Roger Echols—Durham County District Attorney | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

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Roger Echols—Durham County District Attorney

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Roger Echols
Campaign website: reelectrogerecholsda.com
Phone number: (919) 452-4255
Email: reelectrogerecholsda@gmail.com
Years lived in Durham County: 5

1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the District Attorney’s Office? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?

The most important issue facing the District Attorney’s Office is the significant amount of violent crime that the county experiences and therefore the number of violent cases that the District Attorney’s Office is tasked with prosecuting. In recognizing this issue I have done the following:
a.) Increased the number of prosecutors who prosecute violent crimes. When I became District Attorney the office dedicated 7 prosecutors to the prosecution of violent crime. Currently, I have assigned 9 prosecutors to a caseload focused on the prosecution of felony violent crime. In order to do this I shifted resources because the State has not provided the office with additional resources (prosecutors). Of the 13 prosecutors who prosecute felonies in my office, 9 primarily prosecute violent crimes. The other 4 prosecutors also spend time prosecuting violent crime although their primary responsibilities are to prosecute other offenses such as residential breaking and entering offenses.
b.) We implemented homicide status conferences to more effectively and efficiently handle and dispose of homicide cases. Handling homicide cases this way focuses everyone’s attention on these cases including our Senior Resident Superior Court Judge who is the only judge who presides over these status conferences. Since the implementation of the quarterly status conferences we have disposed of homicide cases at a greater rate than homicides have been charged.
c.) My office has also worked with the police department in forming a robbery task force. The police department wanted to address the significant number of armed robberies occurring in our city. I wanted to address the issue as well. The police department asked me to dedicate one prosecutor to the task force. I assigned two prosecutors to the task force and I have personally been involved with the robbery task force as well. We have taken a leading role to help coordinate local officers, federal officers, state prosecutors and federal prosecutors to more effectively investigate and prosecute armed robberies.

Another important issue facing the district attorney’s office is disposing of cases fairly in a way that balances public safety, victim’s rights and the overly punitive effect (and sometimes unfair effect) a criminal record can have on defendants after they have served their punishment. I have done the following to address this issue:
a.) Most nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies are disposed of by way of deferred prosecution (for misdemeanors and felonies) or misdemeanors for low level felonies for offenders who have no record and for many with records. Residential breaking and entering offenses are low level felonies that we would not necessarily dispose of this way absent the consent of the victim because these are the type of offenses that threaten the safety of people in their own homes.
b.) Implemented programs such as misdemeanor diversion program, mental health court and amnesty day (described in greater detail later in this questionnaire).
c.) Created a partnership with the Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham in part to look for sentencing alternatives. Implemented restorative justice dispositions (1st DA in Durham to do so). We have entered restorative justice dispositions in Durham on major felonies which we believe to be the first in this state.
I will continue to work within the court system and with other community agencies to look for sentencing alternatives that would lessen the effect of convictions on offenders without compromising the safety of other citizens.

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective district attorney? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

I have a total of 20 years of prosecutorial experience which includes 3 ½ years as Durham County District Attorney and 4 years as a chief assistant district attorney. My experience includes personally prosecuting thousands of cases and making decisions in thousands of additional cases that prosecutors under my supervision have been assigned to. I have personally prosecuted and overseen some of the most high profile cases in Durham County’s history. I have prosecuted all types of cases including property crimes, financial crimes, drug trafficking, rapes, child sex offenses, homicides and all other types of violent crime. I have been the lead prosecutor in over 100 jury trials including rape, child sex offense and homicide trials. During my tenure as a prosecutor I have supervised lawyers and support staff. As district attorney I have maintained and strengthened the stability of the office of district attorney. I have implemented homicide status conferences that have resulted in greater focus and efficiency in the administration and disposition of homicides as district attorney. Since we have implemented quarterly homicide status conferences, we have disposed of more homicides than have been charged. I have also been the district attorney that has either approved or initiated innovative programs such as the misdemeanor diversion program, mental health court, restorative justice dispositions and amnesty day license restoration. All of these programs are creative and innovative in that they keep offenders from being charged with a crime in some cases, keep offenders from being convicted of crimes in others and or give them their privilege to legally drive without costs to them while connecting them to services that treat their problems.

3. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?

