January 31, 2022 6:00am

Freeman Favored by Members in Wake County DA Race

She's being challenged by Damon Chetson, who has vowed to use his discretion to stop pursuing death penalty cases if elected.

Photo of Leigh Tauss
Raleigh, NC Correspondent

District attorneys may not write laws, but the way they yield the discretion of their office significantly shapes local court systems. As the chief law enforcement officer of the county, they decide whether to leverage death penalty charges in murder cases, or whether officers involved in deadly use-of-force incidents face criminal charges.

But they also have sway over more bread and butter issues: with the mark of a pen, they can whip out traffic fines and allow thousands of residents to get their driver's licenses reinstated.

Lorrin Freeman has served as Wake County's DA since 2014. She believes it's not her job to rewrite the laws, and as long as the legislature keeps things like capital punishment and marijuana misdemeanors on the books, she will continue to pursue those cases. She's not soft on crime, which some feel makes her a viable candidate for higher officer down the road.

Freeman's challenger in the Democratic primary, Damon Chetson, has a different set of priorities. If elected, he has sworn to use his discretion to effectively end the death penalty in Wake County, stop the prosecution of adult-use quantities of marijuana possession, and eliminate what he calls the "pay to play" system of court fees and fines that keep many trapped in a cycle of poverty.

This year, voters will decide who will get to helm the office for the next four years, and in turn, cosign satisfaction with the status quo or demand more progressive reforms.

Once again, thank you kindly to the folks who took the time to fill out this survey. While it's a small sample size–which I’m hoping will grow over the months to come–it says a lot about what the community prioritizes when it comes to the criminal justice system.

So let's get right into it!

This month, I asked members who would get their vote if the Wake County District Attorney primary were tomorrow. More than half of members backed Freeman, and the rest were divided equally between Chetson and "Don't know."

That would seem to bode well for Freeman, who has a solid reputation and name recognition after two terms in office. If Chetson wants to catch up, he'll need to show he can be a formidable fundraiser and get this name out there beyond progressive talking points.

So far, media coverage has focused on Freeman and Chetson's differing opinions on the death penalty. This is, in some ways, convenient for Freeman as it takes the focus away from other issues, such as the significant backlog in cases in her office, which she blames partly on the pandemic. If this race comes down to a referendum on the death penalty, it could be that the county's most progressive voters side with Chetson, while the larger population of more centrist-minded folks stick with Freeman. I'd say in that scenario, Freeman comes out on top despite polling in recent years showing the death penalty is decreasing in popularity among voters.

The rule of thumb is that incumbents are hard to beat. They usually win. Because of this, Chetson faces an uphill battle, but he could carve out a lane for himself if he's able to get his message to resonate with voters on issues beyond capital punishment. After all, North Carolina hasn't put anyone to death since 2006.

Next, I asked members what should happen to the officers involved in a recent deadly use-of-force incident in Raleigh. On January 11, police responded to a rollover highway crash. When officers arrived on the scene, police say Daniel Turcios, the driver, was wielding a knife. The family says Turcios was disoriented after losing consciousness in the crash and did not understand the officers' commands as a non-native English speaker. Turcios was tasered in the back as he tried walking away from officers. While struggling to get up, one officer shot five rounds at Turcios–two initial shots, and three more about five seconds later when Turcios was already on the ground.

It will be up to Freeman to decide whether to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved. She declined to press charges against the last two officers involved in deadly shootings. One of those officers, W.B. Tapscott, fired the taser at Turcios. Tapscott shot and killed Keith Collins in January 2020. Tapscott fired 11 shots at Collins, and seven of them were after Collins had already collapsed to the ground.

Advocates are calling for a criminal investigation into Turcios's death, and it looks like most of our members agree.

A third of folks who responded to the survey said they think a full criminal investigation should be opened into the incident and charges levied against the officers involved if warranted. Just over 20 percent of you weren't sure what should happen. Another 19 percent responded they believe the officer was doing his job, but that the department needs to look at its policies to prevent these situations in the future. On the other hand, 16 percent of members believe the use of force was justified and the officer should not be charged. Just 12 percent responded that police should handle the matter internally.

If anything, your answers show the diversity of opinions regarding officer-involved shootings. But most members seem to think the department should be held accountable in some way, whether or not individual officers are charged.

It seems we don't have many football fans in our ranks! With the Super Bowl next weekend, I asked members what their ultimate match-up would be. The largest number of folks–42 percent–said they didn't know or care. After that, the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Los Angeles Rams had the most votes, 21 percent, followed by the Rams versus the Cincinnati Bengals.

I know it's hard to care about a Super Bowl without Tom Brady, but at least we get to see Eminem and Dr. Dre shred the mic during the halftime show.

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