BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Mike Anderton and Danny Carr both want to be Jefferson County’s District Attorney and both men have already done the job. Each occupied the top prosecutor’s office at different times in the last two years, a time marked by dramatic political upheaval in the office and trial by fire for each of them. The choice voters will make on election day is between two men one could argue embody a tale of two cities, both Birmingham natives but from zip codes and life experiences as vastly different as the American experience can allow.
Election day will represent the culmination of a lengthy shake-up in what has historically been an unchanging conservative landscape surrounding the busiest prosecutor’s office in the state. The District Attorney is the gateway to the criminal justice system, utilizing unmatched discretion in deciding who gets charged and prosecuted with what crimes, and which punishment will best serve justice.
Because the election comes at a critical time for criminal justice reform efforts in Alabama and across the nation, I asked both men to discuss their backgrounds, philosophies and the long, strange two years that led them both to this moment. In the last two weeks, I met with both Anderton and Carr individually, and had a wide-ranging conversation for 90 minutes with each candidate.
Prosecutors are not known for opening up to journalists, but I was impressed with the candor both granted to me. I also noted that each man expressed an understanding that he couldn’t be more different than his opponent, yet firmly believed his own background, experiences and ideas would best serve the people of Jefferson County.
Major change began to unfold in 2016 when Charles Henderson, a Democrat and relative unknown unseated Brandon Falls, a popular Republican prosecutor who had held the position for eight years. No sooner than the surprise upset had been called, Henderson was indicted for perjury and suspended as DA.
Presiding Judge Joseph Boohaker appointed Carr to serve as interim DA, and with feet to the fire, he did so for nine months, until Henderson was convicted, and Governor Kay Ivey decided to appoint a new DA to fill the position. Carr and Anderton both applied for the job, along with four other candidates, but Ivey only interviewed one man, Mike Anderton. When her office announced Anderton’s appointment, there was little surprise in the political world, but it meant Carr would have to vacate the top job. Anderton immediately asked Carr to stay on as his Chief Deputy District Attorney.
“I figured what better transition could there be and who could help me more in taking over than the guy who had just been in the seat,” Anderton told me. “For the good of the office, for the good of the people of Jefferson County, I wanted Danny to stay on as chief deputy, and we had a smooth transition.”
Carr agreed to stay, if he could still run for the position in the next election cycle. Carr told me he was disappointed not only that the Governor had replaced him, but also that she never met with him or expressed any gratitude for the job he did amidst tremendous uncertainty in the office.
“The leadership that was shown by the people that were there during that tough time was huge,” Carr said. “The office continued to run and everybody there will tell you, it never ran better than when I was there. I kept my head down and made sure the job got done.”
Despite all the political implications, Anderton and Carr continued to work together until 30 days before the election when office policy required Carr to take a leave of absence. Carr has been focused on his campaign and Anderton said while he and Carr get along, feelings have been slightly tense recently, “only because he’s campaigning for my job.”
Carr told me he considers the election “winner takes all,” and he does not plan to stay on in the DA’s office if he loses the election. The stakes could not be higher for these two career prosecutors, but Anderton views a potential loss to Carr differently.
“If Danny will have me, I’ll certainly stay,” he said. “This is home and I’m pretty good at what I do.”
I met with Anderton in the DA’s office, an unassuming maze of cubicles and conference rooms on the first floor of the Jefferson County courthouse. Anderton was cordial with a firm handshake, still getting over a cold that came with a nasty cough.
“I don’t feel that bad, but it sounds like I’ve got active tuberculosis,” he told me with a laugh.
Anderton grew up in Mountain Brook, Birmingham’s most affluent suburb, but he did not dwell on that detail. The first aspect of his upbringing he talked about was Boy Scouts, something I first heard him mention at a debate I attended between Anderton and Carr in September.
Anderton told me he first joined his troop at age 11 and eventually made Eagle Scout. He’s still involved with Boy Scouts, serving as committee chairman of his troop and often speaking publicly about the honor and integrity he gleaned from his years of scouting.
“I believe in that stuff,” Anderton told me. “I believe in the honesty and the truthfulness and you don’t cheat.”
In high school, Anderton discovered a love of debate and a dislike of bullies. He later graduated from Auburn University and went on to attend the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, where he decided to be a prosecutor after working as a law clerk in the Jefferson County DA’s office. As a clerk, he gained experience helping prosecutors prepare and try cases, and talking to victims and witnesses.
“I saw prosecuting as getting rid of bullies,” he said. “People who got picked on were people who needed to be protected as far as I was concerned.”
Anderton’s father was an architect, and his mother hoped he would go into construction law and work for his dad, but it didn’t work out that way.
“I said, I don’t really want to do that. I want to put bad guys in jail and take care of these folks that didn’t do anything wrong.”
