Local Politics

Wake DA faces political newcomer in May 17 primary

Incumbent Lorrin Freeman, a Democrat first elected as Wake County District Attorney in 2014, is seeking a third term and faces defense attorney and political newcomer Damon Chetson in the May 17 primary.

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Joe Fisher
, WRAL reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The two candidates vying to be the top prosecutor in the state’s largest county both admit the criminal justice system needs meaningful reform to eliminate racial disparities and better serve people with mental illness.

Incumbent Lorrin Freeman, a Democrat first elected as Wake County District Attorney in 2014, is seeking a third term and faces defense attorney and political newcomer Damon Chetson in the May 17 primary.

The winner will face Republican Jeff Dobson in November’s general election.

Chetson, a Republican-turned-Democrat who said he supported Barack Obama in 2008, has campaigned largely on three issues: ending the prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession, ending the death penalty and doubling the number of prosecutors in Wake County.

“We need to increase the number of prosecutors because we need to help cases move through the system more quickly, not just for the defendant who is awaiting resolution of their case but for the victims and the families of victims who deserve justice,” Chetson said.

Freeman said all 43 state-funded prosecutor positions are currently filled and while courts in North Carolina have been “historically underfunded,” she says the office only needs six additional prosecutors based off a recent workload assessment.

“I have been active in our Conference of District Attorneys at the legislature pushing for more resources,” Freeman said. “There is no question we need to have better resources [and] additional resources as our county continues to grow.”

When asked about her most significant achievements in her 8-year tenure as district attorney, Freeman pointed out the expansion of programs that have supported hundreds of victims of domestic violence and child abuse.

A new diversion program for mentally ill suspects — especially those charged with low-level offenses — has helped more than 150 people get treatment.

“I believe with the mental health issues, we need to find a way to treat them out in the community,” said Freeman.

Chetson, who has lived in Wake County since 2007, supported Freeman when she ran for Clerk of Superior Court.

He believes the high turnover of prosecutors throughout the pandemic points to “real leadership problems” within the office. Freeman dismisses the notion.

“This turnover rate is very high and it’s not just about people leaving because of low pay,” Chetson said.

At $55,000, prosecutors in Wake County have the highest starting salary in the state.

Freeman admits the office has not been immune to the “Great Resignation.”

“District attorneys offices across the state traditionally have been a training ground for attorneys,” Freeman said. “Fortunately, lots of people use this as a launchpad to go on in their legal career.”

Of the roughly 100,000 cases in Wake County every year, Freeman said “less than 1%” deal with misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Freeman said her office has “deemphasized” prosecution in such cases; however, Chetson said he will not prosecute the cases at all.

“We will simply dismiss those cases,” Chetson said. “I think a prosecutor has to do justice and I think that’s what the ethical rules require of a prosecutor. It’s not just as a computer or robot following every law.”

“The idea that people are being arrested or sent to jail for misdemeanor marijuana use is just not true,” Freeman said. “At the end of the day our responsibility is to uphold the law so we continue to do that.”

If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, individual states could soon decide the legality of abortions.

North Carolina law allows abortions in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Thereafter, abortions are restricted to emergency reasons and can only be performed at a hospital.

Chetson said he would not prosecute women who receive abortions or healthcare providers who perform them.

Freeman said she is limited in the remarks she can make regarding prosecuting because she is one of 15 state officials named in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood over five state abortion laws.

The lawsuit claims the “challenged laws create a web of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion.”

Freeman said, “There are currently abortion laws on the books in this state that limit abortion and we have never asked for a criminal investigation or prosecuted anyone pursuant to those laws. We work everyday to try and protect women.”


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