While much of the attention in Guilford County has been focused on the Greensboro City Council races — particularly the mayoral race — this year, the contest for district attorney is one that will have lasting consequences and should be on voters’ radar as well.
As outlined on the county’s website, the “primary responsibility of the district attorney, with his or her assistants, is to prosecute all criminal cases filed in the Superior and District Courts. District attorneys also advise local law enforcement and prepare the criminal trial docket.”
A DA decides whether or not to charge officers who have killed civilians or to hand cases over to a Grand Jury. The county DA is also the one who decides which evidence gets presented to the Grand Jury for them to decide whether or not to indict officers.
In the instance of current District Attorney Avery Crump, the murder of Fred Cox Jr. by Davidson County Sheriff’s deputy Michael Shane Hill in November 2020 has colored the last two years of her tenure. As reported by Triad City Beat in the past, Crump chose the Grand Jury route rather than pressing charges and in June 2021, a Grand Jury was presented with two bills of indictment for Hill for voluntary manslaughter and felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. After hearing witness interviews and viewing the evidence investigated in this case, the Grand Jury returned two no true bills of indictment, finding insufficient evidence to support criminal charges.
Attorneys representing the Cox family filed a civil lawsuit against Hill as well as the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in August 2021. The suit is ongoing.
In the midst of ongoing calls for Crump’s resignation by activists familiar with the case, Democrat Brenton Boyce has emerged to take the incumbent on in this year’s primary election. Because there are no Republican challengers, the Democratic primary on May 17 will decide who wins the district attorney race for Guilford County.
In addition to the Fred Cox case, TCB asked Crump and Boyce about relevant experience, their relationship to the police, as well as how they might work to reform the justice system. The answers of the candidates are listed alphabetically by last name starting with the incumbent.
Avery Crump (D, i)
An incumbent with a strong relationship with local law enforcement
In her responses to TCB’s questions, incumbent Avery Crump highlighted the work she has completed in the last four years during her first term as district attorney.
Crump was initially voted into office in 2018 after beating Stephanie Reese in the primary election by about 7 percentage points. She ran unopposed in the general election. Prior to becoming district attorney, Crump worked as a district court judge in Guilford County for a decade.
“There are still things I can do to help the citizens of Guilford County,” Crump said. “I ran to bring positive change to Guilford County. I wanted to help our community by being tough on violent crime while also providing second chances to those in need by utilizing restorative justice programs such as the driver’s license restoration program, more accessible alternatives to prosecution programs, and expungement clinics. I have accomplished much of this, but I am not finished and there is still much more to do.”
Since being sworn in on Jan. 1, 2019, Crump asserts that she has helped more than 12,000 Guilford County residents get their driving privileges restored. Previous reporting by TCB has shown that unpaid fines disproportionately result in people of color having their licenses revoked or suspended in North Carolina. A 2020 study by the Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School found that Guilford County has the most instances of failure-to-comply cases in the state, resulting from unpaid fees and fines from criminal cases. These FTCs have led Guilford County to rank second amongst counties with the most driver’s license suspensions in the state while Forsyth County ranks fourth.
“Thousands of Guilford County residents will be able to get back on the road because of this program to forgive court debt on minor traffic offenses,” Crump said.
In addition to her work with license reinstatements, she said she established a free alternative to prosecution that let young offenders who were charged with minor nonviolent offenses perform community service to have their charges dismissed.
Additionally, her office has started to review cases under the Second Chance Act, which was passed in June 2020 and allows district attorney’s offices to purge non-violent offenses on North Carolinians’ criminal records if those charges landed when they were under the age of 18, even if they have accrued additional felony charges in the interim. According to Crump, there are currently 18,600 individuals in Greensboro and 8,800 in High Point eligible under the program.
The Fred Cox case and her relationship with police
When it comes to the Fred Cox case, Crump echoed responses she has given to TCB before.
“I did do the right thing,” she said. “I did what my job required me to do. Following an SBI investigation, I submitted two indictments to the Grand Jury to have the detective charged and the Grand Jury declined to indict the detective. The Grand Jury found that there was not enough evidence to charge the detective. Any time someone is accused of committing a crime, probable cause must be found…. In North Carolina, the Grand Jury determines whether probable cause exists to charge a person with a felony, not the district attorney.”
When asked why she didn’t choose to charge Hill first like Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill did in the case of John Neville, Crump responded that the circumstances of the cases were different. Recently, a Grand Jury chose to indict the nurse involved in the case but not the detention officers. O’Neill had charged all six of those involved.
“He had video in his case, I did not,” she said. “And he thought that there was enough evidence to prosecute the five detention officers. The grand jury in Forsyth County did not agree and did not indict. So, they were charged but not indicted. The DA cannot prosecute without an indictment.”
Crump then pointed to cases in Wake County and in Texas in which district attorneys turned over cases to the Grand Jury first.
“It is not unusual to go to the Grand Jury first in these types of cases,” she said.
When asked about her relationship with law enforcement and her confidence relying on police reports to make her decisions, Crump was firm.
