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District, asking why they took the case and other questions. Klauer hasn’t responded.

DA’s Office’s response: Willets said, since Deberry has taken office, her administration had had the understanding that federal officials were taking the case.

“And as you heard in court the other day, it has also been the expectation of the defense attorneys that federal authorities may prosecute these individuals,” Willets said.

NCCU student’s shooting

The background: Ballard was killed by a private security guard who said he shot the 23-year-old NCCU student Sept. 17 in self defense.

Ballard’s friends and family members have said the guard’s descriptions of Ballard’s actions, including grabbing for the guard’s gun, were uncharacteristic of Ballard. They also expressed frustration about officials’ communication about the case.

Last week, in response to an initial inquiry from a television station, Deberry said she will not seek charges against the security guard.

What the DA’s Office said: When The News & Observer followed up on the report, Willets wrote in an email that the Durham Police Department determined last year not to seek charges.

“The previous district attorney, who left office in December, agreed with that determination,” she wrote.

After Deberry took office, she requested a presentation on the evidence “and found no evidence to support a homicide charge,” Willets wrote.

Echols’ response: In his statement, Echols wrote he had discussions with the Police Department about “many of my professional opinions about the evidence in the case,” but added it was clear that he didn’t and wouldn’t make a determination before leaving office.

A representative from the DA’s Office contacted Echols, he wrote, and asked him if he had made a decision and he said no.

“Which is why I believe that they knowingly made those false statements,” Echols said.

DA’s Office’s response: Willets said Deberry isn’t aware of that conversation.

Willets pointed to an email that Echols sent to the police last year, which she provided to The News & Observer.

In the Dec. 28 email, Echols said he would not make an announcement about a decision so close to leaving office.

“While I still believe the correct decision is that no charges be pursued, I believe the announcement of a decision this close to the end of my tenure (without the assurance that my predecessor will not reopen the investigation) may put the department in a more difficult position,” the email states.

Travon Evans plea

The background: On Tuesday, Travon Evans pleaded guilty to killing to stabbing his grandmother to death and cutting his then 4-year-old brother’s throat in 2014.

What the DA’s Office said: Under the plea deal, Evans was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn said cited reasons for the deal, including that Evans’ age, a developmental delay, and mental illness, reduced his culpability in the crime. Evans’ younger brother also wouldn’t have to be re-traumatized at a trial, she said.

Montgomery-Blinn also said the plea was offered under the Echols administration.

Montgomery-Blinn and Deberry spent time reviewing the case “and while it was not the offer we would have chosen,” they believe it is their duty to honor the original plea offer, Montgomery-Blinn said.

Echols’ response: In his statement, Echols wrote there are many reasons why the current administration is not bound by that offer.

“I do want to deal with what was said and the misleading, if not patently false, aspects of those statements,” Echols said.

Willets said Cynthia Kenney, a prosecutor who is no longer with the office, handled the case.

Echols wrote he spoke with Kenney (who he didn’t mention by name in his email), and she told him the offer was withdrawn. Echols said Kenney said she shared that information with Montgomery-Blinn when Montgomery-Blinn reached out to speak with her about the case.

“Therefore, the offer that the defendant accepted was no longer there to be ‘honored’ if in fact that was ever the offer on the table at all,” Echols said.

The DA’s Office’s response: Willets said Montgomery-Blinn did speak to Kenney, but it wasn’t communicated that the offer was withdrawn.

Deberry’s office also provided a plea transcript that outlined a deal like the one Evans pleaded to Tuesday. The deal had Kenney’s name typed on it, but it didn’t include any signatures or dates.

Stayed silent

Echols said he stayed silent after other statements he considered misleading, but that when “false or misleading statements impugn” his and his former employees’ integrity, he feels he must speak up.

In closing, Echols said he respects the jobs that Durham prosecutors have, more than anyone.

“I may not have always made the best decision as DA, but I believe I owned all of my decisions,” he said. “Contrary to what I read, I do not control anything that happens or any decisions that come out of Durham’s DA’s Office.”

Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.