The neighborhood Danny Carr grew up in could be considered the polar opposite of Mountain Brook. Ensley, on the west side of Birmingham, is historically black, working-class and more recently home to some of Birmingham’s most grinding poverty and gun violence. Carr has remained connected to Ensley his entire life, attending church there and often spending the night with his grandfather in his old neighborhood where evenings are sometimes punctuated by gunfire.
Carr graduated from Jackson Olin High School where he played basketball and earned a basketball scholarship to Alabama State University. He told me this detail surprises some people.
“I guess they think all basketball players are supposed to be tall,” he said with a wry laugh. “I consider myself tall enough.”
I met Carr at his campaign headquarters in downtown Ensley, where we sat and talked at a conference table covered in campaign materials and files. Old church pews offered more seating along the perimeter of the room and a photograph of Martin Luther King Junior’s famous “I have a Dream” speech hung on the wall.
Carr’s mother, retired Wenonah High School principal Regina Carr-Hope was there, along with Carr’s campaign chairman, Dorothea Crosby, a retired courthouse employee. Carr was well dressed but appeared relaxed, thoughtful yet conversational in the easy way he has with people in the room.
Carr told me about returning to Birmingham after college and taking a job as a juvenile probation officer with family court, working full time while going to Miles Law School at night. His senior year he met longtime DA David Barber, and when he was thinking about job options, he realized the power of the DA, and a light switch flipped inside him.
“I told myself, I think I can bring a fresh perspective and come with a different approach and viewpoint to the office,” Carr remembered.
David Barber offered Carr a job as assistant district attorney and he accepted. At the time, there were 41 lawyers in the Jeffco DA’s office and only two of them were African-American. Today, six out of 41 are African-American. Across the state, only two out of 67 district attorneys are not white.
When he served as interim DA, Carr noticed that not many young, black attorneys applied for jobs as prosecutors.
“I think maybe that has to do with the stigma,” he explained. “A lot of African-Americans look at the DA as the bad guy. You’re the police, but at the same time, you can make a difference from the inside. You can be part of shaping criminal justice reform.”
If Carr wins, he hopes to help create more opportunities, so the office better reflects the diverse community it serves. Anderton told me he’s also faced a challenge finding a diverse field of applicants, but has hired two African-American lawyers since he was appointed by Governor Ivey.
When I talked to courthouse regulars about Mike Anderton, the same adjective came up repeatedly- old school, and that’s no surprise. He’s been a mainstay at the courthouse for almost 35 years. Before Ivey appointed Anderton as DA, he worked as an assistant DA in Jefferson County starting in 1984 after spending a year and a half in the DA’s office in Alexander City. Anderton said he liked the faster pace and heavier case load in Birmingham after learning the ropes in a smaller, slower place.
“I hit the ground running,” he remembered.
Anderton spoke frequently about the importance of taking care of victims and peppered our conversation with anecdotes from previous cases - innocent people shot over nothing, crying mothers and grandmothers, heartbreak, fear, anger, merciless violence.
“When you deal with victims, their blood is in the streets and it doesn’t belong there,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who it came from, but whoever put it there is the one I’m after and I don’t care if he’s white, black, green or yellow.”
Perhaps the old school description of him comes from his frequent use of terms for criminal defendants like “bad guys” or “bozos,” and his unapologetic satisfaction in making sure people who hurt others get punished. In explaining his purpose, which is to be of service to victims, he used a scouting metaphor.
“They’re going into a dark patch of woods,” he said. “They’re about to enter a criminal court system that they don’t understand. My job is to hold their hand and walk them down the path, to work them through the court system so once they get to the other side of the woods, they have some sense of justice and the bad guy gets punished.”
Carr also feels a connection to victims, but it comes from the awful experience of being in their shoes. In 2001, when Carr had just begun his career as a prosecutor, his younger brother Jackstin was murdered. The two brothers were close. At 18, Jackstin would drive his older brother’s car and even squeeze his feet into Danny’s nicer shoes, even though they were two sizes too small.
Carr believes that the killers thought Jackstin had money, and that’s why they called Regina Carr-Hope demanding a ransom. Several days later, Jackstin’s body was found near the Mulga Mine in west Jefferson County by a man on a four-wheeler. Jackstin had been shot to death and his burned car was located nearby.
“I think a lot of people at one time were concerned with whether that would harden me, make me unreasonable or bitter,” Carr said. “You have your good and bad times. At the end of the day, it motivated me from both sides of the aisle because I sat in the courtroom as a victim, but as a lawyer I also hoped the judge was a good judge and the defense lawyer knew what he was doing.”
Three suspects were convicted in his brother’s killing, and after the trials, Carr said he returned to work with a new perspective and lifelong commitment to seeking justice and always going the extra mile for people and families who have contact with the criminal justice system.
