Former Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby looks back on career

ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 5, 2014 

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Former Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby talks with a News & Observer reporter.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Memorable cases

    Colon Willoughby counts two cases among his most challenging:

    The prosecution of Meg Scott Phipps

    Meg Scott Phipps, the daughter of former Gov. Bob Scott and granddaughter of Kerr Scott, a former governor and U.S. senator, went to federal prison in 2004 after pleading guilty to fraud, conspiracy and witness tampering. Her troubles stemmed from her job in the elected post as the N.C. agriculture commissioner.

    “That one was difficult,” Willoughby said, “because we started with half a dozen witnesses who had not been truthful and accurate.”

    Phipps was released from prison in 2007 after serving time at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia and befriending Martha Stewart, who also was incarcerated there.

    The Ann Miller Kontz murder trial

    Ann Miller Kontz pleaded guilty Nov. 8, 2005, to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in the Dec. 2, 2000, arsenic poisoning death of Eric Miller, a pediatric AIDS researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was her husband at the time.

    Raleigh police spent nearly four years pursuing Kontz, a former chemist and researcher at GlaxoSmithKline. The investigation tested the depths and breadth of attorney-client privileges.

    Eric Miller took ill in late November 2000 and was hospitalized for several days before dying Dec. 2. Soon after, Derril H. Willard Jr., a married co-worker of Kontz with whom she was having an affair, shot himself to death in his garage.

    Willard’s widow told police that her husband had told her he could be charged with being an accessory to a murder after he spoke with a Raleigh defense attorney about his involvement.

    After a lengthy legal battle, Willard’s attorney was forced to reveal to investigators what his client told him: Kontz injected a syringe of arsenic-laced fluid into Eric Miller’s intravenous line in the hospital.

    “That was fascinating,” Willoughby said, because of the legal strategy involved.

    The test of whether Willard’s attorney had to reveal information his client provided went to the state’s highest court.

— Colon Willoughby awoke at his beach house a few weeks ago to an early-morning cellphone call.

It was 5 a.m. on a Saturday, and law enforcement officers wanted to brief him about a deadly shooting that had happened at the Mama Rabbit’s Motor Lounge in southern Wake County.

There had been an altercation inside the nightclub, and there had been self-defense claims.

Though Willoughby’s wife might not miss those calls that offered her husband a quick, inside knowledge about the goings-on in the grittier depths of the county, the former district attorney says his move into private practice will leave him wondering.

“Now I’ll hear the sirens like everybody else and wonder what’s going on,” Willoughby said, days after stepping away from his job as the county’s top prosecutor. “I think that’s going to be tough.”

Ned Mangum, a former prosecutor and Wake County district judge, was sworn in at the stroke of midnight April 1 as the acting Wake County district attorney who will serve the nine months remaining in his predecessor’s term.

Willoughby, 63, starts a new job in private practice on May 1. He plans to spend the month of April catching up on pleasure reading – such as the latest John Grisham novel – and decompressing at home, hunting quail and preparing for a wedding in the family.

As the two Democrats and four Republicans vying to be the next Wake County district attorney head to forums, meet-and-greets and other campaign events as the May 6 primary approaches, Willoughby is watching the race from an unusual vantage. For the first time since his first election in 1986, Willoughby will not be on the general ballot.

The last time he faced opposition for the job as top prosecutor in the capital city, the site where most political and state government corruption cases land, was 1996.

Though Willoughby has deep insight on most of the lawyers seeking the post – four have worked for him as prosecutors – he’s not offering a public endorsement.

He stopped, however, one morning last week to reflect on the ways the District Attorney’s Office has changed over the years and cases that left an impression. He also discussed the challenges that substance abuse, mental illness and easy access to guns pose for the courts, and the influx of political money into the judicial branch.

“My advice to the next DA is to remember that you represent the people,” Willoughby said. “You’re not there just for the victims, you’re not there just for the lawyers or the judge, you’re there for the people.”

