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2 Democrats and a longshot Republican vie for DA seat

by Amy Kingsley

When Julia Hejazi declared her intention to run for Guilford County’s district attorney seat last fall, the race looked wide open. The district attorney at the time, Stuart Albright, planned to run for his father’s Superior Court judgeship and the elder Albright appeared poised to complete the remainder of the last term in his epic career.

Then in early December, Judge Douglas Albright chose to retire early, citing health concerns, and Gov. Mike Easley tapped the county’s lead prosecutor to fill his shoes until the November 2006 election. On the same day, the governor anointed veteran defense lawyer Douglas Henderson as district attorney.

The political shuffle displaced Hejazi, a nine-year veteran in the district attorney’s office unexpectedly facing the prospect of running against her new boss. Almost as soon as Henderson moved into his new downtown digs, he told Hejazi her job at the district attorney’s office was incompatible with her intention to run for its top spot, she said.

Henderson declined to speak specifically about Hejazi’s departure, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.

‘“I do know that when one member of a staff is trying to replace another member of the staff, that makes a pretty difficult professional situation,’” Henderson said.

Hejazi said her exit from the job was so swift that she still doesn’t know what happened to the cases she was working on. Throughout the ordeal, Hejazi never wavered in her intention to reclaim a position ‘— the top one ‘— at her old place of employment. If she’s successful, she might make history as the first female district attorney in Guilford County.

Her termination has freed her up to concentrate on her campaign, even as it has separated her from a job she described as her passion. Since January, her focus has shifted to meeting people, shaking hands and sowing the seeds of a grassroots campaign.

This year, for the first time in at least 20 years, campaigning for the district attorney’s office has gotten off to an earlier start than usual. Unlike the past five races, this year’s ballot for the Democratic primary features two names: Hejazi and Henderson.

The winner will have to face perennial candidate Wendell Sawyer, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

While Hejazi has been shaking hands, Henderson has been meeting with civic groups all across the county to explain his vision for the office he has occupied for three short months. The campaign has strained a schedule already heavy with the responsibilities of his office.

‘“I think people are excited to have a choice,’” Hejazi said, ‘“and I think change is good.’”

The candidates for this long-uncontested primary are trying to draw attention to a race that usually doesn’t heat up until the fall. Over an out-of-the-way table at the bustling Lawndale Drive Panera Bread, Hejazi stressed the difference between her background and her opponent’s.

‘“I think it’s important for people to understand the difference in our experiences,’” she said. ‘“A defense lawyer who looks at a case must look at it only in terms of the client, they don’t have to look at the whole picture. Our job is not to win or lose but to promote justice. You have to consider the defendant, the victim, the needs of the community and what the law allows.’”

Henderson said prosecutors and defense lawyers often switch sides during the span of their careers. He described his 23 years of criminal defense experience as advantageous to his current position.

‘“If I had to describe what would best qualify one to prosecute a case, it would have to be to have had to defend one,’” he said.

Over the years, he’s handled cases ranging from traffic violations to capital offenses. Eight capital cases crossed his desk during his time as a defense lawyer and he counts them among his greatest professional achievements due to their high stakes nature. Henderson also worked on a task force to ensure indigent defendants obtained high quality legal representation.

Hejazi also said she has worked all kinds of cases during her time at the district attorney’s office but focused on cases involving rape, domestic abuse and child abuse.

She helped open the Child Advocacy Center through Family Services of the Piedmont, which provides a child-friendly atmosphere to young victims of abuse. Investigators can question children there instead of the police station and record the interviews to prevent unnecessary and traumatizing repetition.

In addition, she helped make sure that all Guilford County hospitals are staffed with sexual assault nurse examiners dually trained to gather evidence and counsel victims. Through it all, she has also worked to diligently represent the victims of these crimes in court, she said.

Hejazi entered the law profession after an early career as a social worker dealing mostly with abused children. At her first appearance in court, she knew she wanted to go back to law school. The mother of two waited until her children had started school and her husband finished his medical residency before enrolling at the Wake Forest University School of Law.

‘“I interned at the district attorney’s office and worked in juvenile court, which was a really great experience,’” she said. ‘“Juvenile court is the place where we’re really trying to rehabilitate and keep kids from becoming lifelong criminals. I got to use a lot of the same skills as a social worker.’”

Henderson is a Greensboro native who attended Guilford College and law school at NC Central University in Durham. Before being appointed as district attorney, he worked with his wife in private practice.

If elected, Hejazi plans to increase the focus of the district attorney’s office on three things: prevention, prosecution and victim services. She said she would like to see more activity in the community to prevent crime as well as diligent prosecution of crimes that do occur. In addition, she wants to staff the district attorney’s office with victim advocates.

Henderson also wants to focus on prevention.

‘“Prevention is the best money we spend in the criminal justice system,’” he said.

Henderson said Guilford faces many of the same challenges as other urban counties: drugs and the violent crimes associated with them. He is concerned about the number of serious crimes committed by young people, specifically 12 to 16 year olds.

Sawyer will take on the winner in November. He ran for Guilford County district attorney in 1998 and 2002 but lost in the runoff both times.

Sawyer graduated from what was then High Point College, now High Point University, and the University of Arkansas School of Law. His law office specializes in traffic cases. Between his heavy caseload and his six kids, he doesn’t have much time for campaigning, he said.

‘“If the wind’s not right, you’re not going to win anyway,’” he said.

Sawyer does not have any big plans for the district attorney’s office, but said his 25 years of legal experience would make him a capable steward of the office.

‘“A good district attorney looks out for the interest of the victims,’” he said. ‘“You have to have a good relationship with the police, and you shouldn’t hot dog anything.’”

He said candidates for district attorney should not go in with a narrow agenda because it might blind them to other types of crimes. Instead they should focus on the great responsibility of the office, Sawyer said.

‘“Just take a look at the sheer volume of cases that office handles,’” Sawyer said. ‘“It’s awesome.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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