RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley on Thursday appointed a 15-year veteran of the Durham County District Attorney's Office to replace former prosecutor Mike Nifong as district attorney.
Chief Assistant District Attorney David J. Saacks will serve as district attorney until 2008 when a new district attorney will be elected. Because he lives in Cary, he would be ineligible to run for the office unless he moved to Durham County.
A 1989 graduate of Tulane Law School, Saacks has handled misdemeanor, felony drug and violent felony prosecutions since starting at the district attorney's office in 1992.
"A prosecutor’s first responsibility is not to win at any cost, but to be the state’s defender of the truth and a just advocate,” Easley said in a news statement released Thursday. “It is my hope that this will guide (Saacks) as he undertakes this very important task."
In recent years, Saacks prosecuted or helped prosecute several high-profile cases, including the 2003 murder trial of Durham novelist and former mayoral candidate Michael Peterson.
Saacks played an instrumental role in that case, researching a significant aspect of the prosecution's case – the similar deaths of Peterson's wife and a family friend nearly 20 years earlier.
Last year, he also won a second-degree murder conviction of Kenneth Maready on a charge stemming from a February 2005 drunken-driving incident . Maready was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison for killing Kay Stokes, 61, and injuring her 5-year-old granddaughter.
Saacks also handled the prosecution of several men in the 2002 slaying of 89-year-old Durham grandmother Lois Cannady, who was shot to death in her home while on the phone with 911.
Those in Durham’s legal circles praised Easley’s decision Thursday, calling Saacks fair, ethical and honest.
“From an integrity standpoint, the governor couldn’t have selected a better individual,” said Durham defense attorney Butch Williams, who was retained by an unindicted lacrosse player early in the Duke lacrosse case.
Defense attorney Mark Edwards called Saacks "a logical and smart choice" and described him as "steady, fair and ethically minded." From a defense attorney's point of view, he said, Saacks has always been easy to work with.
“(Saacks) doesn’t hide anything," Williams said. “He’s going to be straightforward, ethical and honest. That’s the biggest thing I can say about David. He’s a very honest guy.”
Easley said Wednesday his decision was based, in part, on Hardin's recommendation and that he had been waiting until after Nifong's hearing on a criminal contempt of court charge to make the announcement.
Saacks was a subpoenaed witness for Nifong's defense in that hearing last Friday.
“I want to send a signal, if I can, that there are good people in that office over there (in Durham) and that the inappropriate conduct of one person does not taint the rest of the office,” Easley had said Wednesday. “There's some good, hardworking people over there.”
Saacks was likely to be sworn in Friday morning, a spokesman for the governor said. That is the same day Nifong is expected to begin serving a one-day jail sentence for being held in contempt for lying to a judge at a court hearing in the Duke lacrosse case last fall.