Winters, Cooke debate at Mercer law school

pramati@macon.comOctober 22, 2012 

Bibb County District Attorney Greg Winters squared off with his Democratic challenger, David Cooke, Monday night at a debate hosted by Mercer University’s law school.

The two candidates fielded questions submitted by the local legal community as well as Mercer faculty and law students. The questions covered a broad range of topics, including working with the Bibb County school system, potential changes to the DA’s office, specialty courts in the county and how consolidation might affect how the office operates.

Winters told the audience that he’s accomplished a number of goals that he set for the office which he’s held since a special election in 2010, including putting away 16 of Macon and Bibb County’s 25 most dangerous criminals and improving the efficiency of the office.

“My utmost goal is to protect the citizens of this community and keep the streets safe,” said Winters, who noted that according to statistics, crime was down in both the city and the county.

Cooke, who serves as a senior assistant district attorney in Houston County, noted the similar backgrounds of the two candidates. Cooke, who lost to Winters in 2010 in a runoff, told the audience that he has spent his entire career prosecuting crimes that “affect us the most,” including murder, sex crimes and crimes against women and children.

He noted that he has a 97 percent conviction rate with sex crimes and domestic violence cases and that he’s been involved with several high-profile cases and won several honors for his work.

“Who will do the best job in protecting families and moving Middle Georgia forward?” he asked those in attendance.

A trio of Mercer law professors asked both candidates a series of questions, asking their top priorities, their thoughts on the war on drugs, their policy on trying a juvenile as an adult, and disclosing information to the defense.

On most of the questions, Winters and Cooke gave similar answers as to their approach. For example, both candidates agreed that drugs are an important criminal issue facing the community, but that the Bibb County drug court also has been effective in getting treatment for addicts.

As to trying a juvenile as an adult, Cooke said it’s about finding a balance that includes justice for everyone involved in the case as well as mercy for the child, when appropriate.

Winters said no two cases are the same, and that during his career, he’s prosecuted minors as adults as well as kept other cases in Juvenile Court, depending on the circumstances.

They differed somewhat in their response to the follow-up question of whether such a decision should be made by the DA or by the prosecutor handling the case. Cooke said those decisions are some of the most important that a DA makes, while Winters said he trusts his staff’s judgment -- if he didn’t, they wouldn’t be working for him.

The candidates clashed a few times, most notably about a phone poll that Cooke commissioned earlier this month. Cooke said the poll was balanced and even-handed. Winters said the poll contained a number of lies and was designed to be a push poll.

The two also clashed about the agreement among the DA’s office, the school system and local law enforcement about juvenile cases. Cooke said the agreement has led to an increase in violent incidents, while Winters said the agreement has allowed his prosecutors to get more information than they did before, and thus will streamline the court process.

Audience members had mixed reactions as to which candidate won the debate.

Jessica Byers, a junior pre-law student, said she was a Winters supporter coming in to the debate and felt that Winters’ answers solidified her choice.

“I like his views,” she said. “I think he’s a man of integrity.”

But Carrie Bradley, a third-year law student, said she was undecided going in but felt Cooke presented a better argument.

“I agree with a lot of his stands,” she said. “(I agree) with his views on (the education system) and how juvenile crimes are being handled. I know there’s a lot of abuse going on.”

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