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Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill faces his first challenge in 13 years -- retired district court Judge Denise Hartsfield.

From the Your 2022 candidates: A recap of Journal election previews series
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For the first time in 13 years, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, a Republican, has competition as he runs for his fourth term. Denise Hartsfield, a Democrat who retired last year after 19 years as a district court judge, will challenge O’Neill for the county’s top prosecutor seat.

Jim O'Neill

Jim O’Neill

O’Neill, 56, has long portrayed himself as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, strongly supporting the death penalty and lobbying against any changes in the criminal justice system that he believes would hamper his ability to make sure violent criminals and drug dealers stay behind bars. Hartsfield, 68, who, for more than a decade, was one of four district court judges assigned to juvenile court, said she believes the community cannot incarcerate itself out of its problems.

Denise Hartsfield

Denise Hartsfield, a Democrat, retired last year after 19 years as a district court judge.

On her campaign website, Hartsfield says she would push the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office to be more inclusive and more collaborative in seeking solutions beyond just punishment. She said she also wants to diversify the office and make it more responsive to the community.

O’Neill is a native of Long Island, New York. He graduated from Duke University before obtaining his law degree from New York Law School. He started working at the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office in 1997, becoming the office’s first dedicated domestic violence prosecutor and also working as chief motor vehicle prosecutor. When Tom Keith retired as the county’s top prosecutor in 2009, then-Gov. Bev Perdue appointed O’Neill to fill out Keith’s remaining term. He then ran unopposed for district attorney in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

He twice ran unsuccessfully for N.C. Attorney General, first in 2016, losing in a Republican primary, and then a second time in 2020, losing narrowly to incumbent Democrat Josh Stein. He lost by 13,622 votes statewide and lost by 22,844 votes in Forsyth County.

He also previously served as president of the N.C. Conference for District Attorneys. O’Neill oversees a staff of 28 assistant district attorneys who handle misdemeanors and felonies.

Hartsfield is a Winston-Salem native who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1976. She received her law degree from Wake Forest University in 1991. Before becoming a judge, she worked as an assistant county attorney, handling child support, abuse and neglect cases for seven years. Hartsfield worked as a law clerk for Judge Richard C. Erwin for the U.S. District Court from 1991 to 1993. She has worked as an assistant county attorney and as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Northwest North Carolina.

She was first elected to a district court seat in 2002, becoming the second Black female elected district court judge in the county’s history. Both of her parents, the late Delray Sylvester Hartsfield, and her 93-year-old mother, Doris Neal Hartsfield, were educators.

Hartsfield is known for her community work, speaking at a number of events, and she also is an adjunct professor at Wake’s law school. She is the coordinator of the pro bono clinic at the law school. Hartsfield ran unopposed five times during her 19-year career as a district court judge.

Greater scrutiny of prosecutors

O’Neill and Hartsfield are running for district attorney at a time when there is higher scrutiny of prosecutors nationally amid high-profile killings of Black people by police officers. Prosecutors make the ultimate decision on whether criminal charges are filed against officers accused of using deadly force. Nationally, 57% of prosecutions of police officers charged in shooting someone end in either an acquittal or a hung jury, according to a 2021 Washington Post analysis on police shootings since 2015.

During the summer of 2020, mostly non-violent protests ramped up around the country after cellphone video showed a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for more than nine minutes. Floyd died the same day. In Forsyth County, protesters turned their attention to the 2019 death of John Elliott Neville. In video captured by jail cameras, Neville, like Floyd, said, “I can’t breathe,” as detention officers pin Neville on his stomach in a jail cell. Detention officers were trying to remove his handcuffs placed on Neville’s wrists after he fell from his bunk and had apparent medical distress.

Five detention officers were initially charged, along with a former nurse, but a Forsyth County grand jury declined to indict the detention officers, leaving the nurse, Michelle Heughins, the only person currently charged in Neville’s death.

Prosecutors are also being scrutinized over alleged wrongful convictions. In Winston-Salem, the most famous case of wrongful conviction is that of the late Darryl Hunt. Hunt was exonerated in 2004 after nearly 19 years in prison based on allegations that he raped and murdered Deborah Sykes, a copy editor for the now-closed afternoon newspaper The Sentinel. DNA evidence led to Williard Brown, who confessed to the crime. Hunt’s case inspired the creation of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is one of the first of its kind in the country.

The commission recently found what members consider sufficient evidence of innocence for people convicted in two Forsyth County cases — the 1985 death of Blanche Bryson and the 2002 death of Nathaniel Jones, the grandfather of NBA basketball player Chris Paul.

O’Neill has defended the convictions and has called for the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission to be disbanded, saying its process is unfair to prosecutors. The commission has reviewed more than 3,200 claims of innocence since it was established in 2007, resulting in 15 exonerations.

