The Interview: Peter Gilchrist

Originally published in April 2005

Peter Gilchrist, sixty-five, has been Mecklenburg County's district attorney for thirty-two years, an astounding tenure for an elected official of a sometimes-controversial office. No one has ever run against him. In his office in the old courthouse building on West Trade, we talked about why bad people do bad things, the staggering volume of cases that comes through his office, and his assertion that the state funds the local court system "on the cheap."  


After thirty-two years, who's winning—the good guys or the bad guys?

Oh, I think we're holding our own. 

How have the bad guys changed?

I think we have more of them. I think we have much more random violence against strangers than we've ever seen before.


I don't know. I don't know whether it's—I'm sure drugs are a part of it. I'm sure that violence in the media plays a part.

I think as the community has become larger, people are much more anonymous than they ever were. There is not the neighborhood pressure that once was there. When the community was smaller, you knew all of your neighbors. I know when I grew up, if my behavior was not what it needed to be in the neighborhood, any number of the parents of my peers or neighbors would have called my parents and let them know, and my parents would have been very responsive. I can remember the same thing happened, not just for me, but for other kids in the neighborhood. Folks felt a responsibility not only to look out for their own children, but for others'. If a police officer had shown up at my house with me in tow, that officer would have had a conversation with my parents, and my parents would have taken a very direct action on me [laughs]. 

I think now what we see is, unfortunately, when police officers show up at someone's home and the first thing is the parent jumps to the defense of the child, rather than even listening to the officer to find out what has gone on. I think that sort of lack of parental involvement has been terribly destructive to young people and communities. We have drive-by shootings, folks using firearms, taking firearms to school, and what-have-you. 

That's a dramatic change from Charlotte in the fifties.

How many assistant D.A.s do you have?

We should have fifty right now. Thirty-six of those are fully funded by the state of North Carolina, and the balance are funded either by Mecklenburg County or, in some cases, partially by the city and partially by the county. We try to be very creative to get adequate staff for this community.

Is using creative funding sources usual for counties in North Carolina?

That's unusual for counties in North Carolina. The Mecklenburg County commissioners and the county managers, I think, have recognized that if we are inadequately staffed, it has a significant impact on a number of things. It means that a lot of the law enforcement work that goes on, that the police department has done, we are not able to respond to. A lot of initiatives have arrived here, which includes everything from traffic enforcement to cold-case work, that we cannot respond to.

It also means directly that the jail population fills up. We built a pretrial jail that was expected in first installment to last through about 2005. It had 1,000 beds in it. We've already added 900 additional beds to that 1,000. And the sheriff tells me that the last pod has been opened, so that's quickly reaching capacity. If we have to add—when we have to add another 900 beds to the pretrial jail, the expense to the county is going to be very substantial, not only to build it but also to occupy it and staff it.

Last year, how many cases came through your office?

Probably 190,000.

With fifty attorneys.

Yes. Staggering, isn't it?

How many of those actually make it to trial?

Remember we're operating two levels of court. We're operating superior court, where we're trying some misdemeanor appeals and a number of felonies, and then the district court, where the bulk of the cases go. The police will probably bring us in excess of 12,000 felonies. And the balance of [the 190,000 cases] will be criminal misdemeanors. There will be traffic and motor vehicle misdemeanors, and then there will be cases that will be infractions. Those will be mainly motor vehicle cases but ones for which you can't go to jail.

We would probably try 250 jury trials in Mecklenburg County, and then we would try literally hundreds of misdemeanors and motor vehicle offenses in the district courts.

How many are thrown out?

I think the term "thrown out" is perhaps not appropriate. There are a number that we look at and, for a variety of reasons, decide not to prosecute. Sometimes, [we don't prosecute a felony case] simply because [we don't believe that case] has a reasonable probability of conviction.

The police department can make a lawful arrest based on a term called "probable cause." That is, number one, that a crime was probably committed; number two, that this particular defendant probably was the one who did it. The standard for conviction in the district and superior court is "beyond a reasonable doubt." So, many cases that are brought to us, we determine there was probable cause, a lawful arrest was made, but there is not sufficient evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather than take up time dealing with a case that we're satisfied should not be won or could not be won, we dismiss those.

