On Monday Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill held a press conference at the Hall of Justice in downtown Winston-Salem in order to announce that he will be joining Republican Buck Newton and Democratic Candidate Josh Stein in the 2016 Attorney General contest.
Who is Jim O’Neill?
Even though he has been our District Attorney since his appointment in 2009 by then-Governor Bev Perdue, many people in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County know little about O’Neill beyond the fact that he is District Attorney. Competent, organized, and driven, O’Neill has never exhibited the political flair of his mentor, former District Attorney Tom Keith.
O’Neill began serving in the Forsyth County DA’s office in 1997. A graduate of Duke University, O’Neill earned his law degree from New York Law School while working part-time to pay his way. Over the past 18 years of service in Forsyth County O’Neill has lead prosecutions in DWI and especially domestic-violence cases. O’Neill was Forsyth County’s first dedicated Domestic Violence Prosecutor. O’Neill has worked to obtain grants to sustain a specially trained Domestic Violence Prosecutor to handle Domestic Violence cases after his accession to District Attorney as Tom Keith’s hand picked replacement. O’Neill helped to maintain grants that allow Forsyth County to continue to have have specially trained legal assistants dedicated to the assistance of victims of Domestic and Relationship violence. Mr. O’Neill also handled much of the administrative load at the DA’s office during his tenure working under Keith.He ran and screened candidates as potential prosecutors.
O’Neill’s tenure has not been hyper-partisan in the way that state politics and the Attorney General’s office has been before and after it became clear that current AG, Roy Cooper, would be the Democratic candidate for Governor in 2016. While the apparent wrongful prosecution of Kalvin Michael Smith did not take place when O’Neill was working in the DA’s office, he has disappointed many by refusing to support re-opening the case in the face of mounting evidence that puts real doubt as to Smith’s guilt.
Unlike state senators Newton and Stein, Mr. O’Neill has stayed out of the roiling and outright nasty partisan warfare that has exploded in recent years. A true Raleigh outsider, O’Neill has instead focused his efforts on being our District Attorney and prosecuting crimes rather than wallowing in the slime of North Carolina’s bitter politics.
It is exactly that outsider status that O’Neill touted in his announcement on Monday. O’Neill voiced his opinion that one of the necessary qualifications for the next Attorney General, the top prosecutor in the state, should be that the candidate has first served in the capacity of top prosecutor at the level of District Attorney. “The top prosecutor in the great state of North Carolina,” O’Neill stated, “should have at least prosecuted a murder case before a jury in North Carolina. I am an actual, courtroom prosecutor; qualified, tested and ready to go on day one.”
O’Neill went on to say that if elected Attorney General in 2016, he would enforce the laws and respect the will of the people, including pursuit and enforcement of death penalty convictions. That was as close as he got to a hot button issue. In this case it is the death penalty which finds favor of both sides of the major party divide, but includes a healthy amount of institutionalized racism in its history here in North Carolina.
O’Neill emphasized several of the prosecutorial programs under his watch, including the Safe on Seven domestic violence protection program which just celebrated its tenth anniversary. O’Neill also mentioned the elder abuse task force and a special sex-offender prosecution team designed to offer further protection to the most vulnerable members of our society. O’Neill shifted to protecting retail businesses from shoplifting, referring to a specialized retail prosecution unit in the DA’s office which focuses on protecting businesses from the loss that accompanies theft and aggressively pursuing organized shoplifters.
Bringing up a very real issue that does not divide along partisan lines, O’Neill once more stated that the State Crime Lab is in need of assistance and attention. O’Neill suggested that a combination of public and private labs working together, similar to the strategy he employs in Winston-Salem, would benefit the entire state.
Mr. O’Neill’s greatest strength could prove to be his biggest weakness in a North Carolina that partisan warriors from all sides want to see ripped apart in 2016 in order to drum up interest, fear, and vitriol in order to get their candidates elected in order to drive their agendas. It is yet to be seen if O’Neill’s outsider status can hold and if he can stay out of the dirty social issue politics of recent times. In a way Mr. O’Neill is a throwback to an earlier time in North Carolina politics when most voters weren’t looking for which party label a candidate was working under.