As Willoughby prepares to work with McGuireWoods, a law firm with hundreds of lawyers and 19 offices around the globe, he, in some ways, will bring his career full circle. He studied business in college and graduate school before deciding that law was a broader interest. Now, he’ll be using his legal acumen to help businesses navigate challenging government regulations and other white-collar issues.

Decades of change

Willoughby has been lauded by defense attorneys and others for bringing stability to a district attorney’s office during an unsteady time.

In 1983, Jim Hunt, the governor at the time, appointed Willoughby to be acting district attorney while the elected district attorney was hospitalized for depression.

Three years later, Willoughby won his first election. For the next 28 years, he rarely faced challengers.

Wake County has tripled in size since then to nearly a million people, and the caseload has gone from nearly 65,000 a year to more than 200,000.

“Managing the growth has been a constant challenge,” Willoughby said.

During that time, prosecutors have seen crack cocaine infiltrate the area and advances in science and technology change how cases are investigated and tried. During the 1990s and early part of this century, Willoughby said the state shifted more resources to the courts.

Now the budget of the judiciary is less than 2 percent of the overall budget.

Advice on substance abuse

In 2013, the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts issued a report that showed the impact of the recession and nearly $80 million in budget cuts during four years. More than 630 full-time jobs were eliminated across the state, and funding for drug courts and dispute settlement programs was slashed.

Willoughby said that, during his time in office, the courts have become the institution by default forced to deal with substance-abuse problems, mental illness and easy access to guns.

“One of our biggest shortcomings in society and the courts is our failure to deal with substance abuse,” Willoughby said. “We have developed a culture where substance abuse is prevalent.”

The former prosecutor estimated that half to three-fourths of the county’s crimes had an element of substance abuse or mental illness.

He suggested the development of more education programs that target school-age children – something akin to the efforts in the schools to highlight the hazards of smoking.

Today, Willoughby said, an adult who lights up a cigarette around a bunch of sixth-graders will immediately be berated.

“Your dollar spent on education is so much more productive than your dollars spent on treatment,” he said.

‘Slippery log to walk on’

As Willoughby steps away from the political process, he voiced his concern about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifts the limit that individuals can contribute every two years to federal candidates.

In McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission, the country’s highest court ruled 5-4 that the current limit on the aggregate amount that individuals can give to candidates amounts to a violation of free speech rights.

Though the court did not overturn the limit on giving to one candidate, it opened the way for wealthy individuals to spread their money around to many federal races and have more influence on campaigns and politics in general.

Willoughby said most of the political corruption cases that came through his office were related to campaign financing.

“We have increasingly given money a greater role in the (electoral) process, and I think that’s a slippery log to walk on,” he said.

With the removal of financial restrictions through the McCutcheon case this past week and the 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates for political spending by corporations and labor unions, Willoughby said he worried that the judicial branch would see a smaller number of people and organizations gain greater influence on the election of judges and prosecutors.

“We’ll see the same things that have happened in the legislative branch and executive branch,” he said.

A shield for prosecutors

Though Willoughby spent more of his time in an administrative role during the past decade, he sat at the prosecutor’s table when there were jailers, law enforcement officials, lawyers or judges facing allegations.

He was criticized by some for pursuing criminal charges instead of professional and ethical complaints with the State Bar against Kristin Ruth, a popular District Court judge who unwittingly signed orders for James Crouch, a defense attorney sent to prison for a DWI backdating scheme.

He prosecuted a Wake County jailer found guilty of involuntary manslaughter late last year for an inmate beating that raised questions about Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison’s oversight of his jail officials.

“Wisely or not, I’ve tried to shield our prosecutors,” he said, of charging ahead with cases that could put his staffers in difficult positions as they work further with law enforcement officials, lawyers or judges connected to the accused.

Death penalty opponents have criticized him for his opposition to the Racial Justice Act, a law that offered death row inmates an opportunity to use statistics to bolster complaints that racial bias infected their trials and verdicts.

Advocates of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission have questioned why he refused to abandon a jury verdict in the case of Greg Taylor, the first North Carolina inmate to be declared innocent through a process designed to help root out wrongful convictions.

“We have safeguards in our law that allow for a motion of appropriate relief,” Willoughby said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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