GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — District Attorney Locke Bell, who is the man behind some major court cases in Gaston County that made national news, is stepping down.
Bell’s last day is Wednesday.
“The job of the prosecutor is to do justice,” Bell, 71, told Channel 9.
He took Gaston County reporter Ken Lemon into the office he has occupied for 14 years. That office was empty on Tuesday after Bell spent the last couple of weeks removing his personal items.
“When I started moving furniture out of my office, it started to be real,” Bell said.
He told Lemon that he felt this is the right time to retire after 38 years as an attorney. He spent about half of that time as a district attorney.
Bell spared some defendants on the stand, took a stand against Cherryville police officers facing federal charges and challenged an attorney defending Mark Carver, the man convicted of killing UNC Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko.
The courts ruled against him in that case.
Bell said the day in court he remembers most was when a jury convicted Danny Hembree of the murder of Heather Catterton. It’s one of two murder convictions for Hembree. Bell and his legal team placed a dozen long-stem roses on Catterton’s grave.
“That was very emotional,” Bell said. “I’ll never forget the feeling of standing at her grave.”
He believes his legacy rests in the cases he refused to try. Bell has offered deferred prosecution to young defendants who he said made stupid but forgivable mistakes.
“More than 80% of people in those cases did what the court asked, which was to have their punishment dismissed as long as they kept a clean record,” Bell said. “These young kids now are working, going to school, in the military, rather than hanging around with criminal records and no jobs.”
Bell said he would help out if the state needs an attorney to fill in. For now, the 71-year-old is looking forward to time away from court.
“I don’t know what’s next. I just say, ‘God surprise me,’” Bell said.
He will be replaced by one of his former prosecutors.
Gov. Roy Cooper appointed attorney Travis Paige to serve the remaining two years of Bell’s term.
“Travis is an experienced attorney with comprehensive knowledge of the workings of the criminal justice system and how to keep making it better,” said Cooper. “I’m confident that he will provide steady leadership for the Gaston County community.”
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