Wednesday, December 8, 2021

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County’s newest judge aims to ‘do justly and love mercy’

 

Rick Champion will seek Divine guidance as he begins his newest role as an Alamance County district court judge in January, when he will replace retiring district court judge Steve Messick, a Republican who opted not to seek reelection this year.

Champion, a Republican, defeated Democrat Doug Green with 47,745 votes (56.53 percent), to Green’s 36,720 votes (43.47 percent) for the district court judgeship in the general election earlier this month.  Both men currently serve as assistant district attorneys under Alamance County D.A. Sean Boone, also a Republican.  Champion previously defeated Graham attorney Julian Doby in the March Republican primary with 7,590 votes (58.14 percent) to 5,464 votes (41.86 percent).

On January 1, 2021, Champion will join incumbent district court judges Larry Brown, Jr.; Kathryn “Katie” Overby; and chief district court judge Brad Allen, Sr., all Democrats.

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In summarizing his approach to jurisprudence, the newly-elected district court judge points to Micah 6:8, which instructs believers “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

“I hope I make a difference in somebody’s life,” Champion elaborated in a recent interview with The Alamance News.

Champion hopes to apply the law in a way that protects victims of crime while also not stripping the convicted of any hope for the future, he said in the interview.  “As a judge, you don’t have any one role – you’ve got to listen and see both sides of it and come up with the fairest decision [so] that, hopefully, both sides feel justice.”

For an example, Champion points to a recently-enacted state law that raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 and took effect in December 2019.  North Carolina’s “Raise the Age” law means that most 16 and 17-year-olds will no longer be tried as adults but instead requires court officials to rely on counseling and intervention strategies, in hopes of reducing recidivism among youth who are accused of crimes.

“We have some young people who might not have the right influences,” Champion explains.  “You hope to make some inroads to maybe change their lives.  Then you will be dealing with children who are neglected and abused [including some who are placed in the Department of Social Services’ custody].  You’ve got to balance the rights of parents to raise their children the way they feel is proper against the possibility [that they’re] harming the children.  Judges even make mistakes.  You have to use your common sense and good judgment – do what you think is right in your heart.”

A native of Durham County, Champion earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before going on to graduate with honors from the law school at N.C. Central University.  He previously worked as a private defense attorney, most recently with the Champion & Giles law firm in Graham, where he specialized in criminal, traffic, and personal injury law.

Champion began his career as an assistant D.A. for the state’s 2nd prosecutorial district, encompassing Beaufort, Martin, Hyde, Washington, and Tyrrell counties.  In 1987, he joined then-Alamance County D.A. Steve Balog as an assistant, overseeing traffic, child abuse, sexual assault, and murder cases.

 

Early use of DNA evidence

Champion prosecuted one of the first criminal cases in North Carolina that involved the use of DNA evidence to obtain a conviction.

The defendant, Isaiah Satterfield, was convicted of rape in Alamance County superior court in February 1989, based on DNA evidence and the victim’s testimony, Champion recalls.  [Satterfield’s file from the state Department of Corrections indicates he was convicted of first-degree kidnapping and sentenced to 40 years in prison.]

Though commonplace today, Champion remembers the challenge he faced in convincing a judge at the time to allow DNA to be introduced into evidence during Satterfield’s trial.  “There was no Supreme Court case saying this is a recognizable science in North Carolina,” he explains.  “Before DNA, it was A, B, and O blood type – that’s how you excluded people, but [it] couldn’t 100 percent identify [the perpetrator].  It was something you could use to corroborate [victim testimony].  I said, ‘let’s do it.’  The state gave us money to hire a private lab to test it, send the specimens off.  We did it so we could avoid a rehearing later.  That’s when it [DNA] started being used not only here but other parts of the state.”

Just a few years later, the use of DNA evidence drew national attention for its ability to exonerate defendants who have been wrongfully convicted.  Ronald Cotton had been wrongfully convicted – twice, in 1985 and 1987 – of rape and burglary in Alamance County and sentenced to life plus 54 years, based on news stories that ran at the time.  In 1995, Cotton’s convictions were overturned, after DNA evidence was identified as belonging to another man, Bobby L. Poole, who had reportedly bragged about committing the crimes. At the time, Champion was an assistant in the D.A.’s office, which joined Cotton’s defense team in filing motions to dismiss the charges.

“[In] his motions for appropriate relief, the court said, if you have clothing that has DNA, you’ve got to turn it over to the defense – that’s exculpatory,” Champion recalls of the Cotton case.  “Now, everybody expects DNA to be done on everything.  It was so new at the time, but when you have it, it’s a powerful tool to exclude or include people.”

The following year, in 1996, Champion entered private practice as a defense attorney with the law firm of Hemric & Lambeth in Burlington.

 

Full circle

He returned to his prosecutorial roots last year.  In January 2019, Champion joined Alamance County district attorney Sean Boone, a Republican elected in 2018, as an assistant D.A. to oversee major felonies, including murders and violent assaults, along with cases involving habitual felons and drug and property crimes.

Among the more striking observations that Champion has made during his nearly 40-year career is the number of crimes involving guns, and how frequently they involve young people under age 25.

“You do get worried about safety and young people’s future,” Champion elaborates.  “One week you’re the victim, and one week you’re the perpetrator.  A lot of times, it’s familiar names.  I’m trying to protect people’s lives.  I tried a couple of times to get [someone’s] bond revoked; a lot of times a gentleman gets out of jail and gets shot in the head.

“Officers make the cases and you review the facts and make sure the evidence is strong enough for the particular charges,” the incoming district court judge says.   “You train yourself to look at the case; you don’t look initially at the people involved. Then you get to know the people involved, whether it’s the victims or the perpetrators – it takes on a whole new light. You’re trying to seek justice but also keep these people alive.”

The battles that play out in streets and in courtrooms today aren’t that different from the ones he grew up watching at the movies, Champion notes.  “It’s kind of reliving itself with a different illegal product,” he says, pointing to the notorious gangster Al Capone (a.k.a., “Scarface”), who illegally distributed alcohol during Prohibition.  It’s more likely to be meth and opioids that are illegally distributed, based on nationwide drug-related crime statistics.

“You’ve got to grow up with a value of life – that’s what’s bothering me on the prosecutor’s side these last two years,” says Champion.

Since rejoining the D.A.’s office last year, Champion has tried to weigh the totality of circumstances in determining how to wade through a backlog of cases that Boone’s office inherited from the county’s former D.A.

“We had some cases that were very old; we still do,” Champion says.  “[We’ve tried to look at] what have those people accused in those cases done in the last two or three [years], have they continued to commit crime.  Judges have rewarded the ones that have made positive changes since that arrest and not gotten in trouble.  I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, as well.  You hope people learn from it.  There is still a percentage of folks that won’t heed the warning signs; and then the D.A.s won’t give them a break, and the judges won’t give them a break.  But there have been those success stories – that keeps you going.”

Champion is scheduled to be sworn into office January 1.

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