Veterans vie for same seat

Published 9:31 am Tuesday, April 29, 2014

WINDSOR – Two judicial veterans with a combined 36 years of prosecution experience are courting voters in an effort to earn the opportunity to lead a newly combined District.

Valerie Asbell, who has served District 6B as its elected DA for the past 13 years (21 years total as a local prosecutor), and District 6A’s Melissa Pelfrey – totaling 15 years of overall judicial experience, the last five as the elected DA – are the two candidates seeking to win the May 6 Primary. The victor faces no opposition in November’s General Election, meaning they will lead the newly merged District 6 effective Jan. 1, 2015.

Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly approved legislation that combines the two current Judicial Districts (6A: Halifax County; and 6B: Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties).

Local voters had a chance to hear from both candidates during an April 15 political forum hosted by the Bertie County African American Caucus at Bertie Middle School.

Pelfrey said she began prosecuting cases in Halifax County in 1997.

“I have actually practiced law in addition to being the elected District Attorney and a prosecutor; I have 20 years as a litigator in our courts, 15 of those as a prosecutor and five of those 15 as the elected District Attorney,” Pelfrey said in her opening remarks.

“One of things I would like to bring to Bertie County is the ability of my work ethic; I work very hard,” Pelfrey continued, adding that her typical day begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at around 6 p.m.

Pelfrey boasted of her capable staff.

“I have had the opportunity to put together a staff that I feel is very diversified and I would like to bring them here to Bertie County to serve you,” she said.

In her opening remarks, Asbell said she has spent her entire professional career in District 6B and listed her priorities as a veteran judicial official.

“I represent victims of crimes and make sure that people that commit crimes are held accountable for their actions,” Asbell stated. “I also believe that you have to be part of your community to serve your community. Those that know me know that I show up all the time, it’s not just during election years; it’s not during consolidation time; it’s all the time.”

Asbell touted her involvement within the local school systems, recalling a cyber bullying class held at Bertie Middle School.

“We’re trying to stop that cycle of from the schoolhouse, to the courthouse, to the jailhouse,” she said. “What we do is go into the communities and speak to our students and to the faith-based communities to try to keep them out of the courthouse.”

Each candidate fielded two questions from the audience. The first concerned the number of young black males being pipelined into the criminal justice system. What alternative strategies have you worked on that, if elected, you can help put in place?

Asbell was chosen to respond first, saying, “I talked about this in my opening, we need to stop the pipeline from the schoolhouse, to the courthouse, to the jailhouse. The strategies I have put in place in District 6B have been to go into the school systems, just like I said before. The superintendents (Bertie, Hertford and Northampton) asked us to come in and speak on a number of issues….cyber bullying, gang members, drug use, and violent crime.

“That’s one way to stop the pipeline; when I come into a classroom I tell them I’m their friend, but when they come to the courthouse, I serve a different function…I have to prosecute at that point,” Asbell stated.

She also referenced the Teen Court program and deferred prosecution.

“We do a lot of deferred prosecutions; I am a proponent of those because during deferred prosecutions the young people, young black males specifically, have to do community service. If you complete that successfully your case is dismissed.”

Asbell also boasted of her staff, saying they talk to young people in the courtroom and try to help them.

In her answer, Pelfrey said several things have been done in Halifax County in reference to the question.

“We address deferred prosecution a little bit differently, and there’s a reason for that,” she noted. “Deferred prosecution is run through the court system and ends up costing about $450. On top of that is another $30 to $40 fee that has to be paid. What I found in HalifaxCounty when I came in as District Attorney was that a lot of the people we were trying to reach did not have that money. It was hard for a young person to pay that; what we were finding was that moms or grandmothers were the ones paying so they could prevent a criminal record from being developed against their children or grandchildren.”

Pelfrey developed what she termed as a “community service dismissal” – a continuance in a case in exchange for giving the young person the opportunity to go into their community and perform service. She gave examples of young offenders assisting with a local fire department, church, or helping with odd jobs at the residence of an elderly individual.

“What they do is get a letter on a letterhead to bring back into our court system saying they have completed their community service,” Pelfrey said. “That serves a two-fold purpose: (1) it doesn’t cost $450; and (2) what we have found is that we are sending, not the community service offered through the court system…they are very limited opportunities….but these young people are going back into their communities, their village, to do good and find mentors there as well.”

Question #2: With the consolidation of counties to be served by your office, it appears this task can be overwhelming. If this proves to be inefficient, is there a course of restructuring that you may take?

“HalifaxCounty is now a single county District, but the numbers in HalifaxCounty are about equal to the numbers of the three consolidated counties,” Pelfrey answered. “Mrs. Asbell and I have the same number of staff. Once the consolidation takes place we will lose an attorney’s position, an investigator’s position as well as an administrative assistant position. What we’ll have to do is to make sure the people that we have in the positions we have are competent people, trained to make decisions. I don’t micro manage my staff. I offer them training so they can advance themselves and make competent decisions. In a large geographical district that we’ll have, I can’t be everywhere so I have to have people who are competent and are able to go forward to hold court and make decisions.”

Asbell said she didn’t feel the consolidation would be overwhelming.

“I have served three counties for the past 21 years, either as an assistant or as the elected District Attorney,” she noted. “In our District (6B) we have demographic barriers that single county districts don’t have. I have the same amount of employees that Mrs. Pelfrey does, but we have to travel from courthouse, to courthouse, to courthouse. We have done that successfully for soon to be 14 years as the elected District Attorney and I did that successfully as an assistant District Attorney.

“What would I change if things get worse,” Asbell continued. “We lost two judges, and that’s a travesty, and losing them will cause us to have four judges covering four counties. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like with four judges? We’ll have to start consolidating courts; the Chief District Judge is going to have to figure out how to close some courts so the judges can be there for others. Mrs. Pelfrey is right (about a competent staff); I’ve been able to allow my assistant District Attorneys to go through the three counties and work independently because I trained them to work independently. We’re going to have larger (court) dockets, with less terms of court, with less judges. That might be overwhelming to some, but I believe I can do it.”

Each candidate was given the opportunity to make a closing comment.

“As we move into this consolidation you are going to need experience, you will need someone that has handled a multi-county district,” Asbell stated. “I stand on my record, not just for the past 13 years, but for the past 21 years. Do your research. I think one of the most things you can do as a public servant is to listen to the people and try to help them as much as you can and I’ve done that in the realm of my job.”

“My opponent talked a lot about running a multi-county district, but the reality is that both of us run one single office,” Pelfrey said. “She was talking earlier about the geographical barriers and granted I don’t live in Bertie County and I thought I had missed some kind of mountain range or something that ya’ll have here. But it turns out the geographical barriers that she discussed is the fact that she has to drive to the courthouse. Well, we drive to our courthouse everyday too. Let’s compare apples with apples; this is not a decision to make out of fear or to be bullied into. This is an important decision to make to who your District Attorney is. Please, check our records; make sure that when you’re looking at the statistics that you’re looking at those based on serious felonies and not those that include traffic cases….look at the statistics that are typical performance and not just one good year. You want someone that can try and win cases that is sitting beside you during the most important time of your life.”

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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