“I think it’s difficult for people in public office to know when to leave and to allow somebody else to come in. Ideally you want to leave before the public thinks it’s time for you to leave,” says Colon Willoughby ’79 JD, who served as Wake County's district attorney for more than 27 years before resigning the position effective March 31, 2014
When Colon Willoughby began working toward his law degree at Campbell University in the late 1970s, he had planned to end up in corporate law. He thought a law degree would help him advance in the mortgage banking industry, where he began his career as a loan administrator after earning his bachelor’s in business administration from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MBA from East Carolina University.
But when he got to Campbell’s law school, he took a criminal procedure course that required him to visit court to watch trial proceedings and allowed him to prosecute a case in Harnett County District Court. “I really enjoyed going to court,” Willoughby said.
So when he had to decide between two jobs offers -- one in Charlotte at a mortgage banking firm and one in Raleigh with a small law firm -- he chose the latter. “I thought doing trial work was very interesting and exciting,” said Willoughby, who completed his J.D. from Campbell in 1979, making him a member of the law school’s charter class.
In the summer of 1983, the district attorney for Wake County took a leave of absence for health reasons and former N.C. Governor Jim Hunt appointed Willoughby to fill in as the acting DA for several weeks. “I decided at that time I would like to be the DA,” Willoughby said.
When the position came up for election in 1986, Willoughby ran for office -- and won. He was elected to the position six more times, leading him to serve as the district attorney of Wake County for the past 27 years. But he announced in January 2014 that he won’t seek re-election. He initially planned to serve in the position until his term expires in December; but on March 20, he submitted a letter to N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory noting he would step down as DA effective March 31. On May 1, he’ll join the McGuire Woods law firm and work in its government regulatory and criminal investigations division.
In an interview with Campbell.edu, Willoughby talked about why he decided not to seek re-election, what has changed and what hasn’t changed during his time as the DA, what he has observed about the criminal justice system, and what’s next for him. The following is an edited transcript.
Why did you want to be the Wake County DA?
When I was filling in as acting DA, I had to deal with a high-profile murder case and with an investigation involving the then-sitting N.C. Lt. Governor Jimmy Green. I thought that was fascinating work and interesting. It really stimulated me. In private practice you only got to work on cases that came to you. As district attorney, you could work on any case you wanted to, and some very intriguing cases at that.
Did you ever imagine you would be the DA for nearly 28 years?
Heavens no. (Laughing.) I thought I would come and stay for one or two terms and go back into private practice or do some other work. I never envisioned it would be a career this long. Twenty-seven years without a promotion is a long time!
Why did you stay with it?
There has been a never-ending stream of interesting cases to work on, and it has been very interesting to hire young lawyers and help them develop into good trial lawyers, many of whom who have gone on to be judges and hold other honorable positions. That has been a fun part of the job.
What has changed during your time as DA?
Wake County has grown almost three-fold. When I first started, there were probably 325,000 to 350,000 people; now there are 950,000. Our office has grown with that. As the office has gotten larger, my role has changed from trying so many cases to it becoming more of a management role and managing other lawyers. The role shifted to one of leadership and trying to inspire other people to be good prosecutors.
What does it take to be a good prosecutor?
You want people who are committed to trying to do the right thing and who have strong values to help them do the right thing. I think trying to find and present the true facts of what happened in a situation drives all prosecutors. If the facts show that someone is innocent, then that’s what the results should be.
Are there other changes you've observed during your time as DA?
For the last 10 or 15 years, one of the things we’ve seen is a new view of domestic violence. When I started in the 1980s, domestic violence was kind of viewed as being between the husband and the wife, and the courts didn’t get as involved in it. I think we’ve recognized the problems with those kinds of cases and tried to develop community-based solutions dealing with domestic violence.
The same with substance abuse. The first year I started, you could count on one hand the number of cases involving crack/cocaine we’ve had. Now we have hundreds. We’ve dealt with substance abuse and created drug-treatment courts to try to treat addicts and find long-term solutions to substance abuse. We’ve also tried to be responsive with impaired driving cases. I think the public has gotten really fed up with drunk drivers and they expect and demand stronger treatment for those kinds of cases.
