Longtime attorney Greg Newman showed up in court recently, defending a client in Asheville, and was surprised to see the presiding judge was Jeff Hunt.
Hunt was in an early appearance as a Special Court justice. New Gov. Pat McCrory appointed fellow Republican Hunt to that post in May. Then in early July, McCrory chose former Hendersonville Mayor Newman to replace Hunt as district attorney (D.A.) in Prosecutorial District 29-B. Hunt was D.A. for the past 19 years.
Newman started as D.A. in mid-July, after he was sworn into office. Then last week, he was honored in a public ceremony in a special District Court session.
He serves 29-B for all of Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties. The current D.A. term expires next year, and Newman said he will run.
When McCrory was mayor of Charlotte, the state’s largest city, he met Newman who was mayor of Hendersonville which is the second most-populated city in the N.C. mountains. Newman was mayor in 2005 until 2009, then ran for Congress but lost the GOP primary to Jeff Miller.
Seeing Jeff Hunt behind the bench at a jury trial four weeks ago was a twist, Newman said. “He was sitting at a different table. We’ll all get used to it.”
Newman also commands a different table in court. His career is coming full circle as a prosecutor. The Hendersonville native, now 51, earned his law degree from the University of Dayton, Ohio. He was assistant prosecutor in Ashland County, Ohio near Cleveland in 1991-95. Next, he was assistant attorney general in the Kingsport-Bristol, Tenn. area for the next five years to 2000.
In the 13 years since then, he has been a private attorney in the Hendersonville-based practice of Blanchard and Newman with Ron Blanchard and Jason G. Blackwell. Newman’s specialties included federal and state criminal defense, real estate and family law.
As he noted, “I’ve tried a variety of cases,” often going up against prosecutors. Trying cases on both sides of the aisle gives him a broad perspective of his staff’s prosecutorial and opposing defensive strategies.
The main change in district attorney styles is that Newman will take more of a role in court than overseer Hunt did recently. Newman told The Tribune he will prosecute or help try “higher-profile cases, in which charges are advanced and the public is very concerned about the outcome.” He said he welcomes the D.A. job’s legal, administrative and electoral “components.”
He said Hunt built a “very capable,” experienced staff that multi-tasks well, to work within budget limitations. “We have a good mix. Everyone gets along well. The D.A. office is a great place for younger lawyers to obtain quick in-court experience” as he did in Ohio. “We’re tantamount to a teaching hospital. We help them learn the ropes.”
Three assistant D.A.’s focus on more serious cases, in Superior Court. “They help supervise others, who try a case with them,” Newman said. They are Doug Mundy and Doug Pearson in all three counties, and Beth Dierauf in Transylvania. Pearson was interim D.A for two months.
Henderson County has court every weekday. New assistant D.A.s there include Heather Payne and Justin Steen. In spring, they came here from Buncombe County where Newman knew them. The newest is Nikki Shaffer. Court in Transylvania and Polk is held on some weekdays, on different days. This enables assistant D.A.s Rick Daniel and Tripp Griffin to rotate between those two counties, saving taxpayer money.
Becky Corthell is investigator of violent crimes. Victim witness coordinator Lisa Buckner arranges for out-of-town witness travel and accommodations. Criminal and traffic records are gathered by Traci Jobling, Stephanie Nesbitt and Angela Nix. Cindy Taylor is the receptionist and handles press releases.
The longtime D.A. office manager at the Henderson County courthouse is Jenny McDonald. Her husband is Henderson County Sheriff Charlie McDonald. “Jenny is our backbone,” Newman said. “She keep this office running. She contacts sheriff and police offices about cases. She handles subpoenas, and other paperwork.”
D.A. staffs are normally based on district population, which for 29-B is about 162,000 people. One slot was cut, down to seven. But there are no further cuts in the 2013-14 budget signed days ago, Newman said. “We’re going to be fine. Like everyone, we’ll stretch the dollar. We’ll do the best we can with what is given us. We’ll improvise, and be creative as we can be.”
Greg and Kim Newman have been married 28 years. They have three children. The two eldest, Ryan and Alexis, study at Clemson. Parker is entering seventh grade, at Hendersonville Middle School.
Protecting Rights, Participants
District 29-B, moreso than others he prosecuted in, is a “very conservative community,” Newman said. “We’re very pro-law enforcement, respecting those enforcing laws and keeping us safe.” He said that in switching back to the prosecution, “I like working with the law enforcement community. They’re very professional. They collect the evidence and statements, and help us present our case.”
The stronger the evidence, the harder prosecutors can press for a guilty verdict and the original charge rather than plea bargain, he added. Pleas are needed, though, to get through the docket efficiently and keep up with busy caseloads. Typically, they are most suitable for first-time offenders.
Prosecutors pursue strongest guilty verdicts and tough sentences “when there has been loss of life, or a child or woman is abused,” Newman said. Other crimes of extra concern include “break-ins or thefts. These crimes victimize the most vulnerable such as the elderly, a defenseless girlfriend or spouse and certainly children. We draw the line in the sand clearly, for everyone. They know we’re going to pursue punishment to the fullest extent.”
On the other hand, he said, his defense work makes him sensitive to the accused. “We want to make sure people’s rights are preserved, and protected. Whether they had (criminal) trouble throughout their lives, or have high status in our community. If someone with a lengthy record is charged again, make sure that lengthy record isn’t all that people look at. Look at each case, based on its own merits.”
He is also sensitive to the challenge of securing testimony from neighbors of the victim or accused, in crime-ridden areas. He saw that as more daunting in Asheville. There, “many times people who witnessed a violent crime were reluctant — for fear of physical reprisal — to testify or even say something that would be placed in writing. Only two or three might follow through,” he said. “You want the witness to be safe. But at the state level, we do not have witness protection. And a trial may be a year down the road.”
A solution is that “the faster a case can be prepared for trial, it favors the prosecution,” he said. “It lessen risk a witness flees, or does not cooperate for fear of reprisal.” While awaiting trial, extra law agency patrols of the area protect witnesses and also jurors, Newman pointed out. “This can allay fears of threats, so they feel comfortable in participating in the system.”