Mitchell Garrell | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Mitchell Garrell 

Candidate for Durham District Attorney

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Mitchell Garrell
Party: Democrat
Date of Birth: December 5, 1955
Candidate web site:
Occupation & Employer: Assistant District Attorney, State of North Carolina, 14th Prosecutorial District
Years lived in Durham: 14

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 restoration of the trust and confidence of the citizens of Durham County that justice without fear or favor is what the Office is about; the events of the last two years have strained the public’s confidence in this proposition. My priorities in dealing with this issue are:

  • First, to lead by example. During the course of my thirteen year career as an Assistant District Attorney (ADA), I have earned a reputation of candor with judges and defense attorneys. I have never refused to meet with a defense attorney about a case, or to meet with the attorney and her or his client. I have always provided discovery to opposing counsel in an appropriate manner.

  • Second, to make clear what is expected of my ADA’s. During my career here, I believe that the absence of direct performance reviews has made it more difficult to ensure that ADA’s know what standards are to be met. I would institute regular performance reviews.

  • Finally, the campaign process has given the citizens of this county the opportunity to judge me, in part, by those who have endorsed my candidacy. In regard to the task of restoring trust and confidence in the District Attorney’s Office, no endorsement is more important than that of Christine Mumma. Ms. Mumma is the Executive Director of the NC Commission on Actual Innocence which was established by the Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court. Ms. Mumma’s endorsement should reassure the citizens of Durham County that I will administer my duties in compliance with the law, without fear or favor.

Another important issue facing the District Attorney’s Office is the escalating problem of witness intimidation. Witness intimidation, often by those associated with a defendant, renders otherwise upstanding citizens reluctant to testify, especially in serious felony cases. (Related to this problem is how the District Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies, can act to reduce the baleful influence of gangs in our community; please see my answer to question 11., infra..) As District Attorney, I would place a greater emphasis on the enforcement of the existing witness intimidation statute, while at the same time, encouraging the legislature to make this statute easier to enforce and more punitive.

Witnesses and victims must believe that they will not be subject to harm if they come forward and testify in serious felony cases. I would look to other jurisdictions (e.g. Baltimore, MD) in an effort to craft a solution that is workable in Durham. Other similarly situated jurisdictions in North Carolina are facing similar problems; this fact leads to the possibility of cooperation between and among jurisdictions to protect witnesses and victims before, and after, trial. The NC Legislature should be involved in this process; this is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution, but we cannot afford to wait, we in Durham must begin to address this issue.

Finally, I would support efforts, especially in homicide cases, to make reconciliation between the families of victims and defendant’s and their families an informal part of the process of resolving criminal cases. Nationally, there are models for programs such as this. In my own experience, such a reconciliation process has led to powerful results in the few cases in which the victim’s family has expressed a desire for dialogue with the defendant. Such programs are part of the solution to the unacceptable level of violence in our community.

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 am proud of my record as an Assistant District Attorney over these last thirteen years. I have always gone the extra mile to be diligent and fair in my administration of the criminal law. My record of performance can be attested to by the judges, attorneys, victims, law enforcement officers and defendants with whom I have interacted. I invite your publication and the voters of Durham County to ask those involved in the criminal justice system about my record and the records of my opponents and to act on the results of those queries.

3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

Life in the state of nature is “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Man forms peaceful societies by entering into a social contract. While I do not agree with Thomas Hobbes completely or even mostly, I do see the underpinnings of what we do in the District Attorney’s Office in a basic commitment to the rule of law as opposed to rule by the stronger or more intelligent.

Furthermore, I believe strongly that the individual owes a debt to the greater society just as the greater society owes a debt to the individual. I believe that the debt owed to the individual by the state is far greater than that envisioned by Hobbes, or, for that matter, by our founding fathers. Be that as it may, I believe that each individual is owed, as a starting proposition, the right to go about in the pursuits of their life free of violence and threat of physical harm. I have argued to juries, from Hobbes, that a crime committed in the lowest income area of our city should be treated just as seriously as that same crime committed in the highest income area. Finally, my belief that the individual owes a debt to society leads to a comfort level with the enforcement of what libertarians might consider “victimless crimes”.

On a more pedestrian level, I define myself as a member of the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.

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

Please see my response to your question number seven, infra.

5. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

I have attempted to conduct myself as an ADA with the firm belief that everyone with whom I interact, judges, attorneys, victims, law enforcement officers, and, most crucially, those charged with criminal offenses, should be treated with dignity and respect. Almost without exception the defendants I prosecute are not evil persons but, rather, normal persons who have committed bad acts. My ability to recognize all involved in the criminal justice system as children of God enables me to be a fairer and more effective prosecutor, and will allow me to be a fairer and more effective District Attorney.

6. North Carolina prosecutes 16-year-olds as adults. (Thirteen-year-old juveniles who are charged with felonies can also be prosecuted as adults, if transferred from juvenile court.) Do you support the raising of the juvenile jurisdiction to 18? Explain.

