Early voting begins Thursday for the May primaries. Among the races on the ballot this year is Buncombe County district attorney. BPR’s Jeremy Loeb interviewed both candidates running for the office.
The May 8th Democratic primary for Buncombe County District Attorney is essentially the general election because no Republican has filed to run. It’s a rematch between incumbent Todd Williams and Asheville defense attorney Ben Scales. Scales ran in 2014 and got 38 percent of the vote to Williams’ 62. But that time he ran as an independent, so he hopes to do better this time around running as a Democrat. Scales’ recent career has focused mainly on representing entertainers and defending people against what he sees as unjust marijuana laws. He says as D.A. he won’t prosecute any adult for simple possession.
Scales: “That’s going to be my lodestar, if you will, my benchmark is going to be ‘Is somebody getting hurt?’ And if nobody’s getting hurt, I’m not going to prosecute it, but if anybody is getting hurt I’m going to prosecute it regardless of who’s doing the hurting.”
As to why he’s challenging Williams?
Scales: “The people of Buncombe County deserve a true progressive in that office and I believe that I can bring that vision. I don’t think he’s enacted progressive programs.”
But Williams says he’s a lifelong Democrat, and points to new initiatives like the Justice Resource Center that opened last year.
Williams: “The courthouse is now a place for rehabilitation and potentially opportunity for you, rather than just penalties. That is a progressive thing.”
But Scales went further with his criticisms.
Scales: “I feel like there’s been a real breakdown of trust between the District Attorney’s office and law enforcement. Also within the courthouse there’s just a lack of leadership that should be coming from the D.A.’s office that I’m not seeing.”
One thing Scales points out is that Williams passed recently on a forum to debate him. Williams says he’s at a disadvantage because there are things as D.A. he can’t discuss regarding ongoing cases.
Williams: “I don’t think we’re getting additional transparency through a forum where an individual can attack and I can’t respond.”
The biggest attack from Scales recently has been over the handling of the August beating of Johnnie Jermaine Rush, an unarmed black man accused of jaywalking and trespassing, by former Asheville police officer Chris Hickman who’s white. Williams brought charges against Hickman in March about a week after video leaked to the Asheville Citizen-Times was published.
Scales: “Here he had the exact same evidence that he ended up charging him with, he had that evidence 6 months before. For some reason he didn’t act on it, and the only reason he did act on it was the video release, and there was massive public outcry and outrage.”
But Williams tells it differently.
Williams: “We have no investigation faculty in the DA’s office unless and until there is a charge, and all of our charges have to be based on probable cause. Probable cause either found by a judicial figure or submitted to us by a sworn law enforcement agency so we can take action.”
He says the Asheville Police Department immediately took Hickman’s badge and gun after the incident and started an internal investigation.
Williams: “They do come back in December and they say, ‘Well do we need a criminal investigation?’ And the answer was ‘Yes.” And what was completely unforeseeable to us was when we jointly requested the SBI to become involved, was the SBI refused the investigation, and then that dropped it back in APD’s lap to investigate.”
As to why charges came so soon after the leak of the video, and not before, Williams says the police department probably was feeling pressure to complete their own criminal investigation.
Williams: “And I was certainly applying pressure to receive that investigation as quickly as possible. And when we received it on March 6th, we were able then to within two days to do the analysis that we needed to do to take the case to a magistrate.”
Williams’ re-election just may depend on whether his explanation of the Rush timeline satisfies voters. Early voting runs until May 5th. The primary is May 8th.