RALEIGH — Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby told his staff in a meeting Thursday that he does not plan to seek another term in office.
That decision to leave a post he has held for nearly three decades opens the door for others seeking a bid to become top prosecutor in Wake, a county that probes many of the states government corruption allegations.
The filing period for the Nov. 4 election opens Feb. 10 and closes Feb. 28.
Willoughby, who was in the courtroom several weeks ago prosecuting a case against a Wake County jailer accused of killing an inmate, did not elaborate on whats next for him.
Ive been giving this thought for a long time and I just thought this was the appropriate way to do it, Willoughby said Thursday. I thought it was time for me to open up the office for others and I think the voters ought to be the people to decide who they want.
Located in the home of state government offices and the political halls of power, Willoughbys office has been responsible for bringing cases that range from street crimes to white collar crimes and government corruption. His office has been in on investigations that have left some of North Carolinas more prominent elected officials with criminal records.
Willoughby, a 1979 graduate of Campbell University law school, was first elected to the office in 1986 after a seven-year stint in private practice. He served a brief stint as acting district attorney in 1983.
It was just several weeks, Willoughby said of the temporary appointment by former Gov. Jim Hunt, or what he jokingly referred to as being DA for the day.
In addition to some of the more recent high-profile homicide cases those of Brad Cooper and Jason Young Willoughby also pushed last year to bring charges against James Crouch, a Wake County lawyer who handled a high volume of DWI cases, and Kristin Ruth, a popular district court judge who had to step down from the bench and plead guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to fully read dozens of court documents associated with the case.
He also played a role in the prosecution of former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who pleaded guilty to a federal charge of public corruption and a state violation that brought a $1 million fine.
Though it has been unusual for Willoughby himself to be at the prosecutors table in recent years, he often has been in the courtroom watching a staff that has nearly doubled during the past couple of decades.
During Willoughbys tenure, Wake County has grown into a bustling metropolis with new suburbs replacing once rural expanses. The growth and changing times have brought a host of vexing issues and complex prosecutions.
Steadiness and integrity
In recent years, he has seen more criminal cases resulting from the deeply divided partisan politics in this state. Though he urged the N.C. General Assembly police chief this summer to consider citing instead of arresting the hundreds of people charged criminally while protesting the Republican agenda at the General Assembly, Willoughby, a Democrat, proceeded with the prosecutions in court.
Hes been able to avoid partisan squabbles in a difficult position, said Ned Mangum, a Wake County District Court judge who grew up in Raleigh, got his first law job with Willoughby and is contemplating a possible run for the office.
A lot of people dont realize it, but his job is probably one of the most powerful in the state, Mangum said. Hes just done a wonderful ethical job.
Defense attorneys who have not always agreed with Willoughby on individual cases had similar praise for a prosecutor they said ran the office with a resolute sincerity.
Colon is a very nice man and I think he has brought a real steadiness and integrity to our justice system here, said Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh defense attorney who has challenged him in court on numerous occasions over the years. I go all over the state and I see an awful lot of turmoil of all different kinds in prosecutors offices, and we havent had that here.
Though Willoughby has talked for several years about when he might leave office, his announcement in the staff meeting on Thursday, some say, brought audible gasps.
A tremendous mentor
Boz Zellinger, an assistant district attorney who grew up in Raleigh and has helped prosecute some of the high-profile homicide cases, was at the meeting.
Though Zellinger, 32, plans to seek the seat that Willoughby is leaving, he was reluctant to talk about his own plans and instead lauded the man who gave him his first job out of law school.
Zellinger has been with the district attorneys office since 2007 and serves as prosecutor in the special victims unit that focuses on crimes against children and sexual assaults.
During his tenure he has prosecuted a variety of cases that range from first-degree murder to DWI to child abuse to domestic violence to political corruption to juvenile crimes.
Willoughby, he said, encouraged him throughout his career.
Colon has been a tremendous mentor for me and I, along with everyone in this county, am grateful for his decades of service, Zellinger said.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1