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Mobile County GOP DA hopefuls trade accusations over qualifications

Published: May. 18, 2022 at 7:19 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Both Republican candidates for district attorney have promised to make changes if elected, but they sharply disagree over whether the criminal justice system is broken.

Veteran lawyer Buzz Jordan argues the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office needs a major shakeup amid a crime wave and what he regards as a lack of urgency in prosecuting major felonies.

“They’re not prioritized by the DA’s office,” he said. “They’re not being pushed. The DA’s office can go in and push the murder cases, be prepared and have them ready to go. And then the judges are going to be on board with that because they want to clear up the docket, too.”

Keith Blackwood, the chief assistant district attorney who has the backing of outgoing District Attorney Ashley Rich and Sheriff Sam Cochran, said a backlog of cases resulted from restrictions imposed by the courts after COVID-19.

“The system is not broken,” he said. “We are all frustrated by the rise in violent crime. We were very frustrated when the court was shut down from trials during the COVID pandemic. It wasn’t just here; it was in state courts across the country.”

The primary will be a test of whether voters favor continuity or want a dramatic change in direction.

Blackwood is counting on voters picking the candidate who has been a career-long prosecutor. Although Jordan is a former assistant district attorney, Blackwood said that experience is dated.

“I’m the only candidate in the race that has prosecuted a 21st century case,” he said.

An ad produced by an independent group supporting Blackwood features the mother of a murder victim blasting Jordan for representing the man accused of the killing. Blackwood said his campaign did not make that ad but added that he believes the issue is relevant.

“I’m just making the case that for the position of district attorney, I’m a veteran prosecutor; I’m more qualified to be the head prosecutor for Mobile County,” he said. “And, you know, people need to know that he is a defense attorney so they can make an informed decision of who they want to be the top prosecutor in this county.”

Jordan takes issue that. He said he served for years as an assistant district attorney and also has done stints as a municipal prosecutor.

“That’s ridiculous, ‘cause No. 1, I was the most aggressive DA in that office for 10 years,” he said. “And I’ve tried twice as many cases – jury trials – as my opponent. So you want a DA that’s gonna try cases and that’s not afraid to try cases.”

Jordan said the job is a “perfect match” for his experience.

“I took prosecution personal,” he said. “And being a DA is in my blood; it’s in my DNA.”

Jordan has proposed a half-dozen major policy initiatives, if elected. He said he would implement a “rocket docket” that would bring indictments in major felonies within 90 days. He has pledged to donate 10 percent of his salary to a youth crime prevention effort and would require each of his assistant district attorneys to be involved in at least one civic organization. That, he added, will keep prosecutors connected with the community they serve.

Jordan said he would work to create a veterans court, modeled after a program in Baldwin County, that would match criminal defendants who served in the military with services designed for their unique needs.

In addition, Jordan said he would speed the prosecution of murder suspects and other significant cases by empowering a wider range of prosecutors – and not just the so-called “murder team” – to try those cases.

“I will personally train every assistant DA in that at office to make them exceptional, excellent lawyers,” he said. “So we’re gonna be ready, and we’re gonna be pushing every case on this ‘rocket docket.’”

Blackwood, who joined the District Attorney’s Office in 2008 shortly after graduating from law school, said line prosecutors already are trying murder cases. As for the “rocket docket,” he said it is important to remember the indictment is only the first step. He said moving too quickly could jeopardize cases since it often takes months to get the results from DNA tests, firearms analysis and other evidence.

“And so his plan to just indict everything within three months before it’s even ready for trial is just irresponsible,” he said. “It’s not good for the state, and it doesn’t protect the rights of the defendant, either.”

Blackwood said he appreciates Rich’s endorsement and shares her “tough-on-crime” values. But he said his District Attorney’s Office would not be a carbon copy of the current operation. Instead of putting newly hired prosecutors in District Court, as is the case now, he said he would assign them to work alongside more experienced prosecutors trying jury cases in Circuit Court.

He said experienced prosecutors would work in District Court, where they could weed out and resolve weaker cases earlier in process, rather than have them languish for years. An experienced prosecutor can make a case stronger by getting involved earlier, he said. At the same time, he said, they can identify cases that only will get weaker over time.

Although most guilty pleas occur in Circuit Court, they sometimes can take place at the District Court level through “solicitor’s agreements.” He said he intends to expand the use of such agreements to get convictions without having to go through a grand jury.

“One of my goals is to bring that back to Mobile County so that we can have people plead guilty to a felony in District Court rather than having to wait, you know, sometimes months for grand jury action,” he said.

The primary is Tuesday. The winner will take on Democrat Moeshae Donald in the fall.

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