Rodney Hasty, a prosecutor in Asheville, North Carolina for 18 years, died unexpectedly last October near his home. He was only 50. The community was shocked. The findings of the autopsy—that Hasty’s death was the result of “fentanyl and ethanol toxicity”—then left the District Attorney’s office feeling like it needed to explain itself.
After all, Hasty was the Chief Assistant District Attorney, or the office’s-second-in command.
“These results remind us that addiction doesn’t have boundaries and can ensnare anyone, no matter how high achieving and competent they may be,” Buncombe County DA Todd Williams said in a public statement issued on December 13. “Rodney’s passing has left a huge void in the community he served. While the District Attorney’s Office is shocked and saddened to learn of the results of the autopsy, we also know that Rodney’s many gifts to our community, to the DA’s Office, and to the work of justice reform will endure.”
The statement at first glance seems a straightforward official expression of grief, but history and politics are involved.
Back in 2010, then-Assistant DA Hasty was convicted of driving while intoxicated. Nobody’s life should be irreparably tarnished for a DWI. But the harsh reality in this context was that Hasty broke the criminal law as a person upheld to administer it to others, and his prosecutorial career might well have been finished after his conviction.
Even the bosses of prosecutorial offices have a hard time professionally surviving such a reputational blow, as former Travis County (Austin), Texas DA Rosemary Lehmberg, for example, found after serving jail time for a DWI while in office. At the time, Lehmberg’s Public Integrity Office was tasked with investigating political corruption scandals statewide. State Rep. Phil King, a Republican former police officer and judge, took the mic at the Texas House to argue that her authority should be stripped, stating, “What concerns me is what appeared to be utter contempt and disrespect for the law and for the office.” Then-Governor Rick Perry then stripped the Public Integrity Office of its funding. Lehmberg rejected calls to resign, but also opted to not run for re-election.
Hasty’s prosecutorial career did appear to be over, when former Buncombe County DA Ron Moore fired him under a “zero tolerance” policy. But then Todd Williams defeated Moore in a 2014 DA election, which Williams would later attribute to running as a progressive in the style of the new “wave of reform-minded prosecutors.” Williams quickly rehired Hasty, and later promoted him to Chief Assistant.
Law enforcement leaders simultaneously signal that problematic drug use is a health issue while having to denounce the health issue as a criminal act.
DA Williams expressed shock after the autopsy, while citing what he implied was Hasty’s “addiction.” Yet the scientific consensus holds that returns to problematic use, or “relapse,” are very typical as part of recovery from substance use disorders. Williams’ word “saddened”—applied, again, to the results of the autopsy—could also imply disappointment, a reminder to the public that what Hasty did was technically criminal.
Therein lies the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the “liberal” law enforcement approach to the drug war. Law enforcement leaders like DA Williams simultaneously signal that problematic drug use is a health issue while having to denounce the health issue as a criminal act.
Otherwise, they have no ethical argument to arrest and charge people with nonviolent drug-law violations, even when those people are funneled through the Buncombe County Adult Drug Treatment Court. (This local reality is doubly frustrating when one knows that Asheville, the county’s population core, is known as a progressive oasis in the South.)
DA Williams withdrew from personal involvement in the law enforcement response to the Hasty case in view of a potential conflict of interest, given his relationship with Hasty.* But what happened next further underlined the health issue-criminalization contradiction. Local law enforcement charged Brandon Lewis Glenn Neels, the man allegedly responsible for providing Hasty the drugs, with second-degree murder—a crime that carries 12 years-to-life in prison in North Carolina. Neels is currently sitting in the Buncombe County jail under the weight of a $500,000 bond.
Overdose deaths involving heroin and synthetic narcotics have skyrocketed in the county since Willians took office, with over 60 deaths annually in 2017 and 2018. Yet few of these other deaths were prosecuted in this way. Would Neels even be facing a drug-induced homicide charge if Hasty had not been a prosecutor?
Despite DA Williams’ lack of personal involvement in the decision to prosecute Neels, his record in office suggests that like many other prosecutors elected in liberal or progressive cities, he does a better job of talking up criminal justice reform than enacting it.
In DA Williams’ first year (2015), jail admissions got a boost, leading Buncombe County to having the fourth-most jail admissions out of 100 North Carolina counties. For context, Buncombe County is only the seventh-most populous county in the state. That same year, Williams oversaw his county sending roughly the same number of people to prison as Pitt County (Greenville), North Carolina—despite Pitt County residents’ suffering violent crime at nearly twice the rate of people in Buncombe County. (What’s more, the DA of Pitt County at the time, Kimberly Robb, was well-known as an overzealously “tough-on-crime” Republican — to the point of holding up the exoneration of an innocent man convicted of murder until she left office.)
In 2018, Williams also refused to pledge to end the prosecution of simple marijuana possession cases. His argument was that a categorical refusal to charge these cases is “not the role of the district attorney,” which is to blindly enforce the law.
That rather echoes the hyper-conservative Heritage Foundation—which recently lamented that new-wave progressive DAs are “usurp[ing] the constitutional role of the legislature by refusing to prosecute entire categories of crimes.” In fact, prosecutors like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and Boston DA Rachael Rollins, whose company Williams apparently aspires to keep, were selected by their voters in order to put these policies in place, thereby pressuring sluggish or cowardly state legislators on criminal justice reform.
Law enforcement’s decision to respond to Robert Hasty’s sad death by inflicting more suffering—this time on Neels and his loved ones—is surely out of step with Asheville’s idea of justice.
* Correction, January 14: A previous version of this article wrongly stated that DA Williams made the decision to prosecute Neels. In fact, DA Williams withdrew from involvement in the decision due to a conflict of interest. We apologize for this error.
Photograph via North Carolina Judicial Branch/Public Domain