The history of the Durham County District Attorney’s Office has included turmoil. My tenure as district attorney has been one of stability and integrity that has allowed the focus of the office and the system to be on the administration of justice. My record and the record of my office establishes that we are a thoughtful office that balances the safety of the community, the rights and interests of the victim, and the rights of defendants to consistently make fair decisions. In addition to the accomplishments mentioned in the answer above, we have been an office that has operated with great efficiency. The office has consistently disposed of over 120% of its cases annually, one of the highest rates in the state. The office also consistently disposes of cases in a time period lower or better than the state average. During a time period that state law has required more sentences to be served in local jails, the average daily population in the Durham County Jail has decreased by 51 inmates daily over the last 4 years based on the year end statistics. Our office has been recognized for the efficient way that we run traffic court and for our ability and expertise in prosecuting impaired driving offenses. My office has established a record of working with community agencies related to the work that we do such as Parents of Murdered Children, The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Together for Resilient Youth, Love and Respect, Partners Against Crime, Court Watch, MADD, and Durham Public Schools.

4. In Philadelphia last year, voters elected a district attorney who promised far-reaching criminal-justice reforms. Perhaps most significant, he overhauled the city’s plea-bargain system to instruct prosecutors to begin offering plea deals at the low end of sentencing guidelines, and for some crimes below the bottom end of the state’s sentencing guidelines. Do you believe these types of reforms to the criminal justice system are necessary or would be beneficial in Durham? What sort of reforms would you like to see put in place?

Many of the reforms mentioned by the district attorney elected in Philadelphia have been implemented in Durham, specifically in how plea bargains are offered. It can be argued that our current plea bargain system is less punitive than that of Philadelphia. Currently in Durham, defendants without a record that are charged with low level felonies very often are offered deferred prosecution agreements which allow them the opportunity at walking away without a conviction. Most others are offered misdemeanor pleas. The most punitive offer that low level felony offenders without a record are offered is probation which is at the bottom of the sentencing guidelines. In fact, it is not uncommon for low level felony offenders with a criminal record to be offered probationary sentences. Mid-level felony offenders are also consistently offered sentences at the bottom of the sentencing guidelines when they are not offered to plead guilty to lesser offenses.

One of the reforms mentioned in Philadelphia is the creation of a conviction integrity unit. Every district attorney and prosecutor should be pro-innocence. Some district attorneys across the country have created conviction integrity units like the one suggested in Philadelphia because that is their best option to address wrongful convictions. However, in North Carolina there is a much better option. North Carolina has the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission which is a state agency established to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of factual innocence. The NC Innocence Inquiry Commission is the only agency of its type in the country. It is a better option to address the integrity of convictions and innocence claims because it is an independent agency or commission that carefully investigates cases in a neutral and impartial manner and the commission has more power than an individual district attorney’s office. The existence of the Commission alleviates the need for a District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit which means district attorneys in North Carolina don’t have to dedicate staff, from already very limited resources, to accomplish what the Commission is better suited to do. The Commission has investigated over 2300 cases including 311 last year. I believe in the work that they do so much as well as the importance of prosecutors having an eye for innocence at all times during a prosecution that I hired the first and former director of the commission to be a violent crime prosecutor. I also employ another former staff attorney from the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission. Even though we do have the Commission I wanted to do everything that I could do to address possible wrongful convictions in Durham. Therefore, in early 2015, my office made an agreement with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, another agency that investigates innocence claims. That agreement consisted of that agency sending an innocence package or application to all inmates within the NC Division of Adult Correction who were serving a sentence on a class D felony or above. The NC Center on Actual Innocence would investigate the applications and we would agree to cooperate with the investigations and review the investigations that they deemed included actual evidence of innocence. They have received 118 applications and we have cooperated with every request in their investigations.

I believe the policies and initiatives mentioned above have been beneficial to Durham. There are more reforms that could be made. Programs such as the misdemeanor diversion program, mental health court and amnesty day are also reforms that have been locally made to the justice system that have been beneficial to Durham. More programs that give more options to address cases without obtaining convictions while using more resources to address whatever may be the offender’s issues. Reforms in the system should be made to decriminalize poverty. Offenses such as sleeping in a park, soliciting alms (begging), and public urination should not be criminal offenses. For this reason, my office regularly dismisses these types of offenses. Judges should be able to remit costs of court based on findings of a defendant’s inability to pay.

5. On any given day, many residents of the Durham jail are there not because they’ve been convicted of a crime but because they cannot afford their bail. What changes to the cash bail system, if any, do you support? Why? If you don't support any changes, please explain why you think the current system is successful.

I support a complete change in the bail system including the elimination of cash bail. I specifically support a system that would decide pretrial release based on safety to the community. If a defendant is deemed to not be a threat to the safety of the community his or her release should not depend on the posting of any bond. I support these changes because the cash bail system is an inequitable system that gives an unfair disadvantage to those without means and an unfair advantage to those with significant financial means. State laws determine pretrial release in North Carolina. I support things that can be done locally that would minimize the unfair disadvantages of the cash bail system on people without significant financial means. Specifically expanded pretrial services with pretrial assessment tools designed to release more defendants pretrial. I support measures such as this because I believe greater pretrial services would balance the interests of the community to be safe with the liberty of defendants who have not been convicted of a crime.

