2013: Women to Watch

Published 8:33 am Wednesday, March 6, 2013

As the chief law enforcement officer in three counties, Valerie Mitchell Asbell sees families at the most difficult times of their lives.

She’s been by their side when a loved one has been murdered or when a child has been molested, raped or victimized by other horrible crimes. Interacting with the victims and their loved ones can be difficult during that time, but for Asbell it’s been an extremely rewarding career serving as District Attorney for Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties for the past 13 years.

“When I took the position of District Attorney in 2000, I promised the citizens of 6B that I would continue to aggressively fight hard for the victims of crime and I would treat all people with dignity, respect, honesty and fairness and I would continue to work in the community to try to keep our young people out of the courtroom,” said Asbell.  “Those were my objectives and goals in 2000 and they will continue to be my objectives in 2013 going forward as it remains an honor and a privilege to serve as the District Attorney for these three counties.”

A native of Roxboro in Person County (north of Raleigh), Asbell said a murder case when she was still in high school caught her attention and helped guide her to the career path she chose.

“I guess my interest in law came when the father of one of my high school friends was stabbed to death in Durham,” she recalled. “I remember my dad saying that the murderer didn’t get enough (prison) time. I felt like I wanted to be in a position where I could fight for families like my friend. My love of the law started early.”

After graduating in 1985 from Person Senior High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society, Asbell enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta, GA where she was a double major in psychology and religion, graduating in 1989 with two degrees.

“I knew I wanted to go into law and I had plans to go to law school, but both my majors at Emory were designed to help me later in life, after my law career ended. I thought about possibly teaching psychology or religion,” she said.

That work ethic in the classroom came natural. She was the daughter of a farmer and tobacco warehouse owner.

“To say my dad (the now late Elmo Mitchell) was a hard worker is an understatement,” she said proudly. “He wanted my brother and me not to have to work as hard as he did all his life. He wanted us to do better. He and my mother (the now late Louise Mitchell), a stay at home mom, always encouraged us to do better, to make the most out of life.”

Somehow, even without the presence of a lawyer in the family, both Valerie and her brother joined the legal profession.

She was accepted to TulaneLawSchool in New Orleans. Her brother, Traynham, two years older, was there.

“I loved Tulane, but my choice was made easier because he was there,” she stated. “I concentrated on criminal law. I was fortunate that one of my brother’s friends had started working as an assistant DA in the New Orleans District Attorney’s office. I landed an internship there after a long process. I got to watch trials….that’s when I knew what I wanted to do once I graduated. I learned a lot there.”

Upon graduation from Tulane in 1992, Asbell returned to North Carolina in an effort to be closer to her aging parents. She rented an apartment in Raleigh and then passed the North Carolina Bar Exam in August of that year.

“I then started applying for jobs,” she recalled. “I sent resumes to all the DA offices in the state. Bob Cottle, who was the DA in HalifaxCounty, was a Tulane grad. He told me there was an opening with (District 6B Attorney) David Beard’s office in Murfreesboro. I applied and got a call from Mr. Beard, arranging for an interview in Raleigh.”

The interview turned into a court scenario where Beard gave Asbell some facts and then directed her to argue a mock pre-trial bond motion.

“I was terrified, but I understood what he was doing with that interview,” she recalled.

Forty-eight hours later, Beard called and asked Asbell to drive to his office for a second interview.

“My mom and I went to Murfreesboro two days after that call,” Asbell recalled. “What I thought was going to be a two-hour interview turned into a whole day. He introduced me to all the staff. He showed me around the courthouses in Hertford and Bertie. About a week later he called and offered me the job.”

That was April of 1993 – Valerie Mitchell scored her first full-time job as an Assistant District Attorney, thus beginning what is now nearly 20 years of public service to the citizens of Hertford, Bertie and Northampton counties.

“I didn’t know a soul back then,” she recalled. “I wound up renting a house in Murfreesboro on High Street before eventually buying a house in Ahoskie in 1999.”

One year later (June, 2000), Beard retired in the middle of his elected term. Filling that vacancy required an appointment from the Governor.

“I had been here seven years at that time and I felt like I was ready to move up,” Asbell said. “I sent my letter of intent to then Governor (Jim) Hunt and also had letters of support sent on my behalf from colleagues in the law profession.”

Gaining the appointment meant Asbell had to meet Gov. Hunt face to face for an interview.

“I was scared out of my boots,” she said. “I had met him before in a different setting, but he was so gentle and caring; he made me feel at ease. He said he was impressed by my desire to go into the local schools here and speaking to the young people and working with the Teen Court program.”

It was on her birthday, May 29, 2000, that Asbell got the call from Gov. Hunt that she was his choice for District 6B Attorney. Three days later she took the oath of office, with her mother and brother at her side (her father had passed away in 1998, but not before coming to the R-C area on several occasions to watch his daughter in action as an Assistant DA).

“The only sad part of that day was dad wasn’t there,” she said. “But I knew he was looking down on me and was proud. He loved the fact that I was a prosecutor.”

Her brother, meanwhile, chose another route in the legal profession. He built his career around securities, eventually joining the Securities and Exchange Commission, later becoming chief attorney. Traynham died of cancer in March of last year.

Since gaining the appointment, Asbell has successfully won three, four-year terms as the local DA. In 2010 she captured 7,877 votes (nearly 80 percent of the turnout) to win in a landslide over one challenger. Four years earlier (2006 election), Asbell was named on 6,723 ballots (64.8 percent of the three-county vote) en route to regaining her seat. She ran unopposed in her first election (2002) where she captured 13,680 votes.

