Alabama prosecutors split by rare AG feud between locals and AG
By Phillip Rawls
AP Political Writer
MONTGOMERY — Alabama's attorney general and its district attorneys are supposed to be on the same team, but in a rare move in the state, local prosecutors from almost every county have lined up against Troy King in a death penalty case.
The district attorneys have questioned King's legal fitness for the job, and King has accused them of turning their backs on crime victims.
Political experts said the public feud could have long-term consequences for King, particularly if he seeks re-election in 2010 or decides to run for governor.
"When your professional credentials are called into question by 41 of your peers or near peers, that is not the kind of thing that helps you become governor," said Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University.
The political experts also said the public feud between prosecutors is extraordinary — even by Alabama's rough-and-tumble standards for political bickering.
"It's never good for an attorney general to get in a spitting match with local prosecutors. They are supposed to be on the same side," said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at The University of Alabama.
For Lanoue, it was telling when the district attorneys talked about King's experience.
"They are sending a message they believe this is a competency issue," he said.
King and the district attorneys have been at odds since
last week, when King took over a death penalty case from Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens, a Republican like King.
King accused Owens of an "inexcusable violation of his oath of office" because Owens testified an 18-year-old
accomplice who didn't fire a shot in a double homicide should have his death sentence changed to life in prison without parole.
Owens took the position because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against executing juveniles caused the 16-year-old gunman to have his death sentence switched to life in prison without parole.
Call for apology
On Monday, the Alabama District Attorneys Association released a statement that leaders said was approved by 41 of the state's 42 DAs. It called on King to apologize for his "scathing verbal attack." About 30 of them also showed up for a news conference on the Statehouse steps in full view of King's office on the third floor.
The local prosecutors criticized King's experience, noting that he had never stood before a jury and asked for the death penalty before Gov. Bob Riley appointed him attorney general in 2004.
King accused the district attorneys of trying "to distort and spin this issue." In his view, he is standing up for the victims' families, who want the death penalty, and there's no reason to apologize for that.
"No matter what these district attorneys say, I will not be the second prosecutor to turn my back on these victims and justice," he said.
King questions whether 41 prosecutors really approved the critical statement and is planning a further response.
Brad Moody, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery, said King could have quietly taken over the case from the district attorney without criticizing him publicly last week.
"If he were more concerned about the victims and less about the politics, that would have been the way to do it," Moody said.
Moody and Brown said tension must have been building between King and the District Attorneys Association for some time before it erupted.
In the past, King and the association have disagreed in legislative committees about the wording of crime bills.
In last year's elections, King's Democratic opponent, Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr., drew endorsements from many of his colleagues of both parties, including Owens.
The governor, who appointed King, downplayed the Republican vs. Republican angle of the dispute.
"It is not as much Republican against Republican as a difference in philosophy about how certain things are going to be tried and certain standards held to," he said.
And how would Riley handle something like this?
"Given an option of playing the debate out in public or allowing the people in the debate to get together in a room, close the door and work it out, sure, I think the latter would be more advisable," he said.
In Lanoue's view, the next step for King is difficult.
"If he issues an apology, he's all but admitting he stepped over the line for personal reasons," Lanoue said. "If he doesn't apologize, he serves out his term with angry prosecutors."
The chairmen of Alabama's two political parties take different views of the fuss.
Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said politics aside, Alabama citizens will lose if King doesn't find a way to heal the rift.
"This isn't good because cooperation has to exist between the attorney general and local district attorneys' offices," he said.
Republican Party Chairman Mike Hubbard said King and Owens "are simply working through an honest debate on a valid policy issue," and it has not turned into a mean-spirited personal attack.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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