6. Do you support the expanded use of citations as an alternative to arrests? Under what circumstances do you believe citations should be issued?

I support the expanded use of citations. Citations should be issued on traffic misdemeanors except driving while impaired and eluding arrest. I also support the use of citations or process that would avoid arrest on class 2 and class 3 misdemeanors.

7. In terms of juvenile justice, what do you believe can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?

I would like to see families and juveniles given more options for extracurricular activities and education during afternoons, nights, weekends and summers. If there are options provided other than the lack of those options which make gang involvement more likely, I believe that could help. If more options are provided or facilitated through juvenile justice that could also help prevent gang involvement.

8. Perhaps the most controversial case the Durham County District Attorney’s Office handled in the last year was that of the activists who toppled the Confederate monument. Though the activists tore down the statue in plain view of anyone and everyone, the state was unable to secure any misdemeanor convictions. Do you believe justice was served in this matter? Looking back, how do you wish it would have been handled differently, if at all?

I do not believe justice was completely served in this matter. As I publicly stated shortly after the date of the monument destruction, justice required that I take into account the recent events in Charlottesville, the continued marginalization of many in our community, state laws that made it impossible to address the issue of Confederate monuments locally and the fact that property was destroyed in violation of the law. After analysis of those factors, I thought prosecution of felonies was inappropriate. I also believed justice could be served in most cases without the conviction of any crime including misdemeanors. The Rules of Professional Conduct do not allow me to speak about negotiations while a prosecution is pending; therefore, I could not ethically reveal plea offers or anything about negotiations before the cases were disposed. However, in most cases I offered a deferred prosecution agreement that would have required community service and a few other conditions but would not have resulted in any conviction. I believed this disposition would have been the most appropriate result given the factors involved in this case. As is a defendant’s right, all of the defendants except one, did not accept the deferred prosecution offer. We were limited to the evidence in the investigative file to prove the case. We attempted to get in all of the evidence and videos that we believed were admissible that were available to us, understanding that some of the evidence and some of the videos the public may have seen would not have been admissible evidence. Given the Court’s ruling on the first three cases, I believed then as I do now that the correct decision was not to proceed in the remaining cases. Regardless of any feelings that I may have had about the investigation and the Court’s rulings, I respect the Court’s ruling as I have in the thousands of cases that I have been involved with. Generally, I would not have handled these cases significantly differently. Our intent was to join all the defendants together for one trial; however, the judge told us that he would not allow that motion.

9. It has been more than a decade since North Carolina executed anyone, and there is no one who was sentenced in Durham County on death row. Do you support capital punishment? Under what circumstances would you think it proper to seek the death penalty?

I am not a proponent of the death penalty. The U.S. Constitution and State law allows the death penalty as an option for those crimes that are extremely heinous. The North Carolina Constitution as codified in NC State law also gives a victim’s family the right to give input to the prosecutor before certain decisions are made including those that relate to pleas and sentencing. It is a punishment that should only be used in the most extreme cases. As a prosecutor and the elected DA, I have not proceeded on a case capitally. I have chosen not to proceed capitally on cases such as State v. Pete Moses and State v. Dmarlo Johnson. When I took office as DA, there were 3 capital cases pending and I removed the death penalty for consideration in all three cases. In Durham, we have not empaneled a jury for a capital case since 1997. As the elected DA, I have had to make the decision whether or not to proceed capitally in over 100 cases. The criteria that I have used are as follows: the presence of any aggravating circumstances that would allow a case to proceed capitally, the type and number of aggravating circumstances, the strength of the evidence on the aggravating factors, any known mitigating circumstances, the strength of the evidence on the known mitigating factors, the strength of the evidence on the case and the wishes of the family.

10. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.

I have made several decisions that could cost me points with some voters. Every decision that we make as DAs and assistants involve competing interests. Most times there are more than two entities with an interest in the decisions that we make. Sometimes the right decision involves disappointing all entities and it never involves making all entities happy. Some of the principled decisions that I have made are as follows:

1.) I did not prosecute those charged with destruction of the confederate monument with felonies
2.) I did make the decision to prosecute those charged with destruction of the confederate monument with misdemeanors
3.) I dismissed charges against the remaining defendants in the above referenced cases after adverse results in the first three trials
4.) I have approved over 30 defendants for mental health court, some charged with felonies and or violent crimes, some with significant criminal records knowing that if they comply with mental health treatment they will not be convicted of any crime.
5.) Approved deferred prosecution for the defendant charged with class F felonies for firing a gun inside Wheels Skating Rink

I will continue to make decisions that I believe are right regardless of the political ramifications as the oath that I have taken requires.


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