Local ministers: Keith’s resignation ‘a new opportunity’

by Keith Barber

Local ministers: Keith’s resignation ‘a new opportunity’

Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith will put in his last day on Nov. 30. Keith made the official announcement Nov. 17, less than three months after two groups of local ministers called for his resignation.

On Sept. 11, the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity called for Keith to step down as the top law enforcement official in Forsyth County — a post he’s held for nearly two decades.

During a press conference on the steps of the Forsyth County Hall of Justice, the Rev. Carlton AG Eversley, president of the Ministers Conference, demanded Keith resign immediately. Eversley said Keith’s “stubbornly held, virulently racist white-supremacist and wildly inaccurate views,” made him unfit to serve. Three days prior, a group of mostly white clergy had gathered on the steps of Wait Chapel and issued the same demand. Clergy members cited racial disparities in Forsyth’s criminal justice system and the post-conviction DNA exonerations of Darryl Hunt and Joseph Abbitt as just two reasons why Keith should step down.

By calling for Keith’s resignation, Eversley said the group of white ministers “set the moral framework for a new opportunity.”

On Monday, Keith’s office said he was unavailable for comment.

In the Nov. 17 press release, Keith said he was retiring a year before his term expired to pursue a number of law enforcement and crime prevention projects, including securing funding for his domestic violence program called “Safe on Seven,” establishing a local forensic crime lab for DNA evidence, and continuing to find ways to help keep young people out of the criminal justice system.

Willard Bass, associate pastor at Green Street Methodist Church, said under Keith’s administration, Forsyth County has actually experienced “an overabundance of young African American males going through the criminal justice system.”

Bass said the cases of Darryl Hunt and Joseph Abbitt — two African American men — “indicates to us that there’s a deeper issue that exists within our criminal justice system for African American people or people of color getting a fair trial.”

Bass said he was disappointed by Gov. Beverly Perdue’s decision to appoint Assistant District Attorney Jim O’Neill as Keith’s successor without first consulting stakeholders in the community.

“I was surprised it happened so fast and it happened without engaging the black community and the community overall, so we wouldn’t have the same concerns that we’ve had,” Bass said. “We know that Mr. O’Neill works for Mr. Keith. I just feel like, ‘What’s going to make it different?’” Perdue appointed O’Neill to serve out the remainder of Keith’s term, which expires in 2010. According to the governor’s press release, O’Neill serves “as a legal advisor to law enforcement for first degree murder cases and was the first dedicated domestic violence prosecutor” in Forsyth County.

“Jim O’Neill has the respect and confidence of the public, law enforcement and attorneys in the 21 page 13 st District,” Perdue stated in the release. “The citizens of Forsyth County should have every confidence that justice will be administered fairly by District Attorney O’Neill.”

Eversley characterizedO’Neill as Keith’s “hand-picked successor,” but said the MinistersConference will approach O’Neill’s administration with an open mind.

“TheMinisters Conference and all of our members will certainly take anyoneat face value without prior prejudice, but what we are looking for is apublic repudiation of Keith’s racist world view, and that the newappointee would seek an outside agency to reduce the systemic andinstitutional racism that resides within that office,” Eversley said.

TheRev. John Mendez, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, said he also hopesO’Neill will meet with the Ministers Conference in a timely manner todiscuss strategies to address the racial disparities in Forsyth’scriminal justice system.

“Thefact you have more African- American males in jail than you have incollege, considering the dropout rates in our community, and thehopelessness so many young people face in our community due tojoblessness and poverty, and that so many of our young people areinvisible as it relates to housing, jobs, education,” Mendez said. “Wehave to address these particular issues, not act like it doesn’t exist,and not treat it by building more jails.”

Inthe mid 1990s, Keith’s office began to focus on violent criminals anddeveloped a habitual felon prosecution program that has sent the mostrepeat felons to prison of any county in the state, according to hispress release.

