LUMBERTON — Johnson Britt, the district attorney for Robeson County for 23 years, will not seek re-election, and will leave that office on Dec. 31, 2018.
It has been widely speculated that Britt would not seek a seventh four-year term, and he hinted at it during the recent county Democratic Convention, but confirmed it when asked the question by The Robesonian. At least three of his assistant district attorneys already have made it known publicly they will seek the office in the 2018 primary, but Britt said he will not endorse anyone.
Britt, a 57-year-old Lumberton native, will have been the longest serving district attorney ever for Robeson County, which makes up all Judicial District 16B.
Britt said he plans to continue working as a private attorney.
“… The time is right and I am ready and want to start the next chapter in my life and legal career,” said Britt, who earned his undergraduate degree at Wake Forest University and his law degree at Campbell University. “I contemplated retiring four years ago and Fordham, my wife, wanted me to retire, but I wasn’t ready and the timing wasn’t right and I just wasn’t comfortable leaving the office and worried about what would happen if I left. I knew then and I know now that what happens when I leave office is beyond my control. History and others will judge the work I’ve done as district attorney.”
Britt’s name had been circulated as a possible candidate for Congress in the 9th District, and the Democrat at one time admitted interest before deciding against seeking the federal office. His father, Luther Britt Jr., was a four-term state senator who had just been elected to a fifth term when he died in 1978 at the age of 46.
“I plan to open an office and practice law and advocate for people and issues that will benefit the community,” he said. “I also intend to remain active in local and state politics and perhaps run for political office again. Over the years I’ve been approached about running for higher offices but declined to do so. That may change in the future. Time will tell.”
After receiving his law degree, he worked briefly as a lawyer in private practice with a local firm, but became an assistant district attorney after being offered a job in 1989. His plan was to gain experience as a prosecutor and return to private practice after five years, but things changed when his son was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I needed to be able to provide continuous health insurance for my family and as a state employee, I was assured of that coverage,” said Britt, who has three children, Luke Britt, Anne Christopher Britt Kemp and Williams Britt, with his wife Fordham. “I also found that I loved what I was doing as a prosecutor and I was good at it.”
Britt declined naming a professional highlight, saying he had worked a number of “big cases,” and mentioned specifically the prosecution of Eddie Hatcher and Myron Britt, and the James Jordan case. He also made the call to drop charges against Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, two men who suffered learning disabilities who both spent three decades in prison for the rape and murder of a 11-year-old girl before DNA evidence set them free.
The North Carolina Innocence Commission was instrumental in pushing for a new trial for Brown and McCollum, but instead Britt dropped charges. He is now a member of the commission’s board.
“My biggest accomplishment isn’t a single case that I’ve tried but the overall body of work this office has done over the last 23 years,” he said. “I believe the true measurements are how people have been treated. Has the DA been fair? Has the DA sought the truth and justice?”
“My biggest regret it that as much as has been done that more wasn’t done,” he said.
Erich Hackney, a Lumberton city councilman and an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, has worked closely with Britt over the years. He had high praise.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed the friendship I have had with Johnson over the past 30 years and it has been an absolute pleasure working with him,” Hackney said. “There is no doubt that of the many attributes for which he will certainly be remembered is the integrity and fairness he has shown … which has been nothing less that impeccable.”
Currently, Robeson County has the second highest number of accused people awaiting trial on murder charges, about 80, behind only Mecklenburg County. It’s unlikely that a significant dent will be put in that number before Britt exits.
Britt believes the state should re-examine how it allocates resources for local district attorney offices.
“Raleigh is married to a formula that allocates the number of assistant district attorneys and judges each judicial district receives,” said Britt, who oversee an office of 24, 12 assistant district attorneys and 12 clerks. “… It’s basically a one-size-fits-all formula. Per capita Robeson has the highest violent crime rate in the state and has the overall highest crime rate in the state, but the formula doesn’t recognize those issues. The problem is the formula hurts this county because population is a factor and that one factor takes us from being in great need to being little need.”
Britt has this advice for the next district attorney.
“Work hard. Keep your door open to everyone,” he said. “… Remember your job as DA isn’t merely to convict, but your job is to always seek justice. Surround yourself with the best and most qualified people. One thing to always remember, no matter how long and hard you work, in this county there will always be more work to do the next day.”
Frank Floyd, the senior resident Superior Court judge, said Britt arrived during a turbulent time in the local judicial system.
“When I took office as a Superior Court judge it was a time of distrust between the bench, DA’s office, Public Defender’s office and other agencies involved in the justice system and Johnson and I butted heads on numerous occasions,” he said. “As time passed Johnson and many others worked to overcome this atmosphere of distrust. We still butt heads but we recognize our roles within this adversarial system. Johnson has served the citizens of Robeson County well. He will be missed.”
Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649.