Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

TOP STORY >>Candidates trade barbs

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

Lona McCastlain, Lonoke County’s Republican prosecuting attorney, hasn’t had an opponent for three of the four terms she’s been in office. But now a defense attorney, who was one of her deputy prosecutors after the 1998 election, says he can do the job better. At the very least, he says, he will take more cases to trial.

In an advertisement, Tim Blair, who worked for McCastlain for 18 months, says her office has 1,000 cases untried, including 153 untried cases one to two years old and 75 cases more two years old. Blair, a Democrat, maintains that her budget doubled and her staff tripled, but that only seven trials went to the jury in 2006, and she lost four.

McCastlain said Blair’s ad was designed to confuse voters and it did. She disputes the number of cases tried. She says she tried 12 with four lost while Blair maintains that his research showed she only tried seven. Blair said he did the research for the ad, which was paid for by the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

Blair said he found the information contained in the ad on a state court website, in Circuit Judge Lance Hanshaw’s office and in the office of the Lonoke County Treasurer, he said. Blair said that to save the time required for jury trials, most trials are bench trials, which means the judge determines guilt, not a jury. But there’s bad blood between McCastlain and Hanshaw, he said, so cases go untried.

“There were over 800 cases brought over this year from last year,” Blair said this week. “We’ve got to have change in Lonoke County or that system is going to crash.” McCastlain doesn’t dispute all the numbers in Blair’s campaign ad, but she does say they are misleading. That same website also shows that her percentage of untried cases has dropped from 12 percent to six percent over the past two years, during the time when her relationship with Hanshaw has been strained.

And that six percent puts her in the top three in the state where some districts have as many as 20 percent of their cases untried for more than two years. Her staff tripled and her budget doubled? That’s a pretty good value for the money, she joked, but that too is misleading. The staff isn’t just prosecutors. It includes new positions like the victim-witness coordinator. And most of the salaries for the new positions came from grants.

McCastlain said she is disappointed that Blair was able to use against her the same numbers that she is proud of.
“We’re in pretty good shape as far as a backlog,” she said. “To be in the top three in the state, that’s great and I’m proud of it.” McCastlain said she tries the tough cases and goes for stiff sentences, but there is no way to predict how a jury will decide. Blair says the danger of waiting too long to go to trial is that witnesses who could help get a conviction sometimes dwindle away taking a good case with them.

“You have to be in court, prepared and trying cases every day. If you don’t you’ve got a backlog,” Blair said.
In the 18 months he was in McCastlain’s office he tried 24 cases and lost only two, he said. “I want this job because I like trial work,” he said. “I like getting in front of 12 strangers and convincing them.”

McCastlain responds that there is no way Blair can be in court every day because the judge sets the docket not the prosecutor. Hanshaw gave her three days for jury trials in September and three days in October and she used them all and could have used more.

“We don’t set the trial dates, we go when Lance tells us we go,” McCastlain said. As a defense attorney, Blair represents the people that McCastlain prosecutes, but he said changing roles isn’t difficult because prosecutor and defender are both parts of a system that works well.

McCastlain said the question that voters must decide is whether they want a prosecutor or a defense attorney. “You can’t have a fox guarding the henhouse,” she said. “And if you want a defense attorney, you sure don’t want me.” “I believe in our system and I’m going to represent who I represent to the best of my ability. You have to have faith in the system if it’s going to work,” he said.