In North Carolina, campaigns for district attorney have long followed a traditional narrative: lots of talk about being tough on crime, accompanied by the occasional gun raffle fundraiser.
Satana Deberry’s campaign this year in Durham, a left-leaning enclave of about 260,000 people, is not typical. Deberry is running against the system, one of a few dozen candidates around the country who say they want to shake things up from inside the corner office. “The only indisputable outcome of our criminal justice system is that black and brown people are incarcerated,” Deberry said in a recent interview. “We aren’t safer as a community.”
Across the country, a new breed of prosecutors has been elected in Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and other places, promising to end death penalty prosecutions, drastically cut back on cash bail and pull back on low-level charges. Many have had outside help, including from political action committees associated with billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
That assistance hasn’t trickled down to Durham, where this month’s Democratic primary is likely to determine the next DA. But in a sign that the ethos and goals of the prosecutor reform movement has begun to influence less visible races, the Durham campaign has become a competition between candidates to tout their progressive bona fides.
Deberry has echoed the pledges of other reform-minded candidates, as well as saying that if she’s elected, her entire staff, including her, would undergo routine training to combat unconscious race or sex bias. Racial bias may seem an odd focus in Durham, where the police chief, senior trial judge and chief public defender are African-American, as is incumbent District Attorney Roger Echols.
“Individually, they’d all say the system is screwed up,” said Deberry, who is also black. “But they’ve been trained to work a certain way in the system, and the system is racist.”
In a recent interview, Echols described himself as North Carolina’s most progressive district attorney. He touted his mental health court, which steers defendants into treatment rather than prison. Last year he helped lead a program that dismissed 2,100 traffic tickets and allowed 458 people to get their driver’s licenses back. His office recently steered a violent felony case through a restorative justice pilot program, the first such case in North Carolina.
A third candidate, defense attorney Daniel Meier, is also running as a reformer.
Lisa Williams, a prominent Durham defense attorney, said Deberry has forced a debate about bail, fines, fees and other ignored issues. “If Ms. Deberry is elected, there will be wholesale changes,” Williams said. “That office will look radically different in policy and personnel.”
For decades district attorney campaigns have been low-profile, down-ballot contests in the 46 states where they are elected. Most incumbents faced only token opposition; most candidates were white men. As police shootings, wrongful convictions and climbing incarceration rates entered headlines, the words of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson became increasingly relevant: “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”
Soros’ committees have spent millions on local DA races. This year, advocates aligned with him are looking to expand that political effort to cities including Baltimore, Los Angeles, St. Louis and others. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Color of Change are speaking to voters about criminal justice issues through canvassing and voter registration.
Even without a helping hand, Deberry has a chance of winning, given Durham’s unapologetically liberal bent.
She grew up in a family of teachers in the railroad town of Hamlet, N.C. A graduate of Princeton University and Duke law school, she moved home to practice criminal and family law. For the past 18 years she’s worked on behalf of poor people in housing, consumer finance and human services.
Where Deberry is passionate and charismatic, Echols, a career prosecutor, is cerebral and reserved, traits welcomed by those working at the county courthouse. Echols took office in 2014 after scandals forced out his two predecessors.
Deberry said Echols is a decent and honest man who brought needed calm to the office, but that’s not enough. African-Americans make up 38 percent of Durham’s population and 80 percent of the jail population, she said.
“Yes, we have a lot of consistency,” she said. “The same consistent outcomes for the last 50 years.”
Deberry has hammered Echols on jail and bail. Echols responded that cash bail is inequitable and unjust: “Find a DA who’s doing more about it than me in this state.”
That claim met with disbelief from Williams and other defense attorneys, who said Echols’ staff consistently urges judges to stick to the high amounts on Durham’s presumptive bond schedule.
Winning in Durham often boils down to who is endorsed by three influential community groups. One has backed Deberry, while two others backed Echols. (There is no public polling in the race.) Deberry lost the endorsement of the local alternative weekly after she landed in hot water for appearing to plagiarize the website of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whom she says she admires.
Echols said it was unfair for Deberry to assume that the cities’ problems were identical. “She’s molded Durham after Philadelphia, and that’s not accurate,” Echols said.
Echols has also stumbled. In August, after white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville, demonstrators converged on the old Durham courthouse and pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of television and cell phone cameras. The toppling made national news and created headaches for Echols, who filed charges against a dozen protesters. After a judge tossed out all charges midway through the two first trials and acquitted a third defendant, Echols dismissed the remaining cases.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that charges against the Confederate statue protestors were dismissed in one trial.