Attack ads are flying between two of the candidates in the three-way Republican primary for attorney general. Voters will decide Tuesday who they want to take on Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein in the November general election. Early voting is underway. Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill’s campaign took the rare step of replacing one ad with a new version. His opponent, Chris Mumma -- the target of the ad -- had threatened legal action against a TV station if it kept running. “The advertisement contains egregious misrepresentations of fact that will mislead North Carolina voters,” wrote Mumma’s lawyer, Dan Boyce.
Mumma is the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a group that investigates possible wrongful convictions. O’Neil is the top prosecutor in Forsyth County, which includes Winston-Salem. Forsyth County prosecutors have sent at least two innocent men to prison for life, both of whom were freed after years behind bars.
O’Neill’s ad against Mumma criticizes her work freeing one of those prisoners, a man named Joseph Abbitt. The other man was Darryl Hunt. Both have since died. Abbitt died in a 2015 car crash. “Activist lawyer Christine Mumma worked to set free a convicted child rapist, calling it justice,” the ad says. “Police disagreed and DNA tests proved them right.”
In fact, Abbitt was exonerated because of DNA tests. Abbitt was sentenced to life in prison in 1995 after he was convicted of raping two children in Winston-Salem. But years later, after the advent of better DNA technology, newly retested evidence didn’t match Abbitt. The district attorney’s office and Mumma’s group both agreed the conviction should be thrown out, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Abbitt was freed from prison in 2009, his name cleared after 14 years behind bars.
O’Neill wasn’t working for the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office in 1995, when Abbitt was originally convicted. He later became an assistant DA there, and took over the top job just a few months after Abbitt was released. The police argued against the decision to free Abbitt, which the Journal described in 2010 as causing “a rift” between them and the prosecutors. O’Neill did not charge Abbitt again, despite the police objections, and told the newspaper that if the police had evidence they could always re-arrest Abbitt. They never did, local NPR affiliate WFDD reported after Abbitt died, noting the constitutional prohibition on trying someone twice for the same crime.
O’Neill’s new version of the ad still has the controversial claims about Mumma and Abbitt. However, it no longer contains a claim about O’Neill’s own record on prosecuting sex crimes. The state court system specifically warns prosecutors not to make claims about conviction rates, and Mumma’s lawyer wrote that O’Neill’s claim was “not supported by any reliable data.” O’Neill’s new version of the ad instead transitions to a defense of O’Neill’s record on ICE and sanctuary policies -- an area where he says he’s the victim of a dishonest attack, from Mumma. [Source]