After 21 years as one of Durham County’s resident Superior Court judges, I had grown accustomed to the comforts of retirement. However, in 2012, I received a telephone call from then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, requesting that I serve my community once again, this time as its top law enforcement officer. During my tenure as district attorney, I learned a lot about my community and the role of a prosecutor, and this is what I know for sure:
1. In order to administer justice, safeguard the community, and protect defendants’ rights, an effective prosecutor must be well versed in the law. I vividly recall my first day in office, I was inundated with questions from law enforcement regarding criminal charges, questions from victims regarding pleas, but most importantly questions from prosecutors about evidentiary issues and legal developments. The law is like the ocean; it can be volatile if you are not familiar navigating the waters. Ideas about reform are admirable but implementing those ideas within the confines of the law is difficult. The district attorney cannot simply mandate that law enforcement comply with his or her ideas. Justice requires realistic and tempered changes that are sustainable and have a lasting impact on the community. Anything short of this re-victimizes victims and disappoints a community that is often forgotten and over-policed.
2. There are three sides to every case, the victim’s side, the defendant’s side and justice. A prosecutor’s role is to do what is right. In nearly every case, that requires a delicate balance of the victim’s wants, the defendant’s rights and the need to keep the community safe. As a voter, I have heard discussion about the need for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. However, there has been little to no discussion from some candidates about homeowners who have been burglarized, victims who have been raped or communities of color that are impacted by an influx of drugs and guns. This disregard is heart-wrenching, because as a former prosecutor I know that victims and the community matter. To be able to serve all people, each side in every case must be fully examined.
3. The law requires, that a judicial official determine the conditions of pre-trial release. Having served as both a judge and the district attorney, I know that bonds are carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have no control over the court’s decision, their role is to argue for their perspective sides. When appropriate after weighing the facts and community safety, the state has and does agree to suggested pre-trial conditions suggested by the defense. The presumptive bond schedule for Durham was set by the senior resident judge and not the district attorney. While I can understand the community’s passion with respect to bonds, this issue of reformation is an argument best suited for the court and the legislature, not the District Attorney.
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As an African-American male, I know the perils that people of color have to endure, not because I researched those unforgivable times but because over the last 75 years, I had to live it. I am guided by my desire to ensure that minorities don’t live a life riddled with inequities, and when I retired I pondered what Durham needed most. I knew then, the accused must be treated fairly and are innocent until the trier of fact deems otherwise, victims must have a voice and justice must always prevail.
So, what do I know about this election?
I know that what I want for Durham is what I want for myself, to live free from harm, and to not be over-policed. I want to support the candidate that doesn’t prosecute drug dependency, mental health illnesses or poverty. I want to support the candidate that is forward thinking with sustainable criminal justice reformation policies that are sound and rooted in the law.
There is only one candidate that is qualified to be district attorney, Roger A. Echols, he is the experienced attorney I supported in 2014 to continue the work I began some 40 years ago, the work that is dedicated to change and social justice.
Retired Judge Leon Stanback, is a former Superior Court Judge, former Durham County district attorney, former N.C. parole commissioner and is currently a defense attorney.