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Peter S. Gilchrist III Honored with 2011 Ayscue Professionalism Award

 

The Mecklenburg County Bar and Foundation honored Peter S. Gilchrist III with the Ayscue Professionalism Award at the annual Law & Society Luncheon on Mar.10, 2011. 

 

Gilchrist was recognized for his professional accomplishments and civic endeavors during his 35-year career as Mecklenburg County's District Attorney. In addition to his years of service as District Attorney, he served as President of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys and consultant to such institutions as the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Jefferson Institute for Justice Studies and American University. He has been inducted into the American Law Institute and the American College of Trial Lawyers.

 

In a recent interview Gilchrist summed up his contributions to the profession, I represent the people. And the people certainly don't want innocent folks convicted of crimes. And I'm very interested in collegiality between prosecutors and defense lawyers. You treat each other as professionals. That allows justice to be done.

 

 

 

End of An Era - Charlotte's Top Prosecutor Retires After 35 Years

By John Parke (J.P.) Davis

Featured in the November 2010 edition of the Mecklenburg Bar News

 

"I never thought I would practice law," says Peter Gilchrist, an odd statement from the man who has occupied one of Charlotte's most important legal positions for the past 35 years.  Now, after more than three decades as Mecklenburg County's elected District Attorney, Peter Gilchrist is retiring.

 

Gilchrist meets with me in his "other office", the "clean" one--that is, the one he doesn't actually work in. Even this show office is simple and unostentatious; except for the corner location, it could belong to any young lawyer.

 

The office is emblematic of Gilchrist himself: humble, gracious, almost boisterous in his warmth, and not at all the stern caricature of a prosecutor drawn in fiction and literature.  He smiles often and speaks with an open, unaffected manner more befitting a country grandfather receiving guests than one of Charlotte's most important elected officials.

 

"When I came in with the hubris of youth, an accounting background and four years in Superior Court, I thought I could solve the problems and be done in two years," says Gilchrist, now 71. So why then did he stay for thirty-five?  "It's a really interesting job," he says with earnest sincerity.

 

He describes the prosecutor's role as, "Trying to do justice in individual cases. Your view of justice varies depending on your vantage point. The job is to do the right thing. That's not always to get a conviction and the maximum sentence. Sometimes it's to incapacitate someone for as long as we can, or to take an individual who is such a danger that we must ask the jury to take his life. Sometimes, it's not to prosecute. You have to be even-handed, whether the defendant lives in Meyer's Park with a retained lawyer or in the projects with a public defender."

 

Without question, however, Gilchrist is proudest of the people who have populated his office over the years, past and present.  He is ebullient when he talks about them.  Despite the years of work he has done and all he has accomplished in his tenure, it is difficult to get him to take personal credit for anything--the first word out of his mouth when speaking of his achievements is usually "we."

 

"We've had a number of outstanding folks," Gilchrist says, beaming like a proud father as he lists the judges, United States Attorneys, preachers, college professors, and prominent attorneys from all walks of practice who got their start in his office.  "The bar and the bench are peopled with our alumni."

 

"The challenge we've always had was a difficulty in retaining people long term, because of the salaries and workload." This constant tension pervades Gilchrist's narrative--his overwhelming pride in his office and the people he works with strained against the Sisyphean task of running a large prosecutor's office on what is, for the size of the need, a shoe-string budget.  He lists "having an office that functions well considering the resources and the environment that we operate in," as the top accomplishment of his tenure.

 

"We operate this office like in the 1950s, with paper files.  Nothing for electronic document management. Our people are dealing with a lot of paper rather than doing what they could do to be effective.  It's going to continue for a long time because the state doesn't have the money.  At one point, the County was spending more on the dog pound than the state was spending on the jail."

 

Tight resources have led to better efficiencies, however, including programs that, while occasionally controversial, have greatly benefited the community.  "We established a number of cutting edge programs," Gilchrist says.  "The defensive driving school and deferred prosecution is one.  We had to engineer them; we didn't have a model.  We came up with a way to have a contract with the defendant and if the defendant completed the contract, we would dismiss the charges. Folks end up without criminal records, and it got them to address a problem they had, getting drug treatment, staying on mental health drugs, going to high school, getting a job."  A small percentage of defendants who go through deferred prosecution come back.  The vast majority don't.  "It's a good management of limited resources," Gilchrist concludes.

 

"Peter has brought that office from fifteen to twenty assistants to eighty-five, a real big city district attorney's office," says Larry Hewitt, a criminal defense attorney with Guthrie, Davis, Henderson and Staton, who has known Gilchrist since the two were assistant district attorneys under Gilchrist's predecessor, Tom Moore.  Hewitt has watched the district attorney's office grow and flourish under Gilchrist's leadership.  "The public doesn't appreciate or understand the magnitude of that job, and he has done a very good job with it over the years.  He is a very decent and hard working public servant."

 

Judge Phil Howerton, who started as an assistant district attorney under Gilchrist and is now the veteran of more than twenty years on the district court bench, echoes Hewitt's sentiment.  "Peter has been a courageous and totally honest public servant, as our district attorney, for these many years. Some things just will not seem the same when he retires."

 

"I'm 71," Gilchrist says.  Frustration creeps into his voice as he talks of the two projects he set out to accomplish this term, increasing judicial salaries and implementing an electronic management system, both of which ended up stymied at the state level on the brink of passage.  "I felt like I was standing still. I put a lot of time and energy in both projects.  I had the office in about as good a shape as I could, and it was time for someone else to come along."

 

His advice for his would-be successors: "I describe the operation as twenty-five college students in a Volkswagon. It's in a sort of balance, and it's very difficult.  When someone comes and says theyre going to emphasize whatever, question--what are you going to stop doing? Where are the resources going to come from and where are you going to back off from?"

 

As for his own plans after retirement, Gilchrist once again keeps it simple.  "I'm going to do some things I haven't had time to do. I have no intent to practice law. We plan to do some interesting travel, listen to music, read some books, listen to smart people talk, hunt and bird watch."

 

Finally, after thirty five years of service, Gilchrist has one last message to the members of the bar: "I want to thank them.  When I think of the bar, I think of the men and women who are active in bar activities and have been a great group of people to be around, and I see what they've done to honestly improve the profession. There are a lot of lawyers who make great contributions, and they truly inspire all of us."

 

And with that, without knowing it, Peter Gilchrist might well have been describing himself.

 


 

 

 
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