How the DA can boost public trust

The Observer editorial board

Attorneys George Laughrun (left) and Michael Greene.
Attorneys George Laughrun (left) and Michael Greene. CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM

Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray’s job comes with a high calling. It requires that he avoid impropriety. And the appearance of impropriety, as well.

Now that he has recused himself in one fatal police shooting and opted not to in a second, some legal experts and citizens question whether he’s falling short of the latter standard.

While we have no reason to question his integrity, there’s more he can do to protect public trust in his office.

To recap:

Murray recused himself in the case of Randall “Wes” Kerrick, the officer accused of fatally shooting former college football player Jonathan Ferrell in 2013. Kerrick is charged with voluntary manslaughter.

But the prosecutor did not step aside in the case of Officer Anthony Holzhauer, who shot Janisha Fonville in February. Murray has said Holzhauer will not face criminal charges.

Both officers were defended by Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Greene, the law firm where Murray worked for about a decade before running for DA in 2010.

Murray has said he took different routes in the two cases partly because the circumstances differed, and also because Holzhauer’s case arrived after he’d been in office four years and had won a second term. Still, there’s no handbook on how long you have to be a former partner – three years or four or 12 – before it’s OK not to recuse yourself in such cases.

We also don’t believe, as some do, that Murray should recuse himself from all cases involving his former firm, or from all police shootings. We believe procedures in place for local police and prosecutors are sufficiently rigorous to rule out automatic triggering of special prosecutors in such cases.

But there is one thing Murray clearly can and should do: stop taking campaign cash from George Laughrun and Michael Greene, his former law partners. The Goodman Carr firm has an agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police to represent officers suspected of misconduct. Laughrun and Greene frequently end up defending such officers.

In October 2013, the month after Ferrell was shot, Laughrun and his wife hosted a $2,500-per-couple fundraising dinner for Murray in their home. Laughrun, Greene and another firm partner, Rob Heroy, served as chairs.

Lawyers contribute campaign money to district attorneys and judges all the time. But as we’ve seen in cases around the country, police shootings strike at the very heart of public confidence in the justice system. The bar for avoiding any appearance of a conflict of interest must move higher in those cases.

And for Murray, that should mean forgoing his former partners’ campaign cash.