In other cases, while we don't "throw them out," we may consolidate them for disposition. If we had a person who was arrested, for instance, for driving under the influence, and there were other related charges in there, such as having an open container in the car or driving over the speed limit, and that might have been what attracted the officer's attention, then the first, major, underlying charge would be driving under the influence and we take a plea on that and dismiss collateral or related cases.

And sometimes, we actually dismiss cases simply because we don't have enough time to try them.

If you had more attorneys, would you dismiss fewer cases?

Yes. I think it would be a combination of more attorneys with us and also more court time, more courtrooms and more judges, more clerks of court and people to run them, bailiffs. We've got all of our courtrooms full right now, so it's not just our staff but other staff also.

Two-hundred-fifty felonies, you said, probably go to jury trial. How many of those come back with a guilty verdict?

Probably just about 80 percent, maybe slightly less.

So if you're going to trial, you're pretty sure…

There's a balancing act that we have to undertake. Sometimes we have a case that the evidence is not just great, but the defendant is dangerous or the defendant is very active. We know that if we don't convict him on this, he or she's going to be out doing something else. We have cases that we know are going to be more difficult to get convictions on, but we think they're justified based on other factors.

We had a serial rapist, and we tried him on a case, and he was found not guilty. The jury believed a story that we thought was very improbable and found him not guilty. [Later] we got a second case on him.

So he was convicted.

Ultimately convicted. It took us two trials to do it.

And unfortunately, another victim… Are there just bad people out there?

Certainly. Very bad people. There are people out there that just are going to be doing something bad until stopped, and sometimes it takes a while to identify them. Other times, the police will make an arrest and realize, once they made the arrest, that this person was responsible for a great deal of crime. 

The types of decisions you must have to make on a daily or weekly basis, that's what strikes me as probably the most difficult part of your job, because you're dealing with people's lives oftentimes. Is that an accurate statement?

Yes. I think we're trying to do the right thing…

How do you know what's right?

Sometimes, I think it's a gut reaction. We've got a certain amount of information. We've got information about the crime. We've got certain information about the defendant. And we're able to judge the seriousness of the crime. 

I think of an example that happened a number of years ago. We had some young kids who set fire to what was then the Jewish Community Center. When you first looked at it, it appeared that it might be a crime with religious overtones, which we would take extremely seriously. A hate crime, as they are defined in law.

But as we looked further, these were youngsters who had done something bad and foolish, but it was not based on any sort of racial hatred. We discussed the matter with the leaders of the Jewish Community Center and ended up crafting a judgment where these boys were placed on probation, but this could also have been a crime where they could have gone to prison for a long time. But we got involved with the victims or those people who represented the victims, with the defendants, and their lawyers, and I think crafted a response that satisfied holding them accountable. Some people may have disagreed with what we did, but I think the victims, or the folks representing the victims, understood [the situation] and were very understanding.

By the same token, we get an individual that I mentioned earlier, the serial rapist, who, here was a guy who wasn't going to plead guilty to anything. I mean he did not want to be held accountable for what he had done—no remorse—and so we just kept pushing, kept pushing, kept pushing, and finally got him convicted of a crime that he had committed and an appropriate sentence.

We've got assistant district attorneys who have got caseloads of over a hundred defendants, and they vary across the board—from violent crimes to property crimes and everything in between. We have to make all sorts of decisions based on the resources that we have and the cases that come in as to how we're going to handle them. Yes, as you say, some of those decisions are extremely difficult. Some of them are pretty obvious, once the facts are before you.

Do you have to work to keep the emotion out of your decisions?

I don't know that emotion is all bad. We'd like to be objective in the decisions that we make, but, by the same token, it's not all bad for one of my assistants to come in and say, "This case just really makes me angry. We've got to do something about it." I don't want to remove that from the consideration that our folks give to the case.

By the same token, we do have cases where [assistant D.A.s] come in here and they're very angry, but some other folks sit down and say, "Wait a minute, this case makes everybody mad. We sure would like to do something about it, but let's look objectively at what the evidence is and, here we've got a case that, as much as this defendant richly deserves a long sentence, and it makes you angry reading about it, when you look at the evidence that we have to proceed on, it's just not very good, or it's just plain not enough to get a conviction. And then you say, okay, this is one we're not going to proceed on. Yeah, that can leave victims frustrated and the police frustrated, but somebody has got to say, "This patient's going to die on the table. There's no sense in spending a lot of time on an operation that's going to be unsuccessful no matter how much you want the outcome to be something else."