“For me, I had to live through it to really appreciate what it’s like to walk into a courthouse and talk to a person you don’t know and say, can you help get justice for my family?”
Do you arrest and prosecute people for marijuana possession? This is a hot question in Alabama as more states around the country continue to legalize recreational and medical use of the drug, while Alabama continues to treat simple marijuana possession as a crime. This past legislative session, a bill would have made pot possession a civil penalty, like a traffic ticket. The bill died, but more than likely the issue will return. It’s also no secret the state’s jails and prisons are horrifically overcrowded, with some of the people cast into the system because they were caught with some weed.
At the beginning of October, Carr sent a series of tweets on the issue that got people’s attention. He stopped short of saying he would never prosecute marijuana cases again, but indicated he believes that the approach to policing and prosecuting marijuana crimes must change. Marijuana possession is a felony that disproportionately affects black Alabamians, Carr wrote, and can have lifelong negative consequences.
“I do not think the DA’s office can stand to afford us going harder on these cases, when there are real crimes jeopardizing public safety in our neighborhoods,” he tweeted.
Anderton told me he doesn’t believe low level marijuana possessors should be sent to prison with long sentences, but the current law must be enforced, and until the law changes, he plans to follow it.
“They’ve got to be arrested and they’ve got to be booked through the jail,” he said.
The bigger question, Anderton said, is how do you define low-level marijuana possession?
“Is a low-level possessor somebody who only has a pound of marijuana and scales? And baggies? That’s considered low-level possession,” Anderton explained. “If he’s got a box of baggies and syringes and a scale, the evidence seems to indicate he’s ready to distribute this out.”
Anderton, like Carr, said he supports evaluating every case individually, but even with marijuana, he worries decriminalizing possession will lead to repeat offenders whose habits can escalate. As for people who are caught with larger amounts of weed, Anderton was adamant.
“When it comes to sellers, dealers, traffickers, those people need to go the penitentiary,” he said.
Another big issue is money bail and the growing awareness that scores of people are stuck in jails across the state, not because of the severity of their crimes, but simply because they cannot afford to pay the bond set by the state. When Carr was interim DA, the office adopted a new risk assessment tool called VPRAI, or the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument. He explained the assessment takes a defendant’s ability to pay out of the equation, and bases whether they’re a candidate for bond on other factors like risk to public safety, flight risk and the facts of the crime.
“It has nothing to do with money, which I thought was huge,” Carr said. “That kind of thing brings more trust, more transparency to our system. A person should not sit in jail simply because they can’t pay. That’s not right.”
Anderton did not dispute the claim that many people are in jail because they are unable to make bond, but argued most should be there, even for a failure to appear warrant (FTA), which is the number one reason for arrest in Alabama, according to a recent report by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The report cited FTAs as part of a larger burden in Alabama’s criminal justice system that falls squarely on the backs of poor people, who are saddled with mounting fines, fees and unmanageable obligations that prevent them from moving on with their lives.
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“I think if you look at our jails, you’ll find the ones who haven’t shown up to court before, you’ll find the ones who are violent, you’ll find someone with a whole lot of dope, you’re not going to find the thieves or burglars, unless they have a lot of bad stuff on their records,” Anderton said.
Both Anderton and Carr have sent men to death row, but neither could recall the exact number. DAs have unrivaled discretion in whether to seek the death penalty or life without parole for capital murder in Alabama. Carr said the few times he’s argued for a death sentences, the case involved multiple victims and family members of the slain asked him to seek a punishment of execution. Anderton said he makes that choice based on the evidence and the law, so if the evidence supports a death sentence, he’ll present it and let the jury decide.
Death sentences and executions are at historic lows nationally, but that’s not the case in Alabama, and specifically Jefferson County. A 2015 report by the Fair Punishment Project singled out Jefferson County as a national outlier, in the top handful of counties that imposed the most death sentences between 2010-2015. Anderton was mentioned by name in the report as an example of an “overzealous prosecutor,” but he disagreed with that characterization.
“Am I bullish on the death penalty? Yeah,” Anderton said. “But not everybody needs to get the death penalty. There are capital cases out there that a jury needs to decide. It’s not up to me to decide if that person should get the death penalty, it’s up to a jury, which is exactly what the law says.”
Several cases Anderton has prosecuted over the years have been overturned, most notably the capital murder and death sentence of Montez Spradley, which the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed in 2011, due to multiple errors committed at trial. Spradley always maintained his innocence, but Anderton still does not see it that way.
“Montez killed a lady in the driveway of her home,” Anderton stated as fact when we began discussing the case.
When the evidence against Spradley began to fall apart in the appeals process, Anderton offered Spradley an “Alford plea,” also known as a “best interest plea” which meant Spradley did not admit guilt, but still pleaded guilty in exchange for serving a few more years in prison on other charges. Spradley was released from prison in 2015 after spending more than three years on death row.