In June, a Forsyth County judge vacated the murder conviction of Merritt Drayton Williams in the death of Blanche Bryson, and Williams pleaded guilty to breaking and entering. The commission’s investigation led to Darren Leak Johnson, whose DNA was on Bryson’s nail clippings and who confessed to killing Bryson alone. He told the commission’s investigations that Williams was not with him when Bryson was killed. Johnson has been charged with murder in Bryson’s death.

A three-judge panel upheld in April the convictions of four men who, along with a fifth person, were convicted in Jones’ death when they were teenagers. The four said they were coerced into making false confessions after hours of interrogation by Winston-Salem police officers without access to lawyers. No DNA and no fingerprints matched the five teenagers. At least two police officers told the commission that they falsely told the teenagers they could face the death penalty. Juveniles are not eligible for the death penalty in North Carolina.

Kalvin Michael Smith, convicted in 1997 of brutally assaulting Jill Marker, an assistant manager for the now-closed Silk Plant Forest store off Silas Creek Parkway, has claimed innocence and has filed a third appeal in Forsyth Superior Court. No physical evidence ties Smith to the crime scene, and questions have been raised about the reliability of Marker’s identification of Smith as her assailant.

James Coleman, a Duke Law professor who is the director of the school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Smith’s attorney, previously filed State Bar complaints against O’Neill, Judge David Hall, a former Forsyth County prosecutor, and Keith, the former Forsyth County District Attorney. The complaints allege that the men used an affidavit from a former police officer to undermine Smith’s claims of innocence. The affidavit contains statements that contradict police reports saying that Marker was incoherent and could not identify her attacker.

The State Bar dismissed the complaints.

Running on their records

O’Neill was not available for an in-person interview but issued a written response to a list of questions from the Winston-Salem Journal.

He touted his 26-year career as a prosecutor and said that he has helped make Winston-Salem safer through programs such as The Chronic Offender, which works with other law-enforcement agencies to monitor and prosecute violent criminal offenders. He said The Chronic Offender has been a success and cited a recent study from Wallethub, a website whose main purpose is to offer free credit scores and credit reports, that said Winston-Salem was the 12th safest city in the United States. He did not offer specifics on how the program has helped reduce violent crime.

In campaign ads and mailers, O’Neill argues that keeping him as Forsyth County’s top prosecutor will help keep Winston-Salem and Forsyth County safe from criminals.

A recent mailer from his campaign shows scary-looking photos of six people, including one of a man whose face is covered in tattoos. On the front, the mailer says, “Unfortunately, real monsters do exist. Now, meet their worst nightmare.” On the other side is a picture of O’Neill in court, with these words: “District Attorney Jim O’Neill puts sex offenders behind bars — where they belong.” The mailer does not identify the six people and it is not clear whether they are from Forsyth County.

O’Neill points to endorsements from the Police Benevolent Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Winston-Salem Professional Firefighters Association.

O’Neill has also used a campaign ad and mailers to hone in on two incidents from Hartsfield’s past through his campaign ad — a 75-day suspension in 2011 from the N.C. Supreme Court for fixing traffic tickets in at least 82 cases and her decision to allow a Wake Forest University basketball player who had been accused of assaulting his girlfriend out of jail.

Defend US, a political action committee that also supported O’Neill in his AG race, released an ad that calls Hartsfield “dangerous.” The 30-second ad shows a darkened campaign photo of Denise Hartsfield and claims that not only is Hartsfield “dangerous” but is also “dishonest” and “dishonorable.” Another ad from “Friends of Jim O’Neill” focuses on the Wake Forest criminal case.

In a written answer to the Journal, O’Neill said Hartsfield “abused her position of trust as a judge so reprehensibly that the highest court in North Carolina were (sic) forced to intervene and remove her from office for being grossly unethical.”

“Think about that phrase: grossly unethical,” O’Neill continued. “No judge in the history of Forsyth County has ever suffered such a similar fate and brought such embarrassment and disrepute to this community.”

Hartsfield said she owned up to her mistake. And she said in the Wake Forest case, she exercised the discretion she had under the law and after consulting with both the player’s attorney, Michael Grace, and a prosecutor, before making her decision. The player, Tony Woods, was later convicted of domestic assault.

“At the end of the day, yeah, it happened. Yeah, I got what was due,” she said about the suspension. “But the thing that people don’t realize is that this public doesn’t perceive me as being dishonest, any of those “d” words because if that was 2011, I won three more elections after that, unopposed. In two of those, I was the highest vote getter of anybody in the race. So apparently, the people don’t think I’m dishonest, don’t think I’m any of those words.”

O’Neill also mentioned his program DATA (District Attorney’s Treatment Alternatives), which he started in 2018. The aim of the program is to treat inmates in the Forsyth County Jail who are addicted to heroin or other opioids with a drug called Vivitrol. Vivitrol is designed to block the ingestion of heroin or opioids.

O’Neill also started the DRIVE program, which is designed to help people regain their driver’s license.

