DA race means tough choice

CNJ Editorial

T uesday’s primary election ballot features five contested local races. One in particular has created a stir big enough to already have attracted heavy voter turnout.

The 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Republican primary has spurred about 2,000 Curry and Roosevelt County residents to vote early. The two-Republican race has inspired voter registration increases and party switching. Many believe this is the main reason why, for the first time, Curry County has more registered Republicans than Democrats.
Incumbent DA Brett Carter is a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of guy. Matt Chandler, fired by Carter upon announcing intentions to run for the office, offers an energetic promise for change.

They are poles apart in age, experience and approach, but they each offer a lot. Making a choice will not be easy for many people.

Carter, 42, brings 17 years of legal experience and a slow-to-start campaign style that has intensified in recent weeks. His supporters — the vocal ones include Clovis Mayor David Lansford, Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher and Eastern New Mexico university supervisor Minnie Bresler — see Carter as a student of the law, fundamentally sound, fair and a rock of a leader. Strong leaders are especially important, some in Carter’s camp will tell you, in a time when juries watch too much television and judges play politics.

Carter’s foes complain he is soft on crime because of excessive use of plea bargains, which is a curious argument in light of our overcrowded jails in this region, and the high nationwide use of plea bargains to cut down on trial costs, limited budgets and public lawyer workloads.

Recently, though, even as Carter has trumpeted his experience and a conviction rate above 95 percent, his campaign has been haunted by a late-April murder trial in which the accused was acquitted.

Not only was Fernando Garcia found not guilty, but Carter’s office reduced the charges in the middle of the trial — a sign they sensed the jury had cause for reasonable doubt. A juror later said, “We wished that we could have done the guilty verdict, but we just didn’t feel we could with the evidence we received. The witnesses were all telling mistruths and lies and we couldn’t tell from that what really happened.”

Some believe Garcia should never have been brought to trial because the evidence was lacking; others contend the evidence was there but presented poorly. Wherever the truth fell, with only a month until the primary election then, public confidence had to have been shaken by that verdict.

In fact, the Garcia case is one reason Matt Chandler’s supporters — they include the local Fraternal Order of Police and more than 350 residents from throughout the district whose names have appeared in paid advertisements — think experience may be overrated in today’s criminal courtrooms. They favor someone with a bullet-proof personality arguing cases, someone eager to employ aggressive new ideas, someone unwilling to plea bargain with violent criminals who is very vocal about making streets safer for law-abiding citizens.

Plus, in Chandler they have a good-looking, media-savvy person with a gift for articulation and a best-friend aura. Some people think his style neutralizes his lack of extensive experience against a far more experienced prosecutor.

The problem with that logic, of course, is that only high-profile trials can be impacted with the force of personality and media skills. Most felony cases are settled by law books, sharp-eyed, experienced investigators, and time-tested lawyers who have learned to use all available tools through years of repetition.

At 28, Matt Chandler has only 17 months under his belt as a prosecutor. No doubt he could benefit from more repetition before taking on the role of eastern New Mexico’s district attorney. But he certainly has the energy and the passion that position demands.

Brett Carter’s ability is being questioned by some because of the Garcia case. But just as it may be an error to judge Chandler by his age, it also can be an error to judge Carter by a single, recent event.

While Carter’s laid-back personality does not lend itself well to a more dynamic, high-profile political campaign, our bulging jail cells suggest he and his staff are handling many cases well.

Well enough? Tuesday, the voters will decide.
We believe both men have something good to offer our communities’ law enforcement teams. They seem strong on character and committed to reducing crime.

They will go about their business in different ways, from different perspectives, working hard to overcome their weaknesses by leaning on their strengths.

In some ways we wish these men could set aside their differences and figure out a way to work together, combining experience with a visible passion for crimefighting.

Then again, it’s great to have a choice when we go to the polls on Tuesday.