“I was the first female District Attorney in 6B,” she said with a bit of pride in her voice. “I knew I had the support of a lot of people, but I do know there were some that were skeptical of a woman doing this job. I knew it was going to be a daunting task, but I was ready for the challenge and I hope my record as the District Attorney speaks for itself.

“I realize the power of this position,” she added. “I’ve never abused that power. I’ve been mentored by some of the best in the business. I have called on them for advice and by following that guidance has led me to feel very comfortable in a courtroom where I proudly represent the people of this district.

But with the position comes work….loads and loads of work.

“As an assistant, I never really saw the administrative side that Mr. Beard worked at,” she said. “It didn’t take long after being appointed as DA to realize the responsibilities that come with this job while still carrying a normal case load. I still love to try cases, but there’s so much to do on the administrative end. I was so fortunate in 2000 to have Iris Williams as my administrative assistant. She had been with Mr. Beard and I learned so much from her.”

Asbell said the overall annual case load for her office which now includes five Assistant DA’s, numbers in the thousands.

“We cover three counties, which means we deal with three different sets of law enforcement,” she noted. “We stay busy managing the court proceedings, District and Superior, in three counties.”

A portion of her job also entails advising law enforcement personnel, to include three Sheriffs and a dozen or so police departments, of new state statutes or legal changes in existing ones.

“I have a good relationship with all my law enforcement agencies,” she said. “They may be different in the way they do things, but my job is always the same. What I try to do is develop continuity. We have regular training on how to upgrade their investigative work and they’re all onboard with that. I believe in maintaining that strong relationship with law enforcement. They have to trust us to ask us advice. I get called in the middle of the night sometimes asking the proper way to handle charges on an arrest. I’ll do whatever I can to help our law enforcement officers.”

Asbell is 100 percent sure that she knows what makes a law enforcement officer tick. After all, she is married to one. Her husband, Jimmy, is the Major of the Ahoskie Police Department. He has a long and distinguished career that included working at one time with the Roanoke-Chowan Narcotics Task Force.

“I see how he works, I see the ins and outs of his job….that gives me a better view of what he does and how we, the DA’s office, should interact with law enforcement,” she said.

The stressful part of being the wife of a police officer is when the phone rings late at night and Jimmy is on duty.

“I think the public sometimes forgets how dangerous the job of a law enforcement officer is,” she noted. “They put their lives on the line every time they put on their uniform. I have such a respect for what Jimmy does, for what all our officers do and have a lot of respect for the families of these officers.”

The couple was married in March of 2003, meaning her 10-year anniversary is near. They have two sons, Cole (her stepson), age 14, and eight-year-old Ethan. Both are enrolled in Hertford County Public Schools.

“Jimmy is my backbone….he’s very supportive of what I do and I love him so much,” she smiled. “He’s a caring husband and father, a man with a big heart. When you’re happy at home it makes what you do for a living so much easier.

“We have chosen to build a life here in this area and raise our children here because we love this community and the people in it,” she added. “Although I spend a lot of time in court, I am still that baseball and soccer mom who runs ragged from ball field to ball field during sport seasons cheering for my boys.  I am so proud of my children and I want them to know it.”

She’s also proud to serve District 6B.

“Everyone may not always agree with my decisions, but I can tell you that I wouldn’t be doing my job if everyone did,” she observed. “I know I am an aggressive prosecutor and I hold people accountable for their actions and I will not make any excuses for that, but I treat people fairly and with respect and dignity. I understand and am keenly aware of how my decisions affect people’s lives and their liberty – both the victims and the defendants – and I do not take that responsibility lightly.”

She added, “I’m honest about what I stand for. It’s like my dad always taught me, be honest and true to yourself. I constantly teach my staff to follow the elements of the law. I’m honest about how the law works. It’s not all about win at all costs. Sometimes justice is served when a person is found not guilty. I understand that as a prosecutor.”

Asbell has a soft spot for victims of crimes. She has tried some tough cases over the years, but one thing is constant….she encourages the victims she represents to be in the courtroom during sentencing.

“I think the judges need to hear from victims of crimes,” she said.

One particular case involved a father molesting his three daughters over a period of 10 years. The trial lasted just over one week and Asbell won the conviction against the father.

“That was in the late 1990’s and to this very day those three girls, now grown women, still keep in tough with me,” Asbell said. “That particular type of offense could have ruined those three girls for the rest of their lives, but they chose to hold their heads high and get through it and salvage their lives.”

She believes in being proactive, encouraging her staff, including herself, to go out into the community in an effort to address issues. She sees the criminal trends, making it her task to go and talk to the school superintendents to address those problem areas, including bullying and cyber bullying. She’s also proactive, speaking within the faith-based community as well as at civic club gatherings, when it comes to gang awareness, identity theft, traffic safety (to include texting while driving) and crimes involving domestic violence. At one point Asbell’s office had the highest conviction rate in the state in domestic violence cases.

“We are open, we are assessable to the community,” Asbell stressed. “If being proactive in the community means keeping people out of court, preventing someone becoming a victim, then we’re all for that.

“I have a wonderful staff,” she added. “We work well as a team. It’s a family atmosphere with a teamwork mentality. They work hard for the citizens of our three counties.”

In additional to her daily duties as District Attorney, Asbell also serves as President of District 6B Judicial Bar; she is a member of the North Carolina Domestic Violence Commission and Roanoke-Chowan Domestic Violence Task Force; has been part of the Teen Court Board; and is  a former member of the Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center Board of Directors.

“One quote that always hits home to me is by H. Jackson Brown, Jr. – “Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you.’  I believe that quote has certainly guided me in both my professional and personal life,” Asbell concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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