We’ve also dealt with the creation of the Internet. That has spawned identity theft and more sophisticated methods of theft and embezzlement. It has required our prosecutors to be technology-savvy to understand those cases and present them to juries.
What hasn't changed during your time as DA?
We still get our work from the seven deadly sins, particularly greed, lust, and gluttony. Those still provide us with almost all of the work. That hasn’t changed in my lifetime and probably won’t.
What are the most pressing issues facing the criminal justice system today?
There are two serious issues that have not gotten the attention they should. One of those is substance abuse -- both alcohol and drug abuse -- which drives so much of our crime. And the other is mental health and our lack of a system that properly cares for people with serious mental health problems. Many wind up in the criminal justice system because of mental health problems.
What would you like to see happen to address those issues?
With substance abuse, we need to focus on education and treatment. An example of that is what happened in this country in my lifetime with cigarettes. We have educated people about the consequences of tobacco use and we’ve seen the usage go down sharply. We need to have that same kind of commitment with alcohol and drugs, but both education and treatment are some of the first things to be cut when we limit government services.
With mental health, I think we are going to have to completely revamp the delivering of mental health services, not only in North Carolina but in the country, to protect those people who are mentally ill from themselves and to protect others from the ones who become violent. Beginning in the 1970s, we went to the least restrictive treatment of mental illness and we pushed thousands and thousands of people out of institutions with no safety net, with no community services, with no models to address their needs. We certainly don’t want to institutionalize people because of mental illness, but I think we need more structured environments to be able to provide the kind of care and protection these folks need.
What does the criminal justice system do well?
The system works well when we have good lawyers representing both sides and conscientious judges. When one leg of that stool gets loose or broken, our system doesn’t always work as it should. I think law schools play a critical role in selecting the people who go into law and providing the legal profession with people whose mindset is to seek justice and the truth. I think that young lawyers benefit tremendously from working closely with more experienced lawyers.
One of the shortcomings of our profession is that we allow people who finish law school to immediately go into practice and undertake things they are not always equipped to do. If they were in a mentoring environment with other lawyers, they would benefit and the clients would benefit.
Who were some of your mentors?
A number of our judges. I’ve been fortunate to serve as a chief prosecutor for no fewer than five senior resident judges here in Wake County. They have all have been generous with their knowledge and advice about how to function as the DA.
What does it take to function as a DA?
A blend of when to be firm and when to be compassionate and how to deal with the public, victims, witnesses, and interested folks. The district attorney has to balance a lot of interests of not just the victims but everyone in the community. What might be good for an individual victim may not be a good for the community. A victim may not want to prosecute a violent rapist, for example, because she does not want the public exposure of what happened, but the community might need this person vigorously prosecuted. Sometimes the desires and needs of victims and the community don’t mesh. The DA has to strike a balance.
Why did you decide now is the time to not seek re-election?
The drool on my suit. (Laughing) I think it’s difficult for people in public office to know when to leave and to allow somebody else to come in. Ideally you want to leave before the public thinks it’s time for you to leave. I felt like the office was well-staffed and had been well-run, and that this was a good time for a new district attorney to take over with minimal problems to deal with.
What's your advice to the next DA?
I hope it’s someone who really wants to serve the public as district attorney, and I’d recommend keeping a balance between work and family and other things so that you don’t get jaded by the process.
How did you keep from getting jaded?
My wife makes me take out the trash and clean up the yard. (Laughing.) And I’ve been fortunate to have outside interests. I like to do outdoor things like fly fishing and bird hunting. You need to have activities with the church and the community and do things you enjoy participating in while interacting with other people.
Also, most prosecutors get some intrinsic reward from what they do, and you sometimes get the expressions of appreciation from victims and people in the community about how we’ve handled cases. That’s the thing that keeps you going back to the office at night and on the weekends.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Jimmy Allen