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Dena King is about to get a promotion — and a chance at making history.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden nominated the South Mecklenburg High School graduate to become U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, a sprawling criminal-justice system that stretches from metro Charlotte to the Tennessee line.
If approved by the Senate, King would be the first person of color to serve as top prosecutor across the 32-county district in its 150-year history.
King did not respond to an Observer email Monday seeking comment.
Biden also made two other N.C. nominations for U.S attorneys. They are
▪ Sandra Hairston for the Middle District, which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and 24 counties total; and
▪ Mike Easley Jr. for the Eastern District, where the 44-county footprint stretches from Raleigh to the Outer Banks.
Easley is the son of former Gov. Mike Easley. Hairston, who is already serving as acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District, also is Black.
As first reported by The Observer, King surfaced at the start of the year as a leading contender to replace her former boss, Andrew Murray, as western North Carolina’s top prosecutor.
King, who served briefly as an assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County, joined Murray’s staff a year ago as deputy criminal chief of violent crimes and the lead attorney for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and Narcotics Team, according to her resume.
Before that, King spent six years as a prosecutor with the Eastern District where she specialized in narcotics cases and coordinated re-entry programs for defendants.
From 2009 to 2014, King served as a securities enforcement attorney for the N.C. Secretary of State where she handled both criminal and administrative cases.
Breaking a barrier
The Western District will be the last of the state’s three federal court districts to have a person of color leading the prosecutor’s office.
King would direct an office of 80 prosecutors and staff that operates in Charlotte and Asheville and serves some 3 million residents. She would be the fourth woman to hold the job.
Her nomination surfaces as the country — and the courts — continue to debate the future of the criminal justice system following months of protests last year over the police killing of George Floyd. Some who call for reforms say it’s time for federal prosecutors to move away from traditional tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately target minorities, put — and keep — too many people in prison and do not make communities appreciably safer.
“The system is long overdue to have an African American in the position,” Charlotte civil rights attorney James Ferguson told the Observer in February. “I think she would be someone who would bring fairness and skill and sensitivity to that job.
“A sensitivity to what it means to be an African American in this society, a sensitivity to the fact that the picture we have of African Americans going through the criminal justice system is not a pretty one. A sensitivity not just on who to prosecute but in trying to understand how they got where they are, and what are their prospects to become productive citizens.”
Yet King is set to become the top prosecutor in a court system that, statically speaking, is one of the toughest in the country.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, defendants convicted of federal crimes here receive harsher sentences than in other parts of the country. In fiscal 2019, for example, the mean prison term in the Western District was 65 months, 55% higher than the national figure.
Even before sentencing, criminal defendants in the Western District are far more likely to be held behind bars before they have been convicted of a crime. The district’s rate of pretrial detention is the fourth highest in the country.
While the coronavirus impacted court operations around the country, it did not significantly slow the Western District. During the pandemic, while overall federal criminal filings in fiscal 2020 dropped by 20%, they rose by almost that exact percentage in the Western District, the largest jump in the country, according to the sentencing commission.
In fiscal 2019, some 38% of those sentenced in the Western District were Black — more than twice the percentage of the district’s African American population.
Against those numbers, some skeptics say a nominee who represents a marginalized community will be welcome in the Charlotte prosecutor’s office, but isn’t enough.
“A career prosecutor who hasn’t demonstrated any commitment to really examining the policies and practices that have fueled mass incarceration and increased distrust between communities and law enforcement isn’t the answer,” said Safe NC political director Robert Dawkins, without singling out King by name.
“Where have they been on the issues that are front and center in Charlotte and across the country right now? What is their vision of public safety? Do they believe in rehabilitation and redemption? Do they even agree that mass incarceration exists? We need to know. If they are going to just continue with business as usual it would be a massive mistake and missed opportunity.”