What does it mean to be a district attorney?
In January, Ben David stepped away from his day-to-day routine as district attorney for the 5th District of North Carolina—New Hanover and Pender counties—and stepped onto the campus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) to teach a weekly honors course in criminal justice.
The course has allowed students to experience real cases from the Wilmington area, tour the courthouse and the county jail, and attend public meetings, press conferences and trials in the courtroom, David said.
“Going to the jail was very interesting,” said Katie Albritton, a freshman at UNCW studying psychology.
Albritton said it’s been rewarding to get David’s point of view on cases they have studied in the course.
“He’s got a very different way of going about what he does than what I thought the DA would do,” Albritton said. “It has been really interesting to get a more in-depth look…[at] the criminal justice system.”
During a recent class, David read a quote to the students as he prepared them to give him feedback on what they believe the role of the district attorney should be.
“The district attorney is inevitably a daily collision of life at its most elemental level. He is like the intern on an ambulance call, constantly witnessing the naked emotions of his people; raw, unbuttoned and bleeding. By virtue of his job, the DA is the keeper of the public conscience,” David said.
“The way he has taught the class, it’s been very different from my other classes I’ve taken because his experience allows him to ground everything,” Jacob Steven Mohr, a freshman studying creative writing, said.
“I’ve learned that he spends a lot less time in the courthouse than he does meeting with his constituency and doing field work. He’s far more connected to the people he is serving than I had once believed—on both a professional level and emotional level. I mean, he cares about these people. It’s impressive.
“He walks the line between the corporate side and the street side,” Mohr said.
Some of the honors students are in their first year of college and many are considering law school, David said.
The course, which began in January, went through the first half of using case methods and evidence in an inside-out approach to case studies in criminal court.
The second half of the course, which runs until the end of the semester, is a layout of many preventative measures as a second aspect of the DA’s role—not just as traditional prosecutor inside a courtroom, but as a leader in the community.
The model is to see justice “up-close and personal,” David said.
“What I’ve tried to do with this job, through it all, is to kind of be almost an ethnographer, a biographer of what’s going on here in this community, and try and speak about it as honestly when I go out into public as when I’m standing in front of a jury.
“When we talk about being the keeper of the public conscience, I don’t care if you want to focus on the race and injustice initiative that you just read about…I am genuinely curious what you are taking away from this class up until now, in terms of what you have learned about the district attorney’s role that you have confirmed over these last few weeks or it’s blown you away on how different it is,” David said.
David discussed several of his initiatives, including Blue Print for a Safer North Carolina, Summit on School Safety, Homicide Support Group and Teen Court.
“One thing that I’m trying to show you right now through this class is that the great thing about the Internet, the great thing about this information sharing that we find in this country right now, is that a lot of these wheels have been invented.
“And so take an idea, make it yours, own it, bring it into whatever community you ultimately call home and do it. We rely on young people to do that,” David said.