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Controversial DA finds no defenders among fellow prosecutors

Posted: 6:34 PM, Jun 07, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-17 17:42:29-04
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Coffee County DA Craig Northcott finds himself increasingly isolated, with no one in the legal community defending his views of the legal rights of gay people and Muslims.

In fact, some of his own prosecutor colleagues say Northcott is out of step with what the law requires.

The Coffee County prosecutor faces questions over a 2018 video showing him saying he does not use the state's domestic violence laws to protect gay people. On Facebook, Northcott said Muslims don't believe in the "one true God," so they have no constitutional rights to protect.

"I strongly disagree with any statement that suggests Tennessee laws should not be applied equally to all parties in the criminal justice system," said Franklin DA Kim Helper.

Helper's district covers Hickman, Lewis, Perry and Williamson counties.

"My office works every day to assure that we achieve justice and fairness in every case presented to us. My personal religious or political beliefs do not impact how I, or my office, approaches our responsibilities and the obligations that come with this position," Helper added.

"Although I am elected, I view my role as one that enforces the laws as written, and one that seeks justice and fairness for all parties."

Friday, a formal complaint was filed with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, the state board that regulates lawyers. It was signed by more than 300 Tennessee attorneys.

A separate complaint went to the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the umbrella group for the state's prosecutors.

The woman who led that effort expressed concern about the Conference's silence.

"What I am the most disturbed by is that not one single elected DA in Tennessee has publicly stated any denouncement of Northcott's actions. No one has said this is not who we as district attorneys are," Eaton told NewsChannel 5 Investigates on Thursday.

"It's putting a stain on their office. And their continued silence erodes the public faith in what the job of district attorney is and how they conduct it in Tennessee."

Jerry Estes, the Conference's executive director, sidestepped questions about Northcott's controversial views.

"The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference does not have oversight authority over any individual district attorney," Estes said in an email. "We are a state agency that supplies support services for each of the 31 elected district attorneys general."

Jason M. Pannu, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, said "the comments of DA Craig Northcott do not reflect those of the Tennessee Bar Association.

"There have been calls for an investigation to the Board of Professional Responsibility, which is the regulatory body for lawyer licensure and discipline," Pannu added. "We have confidence in this process, and we anticipate the concerns of our members and the public will be swiftly and thoroughly addressed by the BPR.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to every single member of the DA's Conference.

Following are the responses.

Ken C. Baldwin, 1st Judicial District (Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington counties)

No response received

Barry P. Staubus, 2nd Judicial District (Sullivan County)

No response received

Dan E. Armstrong, 3rd Judicial District (Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins counties)

No response received

Jimmy B. Dunn, 4th Judicial District (Cocke, Grainger, Jefferson and Sevier counties)

No response received

Mike L. Flynn, 5th Judicial District (Blount County)

No response received

Charme Allen, 6th Judicial District (Knox County)

"As District Attorney, I have dedicated my career to the belief that justice is blind and that all people are entitled to equal protection of the law. I always have, and always will, prosecute fairly and justly, based upon the law and the evidence, without prejudice, bias, or discrimination of any kind."

Dave S. Clark, 7th Judicial District (Anderson County)

"In response to your request, I can report that in the 7th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office we have committed our professional lives to defending our Constitutions and enforcing our laws without fear, favor or prejudice toward any person or for any reason including sexual orientation, religion, marital status or gender. We do this in order to passionately protect the innocent, fairly prosecute the guilty and administer justice consistent with the law, our oaths of office as well as our professional ethical obligations and proud role in leading the criminal justice system."

Jared R. Effler, 8th Judicial District (Campbell, Claiborne, Fentress, Scott and Union counties)

No response received

Russell Johnson, 9th Judicial District (Loudon, Meigs, Morgan and Roane counties)

No response received

Stephen D. Crump, 10th Judicial District (Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties)

"We do prosecute domestic violence cases involving same sex couples in the Tenth Judicial District. It is my opinion that Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-111 does cover same sex couples under Tennessee’s current marriage law. We also observe and protect the constitutional rights of the practitioners of all faiths under either the Tennessee or United States Constitution in the Tenth Judicial District. It is my understanding that at least one complaint has been lodged with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility. I do not know the scope or contents of that complaint. Also, Tennessee’s elected District Attorneys General are all independent constitutional officers, subject to the will of the voters of their district. General Northcott is entitled to the same fair hearing and due process as any other person accused. For those reasons, I believe it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any future actions."

Neal Pinkston, 11th Judicial District (Hamilton County)

"I don’t agree with some of what General Northcott has said publicly, but here is what’s important: As the District Attorney General for Hamilton County, I believe in following the law, and the law says that in domestic abuse cases, charges can be brought against current or former spouses and adults or minors who are dating or who have dated or who have or had a sexual relationship. It’s clear to me that anyone can be a victim of domestic assault, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, and the perpetrator(s) should be prosecuted."

