Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill is the only current prosecutor among four candidates running for attorney general – a position that’s effectively the state’s top prosecutor.
“North Carolina will be best served by someone who is an actual prosecutor, who has gotten in and tried cases and kept the citizens of North Carolina safe,” O’Neill said. “The other people in this race, combined, do not have the prosecutorial experience I bring to the table.”
O’Neill faces state Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson in the March 15 Republican primary, with the winner taking on the Democratic Party’s nominee in November.
O’Neill notes that the attorney general’s office often prosecutes appeals of criminal cases. He said it would be “scary” to have someone in the job who hasn’t handled a murder trial before.
As Forsyth’s top prosecutor since 2009 – and an assistant district attorney for the previous 13 years – O’Neill says many of the programs he’s started could serve as a model statewide to improve the criminal justice system.
One initiative cut the number of inmates housed in the county jail by releasing suspects who were jailed under minor, nonviolent charges awaiting trial. He says the effort cut the nightly inmate population from 1,300 to 1,000, saving the county about $24,000 a night.
Another project addressed violent crimes involving guns by creating a task force that brought together prosecutors and law enforcement from the state and federal level. Together, the group determines the best venue to prosecute a suspect.
O’Neill’s office has also held events to help people get their driver’s licenses restored due to what he termed “silly infractions,” such as seat-belt violations. “It was preventing them from being able to get to jobs, get to school,” he said.
“If I had a pulpit like the attorney general’s office, we could explain to people how this works.”
If elected, O’Neill says he’d have staff attorneys spend more time at the legislature advising lawmakers of possible consequences of their proposals. That advice could make laws easier to defend when challenged in lawsuits.
“I think that the deputy attorney generals that are with the attorney general’s office are some of the brightest legal minds in the state,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill also wants to tackle the state crime lab’s backlog, in part by pushing for better salaries for lab technicians so they won’t leave for private-sector jobs.
He said that legislators and the governor won’t have to spend money on outside attorneys to defend laws if he’s elected.
“As the attorney general, what your opinions are on any particular issue is not relevant,” O’Neill said. “You’re going to do carry out your sworn duties.”
Education: Law degree from New York Law School, bachelor’s degree in history from Duke University
Family: Married to Dr. Oona O’Neill with three children
Job: District attorney for Forsyth County since 2009, former assistant district attorney in Forsyth
Worth knowing: O’Neill is the head lacrosse coach at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem