For first time in decades, Wake County voters face choices for district attorney

ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2014 

Terry Swaim

  • John Walter Bryant

    Party: Republican

    Home: Raleigh

    Birthplace: Scotland Neck

    Education: Hargrave Military Academy 1971; Wake Forest University, B.A. 1976, J.D. 1986

    Current job: Attorney, founding member of Bryant, Ivie and Long

    Age: 60



    Three priorities: 1. Develop community outreach programs. 2. Bring in more mental health and substance abuse professionals to help curb problems behind many of the criminal cases. 3. Streamline resolution of criminal cases in coordination with the Wake County Clerk of Court’s office.

    How he says his experience sets him apart: Worked in private practice managing a partnership and his own practice. Also has worked as an hourly dock worker and truck driver.

    Jeff Cruden

    Party: Republican

    Home: Garner

    Birthplace: Raleigh

    Education: Business administration degree with honors in1989 from Old Dominion and Saint Leo College, obtained while on active duty in U.S. Navy. Campbell University law degree, 1993.

    Current job: Assistant Wake County district attorney

    Age: 51



    Three priorities: 1. Protect the streets from drunk drivers. 2. Dedicate more resources to prosecution of violent offenders. 3. Continue to foster strong relationship with law enforcement, the Bar and the court to improve efficiency in the court process.

    How he says his experience sets him apart: Prosecutor for 21 years – 18 in Wake County. A member of the Dangerous Offender Task Force, Special Victim’s Unit. Primary prosecutor in felony death by motor vehicle cases. Only Republican candidate to have tried a murder case (handled over 50, five of them capital).

    Nancy (Lorrin) Freeman

    Party: Democrat

    Home: Raleigh

    Birthplace: Greensboro

    Age: 43

    Education: UNC-Chapel Hill, BA with highest honors 1992; J.D. 1996

    Current job: Wake County Clerk of Superior Court for past seven years.



    Three priorities: 1. Protecting the community. 2. Maintaining the public trust. Effective leadership of an office of over 70 professionals responsible for the prosecution of over 100,000 criminal cases filed annually.

    How she says her experience sets her apart: A former Wake County assistant district attorney; an N.C Assistant Attorney General representing law enforcement including the State Highway Patrol and her job as the clerk of court.

    Jefferson Griffin

    Party: Republican

    Home: Raleigh

    Birthplace: Red Oak in Nash County

    Current job: Assistant Wake County district attorney since 2010

    Age: 33

    Education: UNC-Chapel Hill, BA in political science and history; N.C. Central University, law degree



    Three priorities: 1. Public safety and working with law enforcement and the public to help prevent crime. 2. Equal protection by working proactively to protect “individual constitutional rights.” 3. Integrity of the courts and government by enforcing the law equally and fairly.

    How he says his experience sets him apart: Has worked in private practice on criminal defense and civil litigation.

    T. Allen Swaim

    Party: Republican

    Home: Wendell

    Birthplace: Greensboro

    Current job: Defense attorney in private practice

    Age: 45

    Education: N.C. State University, studied mechanical and civil engineering and economics at N.C. State University with a BS in construction engineering and management; Duke University, law degree.



    Three priorities: 1. Improve courthouse customer service and convenience for the citizens of Wake County. 2. Create an electronic filing system that is accessible to prosecutors and defense attorneys. 3. Abolish calendar calls where hundreds of people all show up at the same time and set up a system where defendants are given an appointment for dealing with their case.

    How he says his experience sets him apart: Owner of a criminal law firm for eight years who has been a business owner and manager his entire professional life. Licensed to practice law in North Carolina and Florida and interned for Judge John Tyson at the NC Court of Appeals.

    Boz Zellinger

    Party: Democrat

    Home: Raleigh

    Birthplace: Raleigh

    Current job: Assistant Wake County district attorney since 2007

    Age: 32

    Education: University of Michigan, BA; UNC School of Law, JD



    Priorities: 1. Keeping the community safe “by never backing down against violent crime.” 2. Working with community resources to intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline, attempting to keep children out of gangs. 3. Doing more community outreach so the district attorney’s office can serve as the “community’s voice” in the criminal courts.

    How he says his experience sets him apart: As a Wake County assistant district attorney in the special victims unit he has prosecuted most every type of crime in the courthouse. His experience includes prosecuting political corruption cases and high-profile homicides.

— The district attorney is one of those elected officials whom few people relish meeting – at least inside the courthouse.

Such an encounter typically means someone has been charged with a crime, is a crime victim or is under investigation.