Mike Taylor, 12th Judicial District ( Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties)

No response received

Bryant C. Dunaway, 13th Judicial District (Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties)

"I am not personally familiar with the specific statements that may have been made by General Northcott so I cannot speak to them. I can only speak for myself and the practice in the seven counties of the 13th Judicial District. It is the practice in the 13th Judicial District to prosecute domestic violence cases according to the statutory guidelines set out in the Tennessee Code. A “domestic abuse victim” is defined in TCA 39-13-111(a). A 'domestic assault' is an assault against anyone who falls under the statutory definition of a 'domestic abuse victim.' This district relies on that definition. Further, the Constitution applies to everyone regardless of their religious belief."

Tom P. Thompson, Jr, 15th Judicial District (Jackson, Macon, Smith, Trousdale and Wilson counties)

No response received.

Jennings H. Jones, 16th Judicial District (Cannon and Rutherford counties)

"My office does not agree with the positions taken by General Northcott, as they have been reported in the media."

Robert J. Carter, 17th Judicial District (Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall and Moore counties)

No response received

Ray Whitley, 18th Judicial District (Sumner County)

"I am personally, and officially, not supportive of the positions you reference in your e-mail below. Here in Sumner County, the !8th Judicial District, we have always prosecuted domestic violence cases without regard to sexual orientation, creed, belief, or otherwise, if the law has been broken, and we will continue to do that. I can only speak for myself and this Judicial District, as each District Attorney has to proceed in his/her district as they see fit. I have not communicated with General Northcutt regarding this matter, and I will not venture an opinion as to what I think should happen next."

John W. Carney Jr., 19th Judicial District (Montgomery and Robertson counties)

No response received

Glenn Funk, 20th Judicial District (Davidson County)

“Neither the District Attorneys General Conference, nor any committee chairperson can mandate how an individual district attorney prosecutes matters in his or her district. In Davidson County, domestic violence prosecutions are a priority for our office regardless of the sexual orientation or marital status of the victim.”

Brent A. Cooper, 22nd Judicial District (Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties)

No response received

Ray Crouch, 23rd Judicial District (Cheatham, Dickson, Houston, Humphreys and Stewart counties)

No response received

Matthew F. Stowe, 24th Judicial District (Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin and Henry counties)

"It is the written policy of this District to use every available tool to incarcerate violent offenders for the maximum possible time (absent any exigent circumstances). This policy is the same regardless of any characteristic of the victim(s). We also strive to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens regardless of race, creed, or color and take every available precaution to avoid convicting innocent persons. With respect to non-violent crime, our focus is on making the community whole and protecting it from future misconduct, which we do by focusing less on incarceration and more on alternative strategies to prevent re-offense, such as drug rehab. With respect to non-violent crime, our focus is on making the community whole and protecting it from future misconduct, which we do by focusing less on incarceration and more on alternative strategies to prevent re-offense, such as drug rehab. I have not seen or read the comments from General Northcott to which you are referring, and I would only comment on the policies of other DAs if they solicited my advice on the subject."

Mark E. Davidson, 25th Judicial District (Fayette, Hardeman, Lauderdale, McNairy and Tipton counties)

"As the elected District Attorney General for the 25th Judicial District, I took an Oath of Office to support the Constitutions of the State of Tennessee and the United States of America, which guarantees equal protection of the laws to each and every person in our Judicial District and in our Great State. We aggressively prosecute domestic violence cases under Tennessee Code Annotated 39-13-111, and we rely on that statutory definition of a “domestic abuse victim,” which does not concern itself with sex, race, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation or religion."

Jody Pickens, 26th Judicial District (Chester, Henderson and Madison counties)

"While I am the elected District Attorney General for the 26th Judicial District, I am also one of twelve members of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility which is charged with handling complaints made against attorneys licensed in Tennessee. I have learned through the media that a complaint may have been filed with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility against General Northcott. Therefore, it would not be proper for me to comment beyond what I have stated in this correspondence."

Tommy A. Thomas, 27th Judicial District (Obion and Weakley counties)

"I have seen and read about your reporting on this issue. I do not support the positions expounded by General Northcott that are the subject of your reporting. Every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or religious beliefs, is entitled to equal protection under the law."

Garry G. Brown, 28th Judicial District (Crockett, Gibson and Haywood counties)

No response received

Danny Goodman, Jr., 29th Judicial District (Dyer and Lake counties)

"In response to your email, as District Attorney General for the 29th Judicial District, we will prosecute all cases of domestic violence in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated §39-13-111 and not based upon our personal beliefs. The Tennessee Constitution and the United States Constitution protect all religious groups and we will protect the rights of those groups as well. We do not and will not make a decision concerning prosecution of a case based upon sex, race, age, disability, national origin or sexual orientation."

Amy P. Weirich, 30th Judicial District (Shelby County)

No response received

DA Conference president Lisa S Zavogiannis, 31st Judicial District (Van Buren and Warren counties)

"I was elected and swore and oath to uphold the constitutions of Tennessee and the United States. That is what I have done and will always do regardless of the religious or sexual orientation of the persons involved in any case in the Thirty-First Judicial District."

NOTE: An earlier version of this story - and the broadcast version - inadvertently attributed a quote from Tommy Thomas to Tommy Thompson. The version above has been corrected. NewsChannel 5 regrets the error.

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Capitol Hill Controversy