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District Attorney candidates answer questions leading up to election

April 19th, 2014 9:00 pm by Becky Campbell

District Attorney candidates answer questions leading up to election

First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark is working hard to not be a one-term prosecutor as the May 6 Republican primary approaches. Even with a win there, he’ll have another face-off in August with an Independent challenger.

The position, to which Clark was elected in 2006 when he defeated incumbent D.A. Joe Crumley, includes serving Carter, Johnson, Washington and Unicoi counties.
Clark said he has the ”proven ability to carry out the many duties of the district attorney general and (I’m) the most experienced and qualified candidate for the position.”

But two men have stepped forward to try to win the position away from him. First is Republican Jerome Cochran in the May primary. Then, in August, Independent candidate Dan Smith will challenge the winner of the Rebuplican primary. Smith has said he’s a lifelong Republican, but believes all judicial offices should be nonpartisan.

“None of the judicial offices are policy positions. It is the legislative offices that make the laws. It is the judicial positions that enforce the laws and ensure justice for all citizens,” Smith said.

In years past, judicial candidates have only run in the August general election, but Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties all opted to include those races in the May primary. Johnson County will not have a primary election.

Cochran believes the public has lost faith in the DA’s office and said he’s the man to restore it.

“I will work to restore the public’s faith and confidence in the DA’s office’s ability to evaluate and prosecute criminals,” Cochran said.

Smith has lodged similar comments and pledges to “develop a more uniform process throughout the district,” and implement a standard operating procedure on how to handle cases.

Early voting for the May 6 Republican primary started last week and runs through May 1. The primary is May 6.

Below are questions the Press asked the three candidates for District Attorney General:

What do you consider to be the most urgent issue facing the DA’s office today?

There are numerous issues facing the DA’s office, but I feel two of the most important are the lack of personnel and the overwhelming drug problem. If there was funding available for additional support staff and assistant district attorneys for both child support and criminal division, the office could dedicate more time to providing necessary attention to matters concerning crime victims, law enforcement issues and prosecution of drug cases, sex offense cases and other serious crimes.

The most urgent issue facing the office is that the public has lost faith and confidence in the office’s ability to do its job due to its handling of cases involving meth, violent criminals and the waste of tax dollars on frivolous prosecutions.
We must change the approach that the office is taking in the way it handles cases involving meth and violent criminals. I will include in every plea bargain involving meth some jail time or ask the court in passing sentencing on a case involving meth that jail time be given. I will oppose probation for violent criminals and if the case meets the statutory requirements, I will seek the death penalty. The office must send a strong message that there are serious consequences to their actions and the public must see that the revolving door at the courthouse that allows repeat offenders to continually get out will be closed.

The lack of leadership, guidance and direction from the DA to his staff. There is no standard operating procedure to be followed by the entire staff to determine, on the front end, the quality of the case, the procedural posture of the case and the outcome to be expected throughout the 1st judicial District. This failure results in wasted effort, wasted taxpayer money and a perception that justice is not swift, sure and predictable.

Where would you focus your efforts in order to move cases through the court system more efficiently?

Again, I would reiterate the fact that the office is currently understaffed. I have requested funding every fiscal year and have been unsuccessful in obtaining two additional state-funded assistant district attorneys. However, more support staff is needed to assist these attorneys in their efficiency in the prosecution of cases. Also, the additional staffing would provide more resources for victims of crimes, more successful collection of child support payments and more focus on the growing issues related to crimes in this district.

Currently, the District Attorney’s office has a well-working relationship with judges, Circuit Court clerks, jails and law enforcement agencies. Due to this relationship, we will continue to build and work together to move cases as efficiently as possible. By implementing a drug court, I would be able to solely assign an attorney to prosecute these type cases, which would make for more efficient prosecution on not only drug related cases, but allow attorneys to more efficiently prosecute other serious cases. If re-elected, it is my intention to restructure the office by placing attorneys in courts that they are most experienced in to provide proficient results in the prosecution of criminal cases.

I would focus on better evaluating cases in order to avoid charging citizens with cases that have no merit. Cases involving the former Unicoi County sheriff and Carter County planning director are just a couple of examples of cases that wasted taxpayer dollars and, with proper evaluation of the cases, should probably never have been brought to begin with.

I would also focus on resolving more cases in Sessions Court in order to ensure only the most serious cases come to Criminal Court. We have a limited budget and we must ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent by focusing on the serious matters in criminal court.

I would also modernize how the office functions in order to better communicate with victims of crimes and defense attorneys. With the technology we have today, there is no excuse for victims of crimes not being informed of how or when cases they are concerned with were resolved.

Cases would be ready to be tried by the time of presentment or indictment. That is, prior to an indictment, evidence would be reviewed and ready to be introduced at trial, witnesses would have been interviewed and ready for trial, required discovery to the defendant would be available within 10 days of the defendant’s arraignment, and the DA’s office would oppose any defense request to continue a set trial date absent extraordinary circumstances readily demonstrable to the DA.

What makes you the best candidate for this job?

I feel I am the best candidate for District Attorney General based on my experience with court proceedings and ability to relate to victims. I have been involved in hearings and trials for the last 20 years, and am capable of prosecuting criminal cases. I also feel that my excellent working relationship with law enforcement, courts, clerks and other court personnel plays an important role in this position. I manage four counties throughout this district, which includes both criminal and child support division. It is a difficult job due to the size of this district. I have learned a lot about this position over the last eight years, and am more confident in my role and decisions I make. If elected, I will build on what I have learned and make this district more successful in prosecution of crime and collection of child support payments, which is what these victims and children deserve.

With my experience practicing in the state Criminal Courts and Sessions Courts as a defense attorney and my experience serving in the state legislature, I feel I am uniquely qualified for the position. I understand that not every case brought forward by law enforcement is a crime and that you must evaluate each case from both sides to ensure both the victim and accused receive justice. As a state legislator, I was constantly dealing with state budget matters and protecting tax payer dollars. I understand that the Office of District Attorney has limited dollars so we must evaluate cases carefully to make sure that a crime has been committed before we move forward and potentially ruin the name and reputation of the accused. When you have had an office governed by someone from within the office for over 40 years, I think that my fresh perspective or ideas to modernize office and improve its efficiency will restore the public’s trust and confidence in the office.

First, I have tried, either to a military tribunal or 12-person jury, more than 200 criminal cases. Second, I have briefed and argued more than 40 cases to either the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals or the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Third, as a Marine Corps Officer and Judge Advocate, I served in positions of command and supervision. That leadership training and skill coupled with my extensive trial and appellate experience has provided me with the tools necessary to run a professional, effective and efficient District Attorney’s office and makes me the best candidate for the job.

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