Candidates for Douglas County district attorney trade barbs in Democratic party forum
photo by: Screenshot
Two challengers for the seat of Douglas County district attorney spoke of their ideas for change and prodded the incumbent about cases his office has handled as he touted his experience and filled in other sides of the stories Tuesday evening.
The Douglas County Democrats hosted an online forum with newcomers Cooper Overstreet and Suzanne Valdez and four-term incumbent DA Charles Branson that drew nearly 200 viewers, organizers said during the event.
After the candidates’ opening statements, forum moderator Gina Spade asked what lessons the tumult of 2020 — with the coronavirus pandemic followed by an “intense and overdue examination of social injustice brought on by recent homicides of Black citizens at the hands of police” — has taught them, and how that influences their priorities.
Overstreet, a Lawrence defense attorney, said he’s believed for some time that the criminal justice system is unfair to Black people. He said that was evidenced by the local case of 23-year-old Rontarus Washington Jr., who, as the Journal-World has reported, has been in jail for more than five years on a charge of first-degree murder and had one trial that ended with a hung jury in the fall.
Overstreet said he would want to create an antiracist task force to delve deeply into bias at every step along the criminal justice process and determine where the problems are.
Branson first addressed COVID-19 and said it has caused his office and the District Court to think differently about the way things are handled — moving through dockets more quickly and opening more opportunities to create change in the system than ever before. He then addressed the Washington case, noting that only the defendant can waive his right to a speedy trial, and that Washington and his defense team have requested several continuations over the years. He said it was important to have all the facts.
Valdez, a University of Kansas law professor and special prosecutor for the Wyandotte County DA’s office, discussed how racism is a lesson she’s learned her whole life as a Hispanic woman, and she thinks the current state is a breaking point. She said marginalized communities have been subjected to systemic racism for years and that they are disproportionately affected by homelessness, addiction and COVID-19, and that people want to feel like they live in a community where they can be protected and treated fairly and justly.
Spade also asked the candidates for their views on a “conviction integrity unit” that would investigate alleged wrongful convictions. Branson said he had looked into it, but that his office was not large enough for such a unit; Valdez and Overstreet said they would both be in favor of such a unit.
In addition, Spade asked the candidates for their views on the Douglas County Jail, whether an expansion was needed and what they would do to lower the jail’s population.
Overstreet said he would “eliminate the racist, corrupt cash bail system,” which he said is a driver of mass incarceration that punishes people for being poor. He said jail needed to be a last resort, because even if someone spends just three or four days there, that’s time away from their family members and people who rely on them. He said he wouldn’t prosecute narcotics possession cases of less than 1 gram, because people shouldn’t be punished for addiction — they need treatment.
Branson pointed to programs that have been put into place as alternatives to incarceration, including pretrial release, drug court, behavioral health court and expanded diversion programs that have a 90% success rate. He said these were still “fledgling” programs that he believed would continue to grow and become more effective.
Valdez said it’s not as simple as the DA eliminating the cash bail system — judges play roles in setting bail, and there are statutes involved. She also said some of Branson’s recent changes were timed around his run for reelection, and that they weren’t innovative; drug courts have been around since 1989, she said. Valdez said she would put her energy into programs focusing on prevention because there are great local activists who want to move the community forward, and prevention programs were “low-hanging fruit” here.
The recording of the forum will be posted online at douglascountydems.org in the next few days. Early voting in the Democratic primary, which will almost certainly determine the next district attorney as no Republicans have filed, begins July 15, and the election is Aug. 4.
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More 2020 election coverage: Douglas County district attorney race
The Journal-World will cover each candidate who files to run for Douglas County district attorney and their views on key issues as the Aug. 4 primary election draws nearer.
• April 28, 2020: District Attorney Charles Branson files for reelection in 2020
• April 16, 2020: Two Democrats file to run for Douglas County district attorney