But as Wake County voters head to the polls to choose their first new district attorney in nearly three decades, the candidates in the May 6 primary are trying to introduce themselves to as many people as possible.

Longtime D.A. Colon Willoughby, 63, announced in January that he would not seek re-election, and he left office in March.

Now, two Democrats and four Republicans have filed for the job as Wake County’s top prosecutor.

With Wake being the home of state government, the county’s district attorney is perhaps the most powerful prosecutor in North Carolina.

Many of the state’s public corruption and government malfeasance cases land in the Wake courts.

North Carolina’s district attorneys not only oversee the prosecutors, investigators and administrators in their offices, they also decide which cases to pursue while trying to balance the interests of justice and the communities they were elected to serve.

Hart Miles, a Raleigh defense attorney who grew up in the capital city, said this race should be of great interest to the entire county – even those who are not in and out of the courthouse on a routine basis. Because of that, Miles invited all the candidates to sit in front of his video camera to offer a glimpse of their candidacies for YouTube posts.

“Being in Raleigh all my life, I just think it’s a really important race,” Miles said. “It’s a real unique elected position.”

May 6 primary

A good district attorney, Miles said, should not be beholden to any political party or camp and should have the “good judgment and courage to do that right thing even if it is unpopular.”

Voters in the primary election will narrow the field of Wake County D.A. candidates to one from each party. The Democrat and Republican winners will face each other in the Nov. 4 general elections.

Some voters already have cast their ballots. Early voting began Thursday and continues through May 3.

The Republican candidates are:

• John Bryant, 60, a lawyer in private practice who is running as a Republican, though he has sought elected office in Wake County before as a Democrat.

• Jeff Cruden, 51, a veteran prosecutor with the Wake district attorney’s office who grew up in Raleigh and is making his first run for office.

• Jefferson Griffin, 33, a Wake County prosecutor and former defense attorney.

• Terry Allen Swaim, 45, a lawyer in private practice since 2007 who also has experience as an engineer and businessman.

The Democratic candidates are:

• Lorrin Freeman, 43, the Wake County Clerk of Court and a former prosecutor in the district attorney’s office.

• Boz Zellinger, 32, an assistant Wake County district attorney who grew up in Raleigh.

For weeks, the candidates have tried to distinguish themselves.

The races have become more heated as the primary draws closer. Advocates for the two Democratic candidates have sparred over campaign literature.

Mailer dispute

Freeman’s camp has complained about a direct-mail advertisement that raises questions about a bail-bond scheme uncovered in her office that led to criminal charges against two former clerks and two bondsmen.

The mailer, being circulated by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, an organization that endorsed Zellinger, states: “If she can’t manage a couple of clerks in her own office, how can we trust her to put Wake County’s most dangerous criminals behind bars?”

Willoughby, who was still in office when the grand jury handed up the criminal indictments, has praised Freeman for her handling of the bond scheme. He said she asked for an investigation immediately after being notified about the irregularities and did not hinder the criminal probe at all.

Zellinger has distanced himself from the mailer but has expressed his appreciation of the SEANC endorsement.

Freeman, the daughter of Franklin Freeman, a prominent Democrat and former N.C. Supreme Court justice, has touted her administrative experience as well as her work as a prosecutor in the Wake office and with the state attorney general.

She has the support of high-ranking Democratic judges, the current and former Raleigh mayors, state Sen. Josh Stein and other high-profile Wake Democrats.

Zellinger, who speaks often about a need for the district attorney’s office to be better connected to community organizations, points out his broader experience prosecuting cases. In addition to the SEANC endorsement, Zellinger received a nod from the Indy weekly newspaper.

Though the Republican candidates have not complained about mailers or campaign literature, they have tried to distinguish themselves in other ways.

GOP talking points

Cruden touts his support from the law enforcement community and the endorsement he won from the Raleigh Police Protective Association, an organization with 550 members who are sworn officers. He also won the endorsement of the Indy for the GOP primary.

Bryant has been a colorful storyteller, talking about his time on the Wake Forest football team and his experience driving trucks.

Griffin says his experience as a defense attorney and prosecutor gives him a special vantage point that he couples with his small-town roots to set himself apart.

Swaim has said he thinks the D.A. job should not be one held for decades.

“It doesn’t have to be a lifetime,” he said.

Willoughby, the longtime prosecutor who was the boss of four of the candidates, has not publicly endorsed anyone in the race.

He left the following guidance: “My advice to the next D.A. is to remember that you represent the people. 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.”


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

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service