Solicitor candidates debate at White Plains

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By Stan Welch

The three candidates for Solicitor of the Tenth Judicial Circuit met at the White Plains Community Building Thursday evening for a debate. While the crowd was considerably smaller than the one that attended the Sheriff’s debate last month, the debate was just as lively as the earlier one.

Wilson Burr, who resigned as chief public defender to run for the office, wasted little time in firing a salvo at the other two candidates, Rame Campbell and David Wagner, both of whom  serve as deputy solicitors under Chrissy Adams. Burr drew that distinction clearly, as he persistently raised issues that he has with the current administration.

  He challenged Wagner’s claims that he has prosecuted more cases than anyone in the 10th Circuit, citing a ten year record which Burr claimed showed that Wagner had tried only 23 cases in the last ten years. Wagner denied that, saying that Burr was cherry picking the cases he had tried.

“I have prosecuted more than twenty thousand cases in my twenty five years in the solicitor’s office. I have tried cases that other lawyers wouldn’t touch. I don’t keep track of my conviction rate because it is such an inaccurate measure. But no one has taken more cases to trial than I have.”

Wagner was originally hired by former solicitor George Ducworth and spent his first thirteen years in the Anderson Office, before moving to the Oconee county office for the last twelve years. Both Campbell and Burr tried to portray Wagner as more of an office manager than an adjudicator. Wagner himself referred to his role in the Oconee office as being largely administrative, but declared his record of and willingness to take cases to trial.

Wagner also faced an allied attack for the Solictor’s role in recent controversial cases, most of which have occurred in Oconee county. The shooting death of a young man named Zach Hammond by Oconee law enforcement officers has been a source of controversy. Both Burr and Campbell emphatically claimed that it should have been handled in a different circuit, due to the conflict of interest, or at least the public perception of same.

“This case absolutely should have been conflicted out to another venue,” said Burr. “In addition to that, this conclusion was worked out between two lawyers behind closed doors, when it should have been done in the sunlight, so the public could be aware of the process.” Campbell was less strident about the issue but stated that it clearly was mishandled and should have been sent to another jurisdiction.

Wagner agreed, saying that he repeatedly advised Adams to turn the matter over to the attorney general. “I even rode to Columbia with her to meet with them. They seemed less than eager to get involved, and in the end, Solicitor Adams made the call to handle the case here. That is her call to make. I disagreed. In fact, I would lobby the legislature to enact a law that mandates that such cases be handed off to the attorney general’s office.”

For all their differences, all three candidates shared certain positions. All agreed that communication and cooperation with law enforcement is critical to more cases being tried and won. All three categorically supported the use of the death penalty, with Wagner going so far as to say that it should be restored for certain crimes besides murder. “Child molesters, for example, are virtually impossible to rehabilitate. If you put a child molester in jail for a number of years, you still release a child molester when their time is up.”

All three agreed that more cases could and should be tried, with Burr also arguing that far too much court time is wasted. “If the first case of the day falls apart or gets sidetracked, my assistants will have something else to bring to the court. They won’t be caught flatfooted and have to go back to the office. If they do, they’ll be fired when they get there.”

Asked what their most important duty would be, both Burr and Campbell mentioned restoring the public confidence in the solicitor’s office. Both mentioned the current administration’s perceived preference for plea bargains and cutting deals. Burr stated that he had repeatedly seen indictments for more serious charges literally torn up, and lesser charges brought instead. Wagner’s denial of that was lukewarm, and was received as such.

Wagner touted both his administration of the solicitor’s office as well as his record in court, but Burr continued to attack both those aspects. Campbell and Burr both stressed the need to pursue cases against career or habitual criminals more aggressively. “There is something wrong when a meth dealer is arrested and by the time the citizens who complained get home, the dealer is back working over the stove, cooking up a new batch.”

Campbell and Burr both stressed that victims should be treated with dignity and should be kept informed of the progress on their case. Wagner agreed and defended his office in regards to those issues.

There is no Democratic opposition in the general election, so the Republican winner of the June 7 primary will assume the office of Solicitor in January.