It reminds me of a situation that I hear about that doctors go through in battle situations. There's a doctor who's sort of standing in the door, looking at wounded soldiers who are being brought in, and he's saying, "I'm at a field hospital, and I've got limited resources that I can deal with. This soldier is going to die. We can place him aside and give him morphine. Here's another one whose injuries are not as great and we can take care of him, and we can restore him to health." As medical care improves and you can helicopter somebody back to a field hospital and then have them in Germany in thirty-six hours in a really good hospital, you see the survival rate go up.

The court system is sort of the same way. If the state's going to fund it on the cheap, the citizens are going to feel it in what we're able to do and what we're not able to do. Folks don't like to hear that, but resources become important to us in the criminal justice system.

What percent of funding do you think you're at, as compared to where you would like it to be?

I think it goes in every way. We have very limited training budgets. Our office a number of years ago went to specialized teams. We've got folks who deal with white-collar crime. We've got folks who deal with children who are sexually abused. We've got cases where we have adult victims who are sexual-assault victims. We've got domestic-violence cases. We've got homicide cases involving DNA and all sorts of thing, such as gunshot residue. You name it. But our ability to send assistant district attorneys out of state to get specialized training is at a very minimum.

We don't have a computer on the desk of every assistant district attorney that allows them to do research, check criminal histories, or whatever. We've got a number of them that folks can get access to, but time is of a premium for us. The state doesn't provide us a computer. Many of the computers that we're using were taken out of service at the Department of Social Services, and the county has given them to us and we refurbished them and are using them, but they're not as fast. They don't have the capacity of things you ought to have in a modern, well-equipped law office. Copy machines, faxes, telephone systems are not what they ought to be, and it's not just the assistant district attorneys—it's the paralegals and support staff.

I mean, you can walk through this building. The paint's peeling off the walls. We've got offices that are not occupied because the roof has been leaking. We've got lawyers and support staff working in less-than-optimal conditions. The offices are cold in the wintertime and hot in the summertime. This is an old, old building. Very few bathrooms have hot water. You can't even wash your hands if you've got a cold. You know, we don't operate under very good circumstances.

This has been a fairly common refrain from you over the years…

Let me give you a number. The district attorney's office prosecutes everybody—those people who have no lawyer. Those people who have lawyers that they pay. And those people who are known as indigents, who can't afford lawyers. The bill for the indigents' defense alone in Mecklenburg County—the state pays over two-and-a-half times for the defense of indigents what they pay for the operation of the district attorney's office. The budget for the dog pound in Charlotte is $600,000 a year more than the district attorney's budget, if not more.

People love animals.

Making it sound like they love criminals. It is a refrain, and I'm not defensive about it. But if people don't like… I mean, the court will provide the best service I can provide, but there are some limitations on what we are able to provide, based on how the community or the state has decided how they're going to fund this operation.

I think the public may have a hard time grasping what the district attorney does on a weekly basis. For example, how many cases do you personally touch in a week?

It depends. Touching is a good phrase. I would say twenty-five, and that could quadruple or could go in half. And I shouldn't be. How many traffic tickets does [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police] Chief [Darrel] Stephens write in a week? When I was elected district attorney, I carried a caseload for probably twelve years. One day I had some consultants come in, some other district attorneys, and people who were knowledgeable [about] running larger offices, and look at what we were doing and do an analysis. They took me aside and said, "You've got to get out of the courtroom. If you're focused on winning a case, all of these related issues are not being attended to the way they ought to." I still feel like the little Dutch boy with a finger stuck in every hole in the dike, and my nose stuck in another one, but there are a lot of leaks spouting out.

Have you decided whether or not you'll run again?

I haven't made that decision yet.  I'll have to make that, I guess, within the next twelve months.

Not that I'm putting you out to pasture early, but any advice for the next D.A.?

I would hope that whoever would come into this office would think a minute of making it a career, not using it as a stepping-stone. I think there's a real temptation for that in this race; I think they'd really rather be a judge or hope to be a judge or something else. I think this is a—it's a wonderful job.

At what point did you commit to it being a career?

I'm not sure. I think I gradually realized how much I liked it, and I think the solutions are going to take a lot of work and they aren't simple, or easy, or cheap. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

This interview was edited.

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