In nearly 30 years as Wake County’s district attorney, Colon Willoughby has been criticized by defense attorneys, Republicans, people who think they got a raw deal in their cases, the media and a host of individuals and groups who had to interact with the county prosecutor’s office. That’s not surprising; unless you’re employed in that office, your encounters with the district attorney are liable to be unpleasant.
But Willoughby also has been universally praised – yes, even by the defense bar – as a man of integrity, and he has upheld the honor of his office. He is a straight shooter. The scandals that have hit some district attorneys’ offices in North Carolina have been avoided in Wake County.
Willoughby, a distance runner and a person of good humor and graciousness, was an advocate for the prosecution, which is his job. Sometimes, there have been uncomfortable situations, such as the prosecution of former House Speaker Jim Black and other cases involving government officials. Those fall to Willoughby’s office because he’s in the state capital.
And there was the case of Greg Taylor, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 17 years for the crime. When a three-judge panel determined Taylor was innocent, Willoughby did have the grace to cross the courtroom and apologize, expressing the wish that the new, exonerating evidence had been there 20 years before.
Other district attorneys have run into problems with suppressing evidence or skewing cases to give them an unfair advantage, all in the name of getting the bad guys. Willoughby didn’t do that, though some defense attorneys likely thought he was too tough on their clients.
Bringing charges against a Wake defense attorney and district court judge because of deals cut in DWI cases made some enemies in the bar. So did some of the political cases. But in the Wake prosecutor’s job – more than any other in the state – the variety of cases, from street crimes in district court to that Black case, is astoundingly broad.
Willoughby has served another role as well. He has been a mentor to a host of lawyerswho started out in the DA’s office. It is not uncommon for attorneys to begin their careers there, and the ethical standards that Willoughby established and the example he set have helped to train hundreds of attorneys. He also surrounded himself with excellent assistants, notably First Assistant DA Howard Cummings.
Now Wake voters will choose a successor. It’s not difficult to determine what that person’s qualifications should be: experience as a prosecutor would be valuable, obviously; so would experience as a defense attorney; a good reputation among the members of the bar is important. And district attorney is a high-profile post requiring the holder to interact with the public, so the individual must have good communication skills.
A varied professional background is important because the district attorney ought to have experience defending people, seeing how the system works for and against those across the aisle from prosecutors.
Colon Willoughby came through a long career in public service with his good reputation intact. That’s no mean feat – and a credit to him.