In2000, Keith’s office aimed its efforts at violent criminals who usedguns during the commission of crimes and developed the Zero ArmedPerpetrators program, which brings state and federal law enforcementand prosecution resources together to focus on the repeat violent felon.

Keithhas said that during his 19 years as District Attorney, Forsyth Countyconvicted more first-degree murderers of capital murder than any othercounty in the state, and has convicted all but 20 out of 421 defendantscharged with murder. Also, Keith cited State Bureau of Investigationstatistics that reveal Winston-Salem’s index crime rate decreasedfaster than any other urban city in the state from 1994 to 2007.

Also,Winston-Salem went from the 12th worst crime-ridden city in America inindex crime in 1994, to a safer 117th place by 2007, while its violentcrime rate went down 56.5 percent, more than any urban district in thestate, according to the press release.

Keithsaid he would not forsake his activist approach to lobbying statelegislators on a variety of criminal justice issues in retirement.Keith said he plans to continue working for legislation that keeps thehabitual felon law strong and helps ensure the state has enough jailbeds to keep repeat offenders behind bars.

Keith’slegislative agenda includes pushing for investigative grand juryjurisdiction for gang investigations, stronger gang punishment, fundingfor domestic violence programs from court fees, and constitutionalamendments to allow non-jury felony trials and to define that lifewithout parole means “until death in prison.”

Keithsaid he’s also looking forward to spending more time with his family.Following his re-election in 2005, Keith announced that he would notseek another term in office.

O’Neill’sappointment precludes an objective analysis by the district attorney’soffice into its own issues with systemic racism, Bass said.

“Institutionsalways tend to deal with issues of race that the person is theproblem,” he said. “We’re finding that it’s not always the person who’sthe problem but the institution is the problem.”

Bassand other community leaders have expressed the desire to meet withO’Neill to ensure the district attorney’s office operates in a fashionthat understands how African American males come into the judicialsystem. Bass said he believes the institute can assist the DA’s officein developing policies and procedures that improve the treatment ofAfrican American males in Forsyth County by ensuring they get a fairtrial.

O’Neill did not return phone calls for this story.

Amongthe achievements Keith cited in his press release are that his officeis now 28 percent minority, one-third of assistant district attorneysare racial minorities and 11 of 25 prosecutors are female.

Basssaid the 28 percent minority employment statistic is misleading, andthe larger for the Forsyth DA’s office is minority recruitment andretention. In 2004, Bass founded the Institute for Dismantling Racismto provide a roadmap for civic, government and business leaders toeliminate racism within their organizations. Even though Keith isstepping down, Bass said many concerns remain about the treatment ofAfrican-American males in Forsyth’s criminal justice system.

“There’snothing in place to ensure anything is going to be different,” Basssaid. “We can provide the ways and means for getting more minorities in[the DA’s office] and how we keep them there.”

Bassexpressed the hope that O’Neill will take advantage of the Institutefor Dismantling Racism’s programs by allowing his assistant districtattorneys to participate in the institute’s two-anda-half-day classwhere participants come to better understand the historical context ofhow their organizations deal with race issues as well as their ownpersonal attitudes on race.

“Allinstitutions today operate from a place of not serving the entirecommunity,” Bass said. “We’re saying it would be good if we couldacknowledge that history and be more intentional about how history hasshaped us, keep this historical perspective as we move forward.”

Basssaid the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office has not yet agreedto meet with representatives of the Institute for Dismantling Racism totalk about issues of unfair judicial practices and how to creategreater diversity within the DA’s office, but he remains optimisticthat a change in leadership could lead to a more productive dialogue inthe future.

Mendezagreed with Bass, saying that he hopes the new district attorney’soffice will join forces with the Ministers Conference and othercommunity groups to change the state of the criminal justice system inForsyth County.

“Ithink it’s important that whoever comes into that office that we meetwith them to talk to them about how we can collaborate and partner interms of turning this thing around,” he said.

Black clergy have said Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith’sviews on race make him unfit to serve. Others say he brought down crimerates. (photo by Keith Barber)