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Mentor, prosecutor: Willoughby ends career

Posted January 10, 2014

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— After nearly three decades as Wake County's elected district attorney, Colon Willoughby announced Thursday that he wouldn't run for re-election this fall. His term expires Jan. 1, 2015.

“I think the office is in a very good place, and I think it’s a great time for another district attorney to come in and hopefully do more and better things with this office,” he said Friday in a wide-ranging reflection of his time in one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the state.

"I thought it was appropriate that whoever is the next D.A. is chosen by the voters rather than by the politicos."

Willoughby has shepherded high-profile murder cases and prosecuted corruption within state government and the court system during his tenure – one of the longest in the state.

Over the years he has seen incredible change. Wake County opened a new justice center, and the population has tripled.

"When I started, we were using rotary dial telephones, now we're using iPads," he said.

Over the years, Willoughby, a Democrat, earned respect as someone who could put politics aside to handle prosecutions of high-profile figures within his own party.

"It carries enormous responsibility," he said.

"I think we've tried to keep partisan politics out of this office and do things in a way that retain public confidence."

The young attorneys molded through their work with Willoughby may be among those vying to fill his big shoes.

"He has a way of talking to you and teaching you and giving you confidence," said Assistant District Attorney Matt Lively.

There are 43 attorneys in the district attorney's office, and Willougby said he expects some of them to seek his seat. Just one, Boz Zellinger, 32, who has been with the office since 2007 has already said he plans to run.

"I think we all considering him a tremendous mentor. A lot of lawyers in this county owe a great debt to him," Lively said.

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