I believe that the current balance between recognizing the role of youthful lack of judgment and the lessened culpability that follows and society’s demand that one must be responsible for their actions, particularly in the case of serious violent crimes has been fairly drawn by our legislature and courts. I do not support the raising of the juvenile jurisdiction to 18.

7. What is your position on seeking the death penalty? Why?

I am opposed to capital punishment on religious, legal and efficiency grounds. This is a position I have held my entire adult life. My position is well-known within this Office and among the criminal defense bar; I have never prosecuted a case capitally, nor have I threatened a capital prosecution in order to obtain a plea. There have been, to my knowledge, only four capital prosecutions in this county in the last several decades, and three of those convictions have been reversed. Many states, including North Carolina, are in the process of reexamining the imposition of the death penalty. While I believe that the criminal justice system produces the right result almost all the time, here in Durham County and throughout North Carolina, the work of the NC Commission on Actual Innocence and similar groups in reversing the convictions of those wrongly imprisoned demonstrate that life without the possibility of parole should be the most serious punishment allowed, as it allows for meaningful correction of error.

8. Are you in favor of raising suggested bond guidelines for serious felonies? Are you in favor of unsecured bonds for Class 2 and 3 misdemeanors? Explain.

I am in full support of the revised bond guidelines established by our chief judges. It is crucial that both citizens generally and those who would commit criminal acts specifically be made aware that the safety of the community is paramount in the setting of bonds. We in Durham cannot be seen (see recent comments by a neighboring District Attorney) as having a revolving door system under which those charged with serious crimes bond out only to be charged with other serious crimes, ad infinitum.

I am in favor of assessing each case individually and that includes terms and conditions of pretrial release. I am not opposed in principle to an unsecured bond in Class II or Class III misdemeanors.

9. When is it inappropriate to plea bargain cases?

It is a rare case in which an honest and thorough attempt to resolve the case without a jury should not be made. I have always done my best to resolve a case without a jury as the certainty and finality of a plea is almost always preferable to the inherent uncertainty of the jury trial process.

10. How do you plan to better manage the movement of cases through the system? What can you do to process the huge backlog of cases?

I believe that it is time to review the Case Management System which was instituted in 1999 and last revised in 2001. This process must include our judges and the defense bar as well as the District Attorney. We should look to other counties for ideas at improvement. While the current system is an improvement over the system which it replaced, without a doubt there is room for improvement. I would be open to a cooperative effort to improve the efficiency of our courts.

In a more general sense, so long as we as a state continue to fund the judicial branch, envisioned as a coequal branch of our government, at three percent of our state budget, the overwhelming disparity between resources and cases will continue to lead to justice delayed for victims and defendants alike. As District Attorney, I would add my voice to those who call for funding the judicial branch at a sustainable level.

11. Why are there so few jury criminal court trials in Superior Court? Is it your position that you won’t seek a jury trial unless you are certain you can be successful?

There are so few jury trials in Superior Court for a number of reasons, including:

  • Underfunding of the judicial branch of government which leads to enormous caseloads for prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.

  • Lack of attention to utilizing ADA’s skills. Only those who actually thrive on the trial process should be prosecuting serious felony cases.

No matter what changes are instituted, the proportion of cases tried to cases resolved by plea will be miniscule. There simply is not enough time or (realistically) resources to try every case. Having said that, I do believe that a willingness to try cases on the part of ADA’s will result in more, and more just, pleas.

It is my position that a case should be tried to a jury if, assuming of course that no new facts or legal rulings have changed the assessment of the case which led it to be charged and/or indicted initially, after attempts at a fair nontrial disposition have been exhausted, there is a reasonable possibility of a guilty verdict. Certainty is a quality in short supply in any area of life.

12. What is your experience in juvenile court? What can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?

I have represented the State in juvenile court on occasion. More frequently I have been involved in juvenile court in cases in which the parental rights of abused children are litigated and in cases in which I have sought the transfer of serious violent crimes to the jurisdiction of the adult court system.

We do have, as do many communities, a serious gang problem in Durham. While many of the solutions to the problems which lead to gang involvement lie outside the purview of the District Attorney’s Office, I would continue to support the activities of both the recently established ADA position whose primary role is one of outreach and education to the community on gang issues as well as the longer standing ADA position specializing in gang prosecutions.More specifically, I would encourage the increased utilization of existing conspiracy statutes to prosecute those who order and/or support fellow gang members in their violent conduct, even as I lobby the legislature for a broader basis upon which to bring such charges. Often, members of a gang take part in witness intimidation, or, in some cases, attempts at jury intimidation, when one of their members is charged with a criminal offense. I would explore the creative and expanded use of existing law to make clear that our criminal justice system, and our community, will not be held hostage to gangs.

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