LAURINBURG — Unlike in a true debate — or in a courtroom trial — no victor was named at the conclusion of sparring between incumbent District Attorney Kristy Newton and challenger James Allen at Tuesday’s Laurinburg-Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum.
Newton has served as top prosecutor for District 16A, which comprises Scotland and Hoke counties, since 2000.
Allen earned his law degree in 2011 at N.C. Central University, prior to which he served as a juvenile court counselor for seven years.
The pair presented their platforms and responded to media and audience questions regarding diversity within the district attorney’s office, their respective experience levels, and room for improvement in the court system.
“If you have a population that’s diverse, you need to have some diversity, because I can’t relate to everybody’s situation, but if I have people in my office who can relate to that situation, then we can be able to better find a solution,” Allen said.
Newton said that she makes hiring decisions, which are few, based on qualifications and the best fit for each position, and has several bilingual individuals on staff to serve the area’s Hispanic population.
“As a district attorney, you’re going to make thousands of decisions about prosecutorial matters, and anyone who will make a decision that’s not based on fairness, competence, experience, education, the facts and the law, but is based on something other than that, in one area is more likely to make that decision in another area,” she said.
If elected, Allen said that he would implement dispute resolution processes to reduce congestion in the court system and bring cases to trial more quickly. He also hopes to increase referrals to teen court and reduce the average wait for murder trials.
“Programs are not buzzwords,” he said. “Programs are things that would help speed up the court system, programs are things that we need to have in place so that our people won’t have to sit out there in court and wait.”
While in office, Newton said that she has worked with judges, law enforcement, and the clerks of court in both counties to try homicide cases with the greatest possible expedience — in the face of heightened standards for attorney qualification by the state indigent defense office and delays in state evidence testing.
“Many district attorneys I know throughout the state never go in a courtroom and they do not actively prosecute cases — they serve merely in an administrative role,” she said. “I have purposefully not done that. I have tried cases during the time I’ve been the elected district attorney, and I have touched and reviewed every homicide case from both Hoke and Scotland counties that has occurred over the last 16 years.”
Both Newton and Allen assured listeners that they would be relentless in their pursuit of justice, including following leads in decades-old cases and ensuring that charges fit each defendant’s crime.
Though Allen bowed to Newton’s experience, the two differed over the background necessary for the district attorney’s job.
“It’s good to have a lot of experience, but sometimes it’s all about what you do whenever you get there,” Allen said. “If I became District Attorney, the experience I have would serve me just as well.”
While Allen could not give a figure after an audience member’s question regarding the number of jury trials prosecuted by each candidate and whether they meet state standards for defense in capital cases, Newton estimated that she has 50 jury trials under her belt.
“When you talk to prosecutors from all over the state of North Carolina, they will tell you that only their most seasoned and experienced trial lawyers who have jury trial experience do capital case work,” said Newton. “When you are dealing with a person’s life, there is nothing more serious than that.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.