“I am confident in using police officers’ reports because before trying a case, my prosecutors have a duty to speak with the officers and any other witnesses involved,” she said. “If they have reason to believe that reports are not accurate, then we have a duty to disclose that information and not use it.”
In just the past few years, reports by law enforcement officers and agencies have produced false information and narratives that have colored the way cases were handled. One of the most egregious examples of this was when the initial police report and subsequent press release failed to mention that Marcus Deon Smith was hogtied in 2018 — a glaring omission of the act that caused his death.
Still, Crump noted her active relationship with local officers and said that they have worked to create positive change in the county including concentrating “efforts on violent crime and serious drug offenses and less on simple possession of marijuana.” She also said she has “heard the calls for police reform” and believes in more extensive training for officers.
During her tenure, Crump said she established quarterly meetings with the heads of the law enforcement offices to discuss key objectives. One of the results of that was a decrease in total traffic stops in Greensboro.
“That was a positive change,” Crump said. “I will continue to work with law enforcement to continue these positive changes.”
One of the biggest issues facing the county, according to Crump, is the backlog in cases exacerbated by the pandemic. The hiring of more staff, increasing the number of defendants on the calendars and prioritizing homicide trials will help to alleviate this problem, she said.
When asked what sets her apart from her opponent, Crump highlighted her years of experience and her efforts during the pandemic.
“Experience matters,” she said. “I am the only candidate who has experience trying serious felony cases. Leadership matters. I have successfully led my office through this pandemic and advocated for more staff to help alleviate the backlog.”
Brenton Boyce (D)
Political newcomer focused on justice reform and transparency
This is Brenton Boyce’s first time running for political office. Boyce, who is the only candidate running against incumbent Avery Crump, graduated from NCA&T State University in 2003 with an economics degree and eventually went to NC Central University to study law. He has been practicing law since 2007 and worked as an assistant public defender in Guilford County from 2008-12. He has had his own practice since 2013. He has also taught at NC A&T as an adjunct professor since 2012.
In his run for district attorney, Boyce puts criminal-justice reform at the top of his platform.
“We need to end the myth that you can’t have criminal justice reform and safe communities,” he said. “The reality is that you can’t have one without the other.”
In his opinion, the biggest issues facing the county is the historic backlog of cases due to the pandemic and the erosion of public trust in the criminal justice system. To remedy these issues, Boyce said he would make sure the district attorney’s office is “more involved with partnering in the community because no one has a monopoly on good ideas.”
While he may have less work experience compared to Crump, Boyce said that his diverse background makes him he better candidate to lead the office.
“Due to my more diverse background of practicing both civil law and criminal defense, particularly with cases involving low-income defendants, I have listened to so many members of the community who have shaped my understanding of the diverse set of circumstances that can lead to a person ending up with being charged with a crime,” he told TCB. “Furthermore, I am confident that I will have a better relationship with staff, other members of the courthouse and stakeholders in the community to build partnerships and confidence in my ability to lead.”
When it comes to the backlog of cases, Boyce’s response was similar to his opponent’s.
He mentioned prioritizing homicides, violent crimes, sex crimes and domestic cases and taking a more restorative approach to petty, non-violent offenses.
“This could include, where appropriate, the increased use of deferred prosecutions, mediation and mental-health and drug specialty courts,” he explained.
The erosion of public trust is a greater problem, Boyce said.
“The elected DA has to have an open-door policy with the community and be willing to hear suggestions and criticisms to craft solutions to complex problems,” he said. “Victims deserve to know that they have a chance to be heard.”
On police reform
When it comes to police reform, Boyce took a slightly different approach compared to his opponent.
“Calls for police reform should not be controversial for several reasons,” he said. “First, there is no profession that wouldn’t benefit from external checks and balances…. Second, prosecutors benefit from having the public trust the work of law enforcement officers, and the best way to do that is to make it clear that officers who break the law or violate policy will be held accountable.”
Part of that process, Boyce said, is to take a “proactive approach by reporting misconduct, refusing to prosecute offenses involving gross civil rights violations and fairly presenting witnesses to a Grand Jury in cases of police misconduct.”
To improve the office overall, Boyce said he would partner with community members, including local law enforcement, to improve standards.
Unlike Crump, Boyce told TCB that he is concerned about the inaccuracy of some police reports.
“This shouldn’t be controversial,” Boyce said. “It also isn’t just about intentional misrepresentations in a police report. Even well-intentioned officers can make a mistake when trying to recall all of the details of a tense situation.”
To remedy this, he said that body-worn camera footage should always be reviewed.
If elected, Boyce said he would clearly establish policies to promote transparency, host regular opportunities for dialogue with the press and community members, modernize discovery practices to get evidence more quickly and consistently review where inequality exists in the system such as reconsidering policies on cash bail and plea negotiations.
“People deserve to have a system that is open to change when there are better ideas that come along,” Boyce said. “I can promise that I have a deep respect…for how much power a district attorney has…. I plan to earn the public trust in wielding that power by showing that I am accountable to the citizens who put me in that office.”
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