He recently proposed that the city impose a curfew on young people, citing what he claimed was a surge in juvenile crime. But statistics from the Winston-Salem Police Department showed that overall juvenile crime has declined around 53% between 2017 and 2021. That tracks with national and statewide trends. There has not been a dramatic increase in violent juvenile crime, according to police department statistics.

O’Neill has said he has no plans to go before the Winston-Salem City Council to push for the curfew but was simply floating the idea as an alternative to tamp down juvenile crime.

Hartsfield said part of the reason she decided to run for district court judge was because of her concern for young people.

“We had a massive number of juveniles coming in (juvenile court) with A-G felonies and a number of things,” she said. “And there was a time that every time I would come in and come out of my chambers, there was an officer waiting at my door or waiting for another judge because another gun had been found (at a school).”

A-G felonies include the most serious violent crimes, such as murder, rape and armed robbery.

Hartsfield said the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office needs to have a top prosecutor who has an “eye for this population that seems to be taking over the criminal justice system.”

She disagrees that a curfew is needed and believes that the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office has to work in collaboration with the community come up with solutions. Hartsfield recently helped start the School Justice Partnership, which the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board approved last year. The program is designed to reduce the number of young people in the criminal justice system.

The other reason she decided to run was because of O’Neill’s appearance in 2020 at Smith Reynolds Airport when former president Donald Trump came to Winston-Salem. She said she was disturbed when O’Neill offered his support for Trump and said people needed to follow Trump. That might be good for somewhere else, but not Forsyth County, she said.

She said Trump endorses policies that are “blatantly discriminatory and against everything democracy stands for.”

O’Neill said he simply supported the nominee of his political party, just like Hartsfield supported Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president.

“For Hartsfield to state that she is running against me because she doesn’t approve of me welcoming the nominee of my party to town, doesn’t’ seem to be much of a reason to run for such an important position as district attorney,” he said.

Trump has falsely said that he won the 2020 presidential election and has blamed his loss on widespread election fraud. No evidence of fraud exists. The U.S. House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 attack has been investigating Trump’s role.

O’Neill did not immediately respond to a question on whether he will support Trump if the former president runs in 2024.

O’Neill is also embroiled in a legal battle over a political ad Stein’s campaign ran against him in 2020. O’Neill filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections, saying that the ad defamed him and violated a 1931 state law. Stein’s campaign is challenging the constitutionality of the law. The case is pending in the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Hartsfield said that if elected, she would work to make the office more responsive to the community

“There needs to be an appearance where you can get your questions answered,” she said. She said there have been complaints about witnesses not coming forward.

“That let’s you know right there that you don’t have any clue about your community,” Hartsfield said. “People, particularly in the African-American community, have never just come forward. There has to be a way to make people feel comfortable and not feel that this system is just punitive and all about locking people up. It’s an office of the people.”

Different approaches to fighting crime

Hartsfield doesn’t consider herself a “progressive” prosecutor. Progressive prosecutors have been elected in larger cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Baltimore under the auspices of reducing incarceration, not prosecuting certain drug crimes and taking more seriously allegations of wrongful conviction.

Hartsfield said her early priorities if elected would be tackling the case backlog that has gotten worse over the COVID-19 pandemic. And she said she would lobby for the return of juvenile drug-treatment court. She also would consider not prosecuting certain drug possession charges.

“Do I think someone who has a half an ounce (of marijuana) or user amount is a public safety issue? It’s not. More than anything, it’s a public health issue,” she said. “I’ve very rarely heard of anybody that had a small amount of marijuana that was violent.”

O’Neill said during a Journal forum about marijuana laws in 2019 that he supports legalizing medical marijuana but is against legalizing marijuana wholesale, linking the drug to violent crime.

O’Neill said Hartsfield supports an approach to criminal prosecution called “restorative justice” that he alleges “has destroyed beautiful cities across the country like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. In his response, O’Neill gave no specific examples of what he means by “destroyed.”

“In contrast, I still firmly believe that the best place for a violent criminal, who wants to hurt you and your loved ones, is behind bars for as long as humanly possible,” O’Neill said. “On this front, the people of Forsyth County have a clear choice: do they want to live and work and raise their families in a safe place or do they want to follow Hartsfield down the path of lawlessness, destruction and rampant crime?”

Hartsfield said she wants the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office to take a closer look at how it handles death penalty cases.

“I’m not adverse to the death penalty,” she said. “I’m extremely concerned about juveniles who receive life without the possibility of parole. I’m concerned about the large number of death penalty cases we have in Forsyth. I’m concerned about the large numbers of first-degree murder cases, without second-degree murder or other graduated kinds of murders.”

Hartsfield said she thinks the death penalty has become a one-size-fits-all solution, which results in disproportionate numbers of Black people on death row. She said she would have a panel with experts from outside the prosecutors’ office to examine whether a case should be death penalty.

“A lot of times we don’t have a rehabilitative atmosphere,” she said. “We have a punitive atmosphere.”

O’Neill has said previously that his office reserves the death penalty for only the worst of the worst homicides.

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