Anderton maintained that he did nothing improper in Spradley’s case or any other case he prosecuted over the years, even the cases where sentences and convictions were vacated due to errors at trial. He sees “prosecutorial misconduct” as an intentional act to mislead the court and thwart justice, and said he has never engaged in that kind of behavior.
“I don’t believe you’re going to find any victim out there who I’ve ever dealt with, who will tell you I was prejudiced in some way or didn’t treat them right,” Anderton said. “You will probably find some defendant’s families out there who don’t agree with the way I treated the defendant, but after 36 years of doing this, I would certainly expect that.”
While he was interim DA in 2017, Carr was invited to visit St. Clair Correctional Facility and speak to men serving time in the maximum-security prison. That was an unusual invitation for a prosecutor to accept, but Carr felt it was important that he speak directly to the prisoners, some of whom he had sent there.
“I saw guys that I had tried for murder,” he said. “One guy walked up, shook my hand and said, ‘no hard feelings.’”
Carr’s message to prisoners was to use their own mistakes and crimes to teach young people a better way, not to hide behind the walls like cowards, perpetuating the image of an “OG” or “original gangster.” Carr was so moved by the experience, he later returned to St. Clair with a video camera and interviewed several prisoners, footage he hopes to produce into a documentary that he can show to young people about the dangers of bad decisions, addiction and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“Public safety is the number one goal, but if we’re involved in making sure people are responsible for their criminal acts, then we need to be involved on the front end to try to prevent some of them too,” Carr said.
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Anderton said he has gone inside prisons to interview witnesses, but never to visit the facilities or speak to the people inside. I asked him whether the DA’s office should be involved in crime prevention.
“I hope so,” he said. “I think part of it is trying to educate people on how to get their feelings hurt. Nobody can get their feelings hurt these days without picking up a weapon and taking it out on somebody.”
How do you do that? Anderton knows his proximity to the communities most impacted by the criminal justice system cannot match that of Carr’s.
“I certainly recognize Danny’s background and Danny’s upbringing, but I also understand mine,” he said. “I was brought up in an atmosphere of being fair, doing the right thing. You don’t treat people differently because of who they are or where they came from. There’s people who believe me when I say that and others who don’t.”
Anderton said he believes the best way to reach young people is to have other young people talk to them. He’s working on putting together a group of young heroin addicts to share their stories in area schools. He also said he tries his best to work with law enforcement, witnesses and let the community know he’s trying to help.
“I want folks to know that they can talk to me and tell me things and if they need it to be quiet, I can keep it quiet,” he said.
In 2001, Anderton helped write and produce a book published by the Alabama Center for Law and Civic Education geared toward 7th graders called “Play by the Rules: Alabama Laws for Youth.” It was distributed to area schools for years until it lost funding, and Anderton said it was a great tool to reach young people with a message they can understand.
When I asked him what he’s most proud of, Anderton turned from his desk and retrieved a small green statue of a dragon. It was one of several dragon figures displayed around his office. He placed the jade dragon statue on his desk with reverence.
“I like dragons,” he explained. “Good dragons, not cartoonish dragons.” The green dragon was given to Anderton as a thank-you by a young girl and her mother after he successfully prosecuted a sex abuse case against a perpetrator who hurt the little girl. In his role as protector of the innocent, he said the cases that involve children mean the most.
“That’s one of my most precious mementos, because she said thank you that way,” he explained. “Have I done a lot of hard work and have I convicted a lot of people and have I taken a lot of bad people off the street? I certainly have, but those are not happy cases. I’m satisfied with my work, but when you help a child, when you get a thank-you note written in crayon, that’s pretty cool.”
Understanding the chaotic path that leads a person to crime is something Carr feels his background makes him better suited to do. His time as a juvenile probation officer continues to inform his work as a prosecutor, as a mentor to young men in Birmingham schools and a community member in Ensley.
As we wrapped up our meeting, Carr and I walked a few doors down from his campaign headquarters to a barber shop he opened shortly after his brother’s murder. He doesn’t cut hair, but wanted to provide an opportunity for men in the neighborhood to make a living and support themselves. Carr shook hands with the customers and barbers working inside, and then we closed our conversation by talking big picture. What can a DA do to help turn the tide of mass incarceration?
Carr said he wants more funding for better prosecutor training, more opportunities for diversion programs like drug court, and more willingness from others in his profession to engage in the conversations around reform. This is something that sets him apart, he pointed out.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this, we can’t convict our way out of this,” Carr said. “Most DA’s just consider, ‘I’m here to prosecute the bad guys,’ and that’s fine. There’s no doubt about that, but what footprints are you leaving within the system to make it more transparent and equal and fair? We’ve got to address these issues.”