Three candidates – Corey Seats, Sonia Fonticiella and Martin Lilly – are vying in the May 24th primary to become the next prosecutor in the Second Judicial District which includes Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties. The three spoke Wednesday (May 4) at the Kiwanis Club meeting in Jonesboro.
Current Prosecutor Keith Crestman was appointed to fill out the term of former Prosecutor Scott Ellington who left that office to become a judge. Crestman cannot seek the office, per state law.
Lilly, of Jonesboro, is a deputy prosecutor. Seats, of Jonesboro, is a former deputy prosecutor and Fonticiella, of Paragould, is a criminal defense attorney who has handled many federal cases.
The most pressing problem the next prosecutor will face is staffing the office, Lilly said. There are 22 prosecutors that work in the district, but only seven are full-time. The group they currently have is good, but anyone working in the office needs to be assessed. Lilly also said that some cases involving violent crimes need to be prioritized.
“You have to be experienced to do this job,” he said.
Seats noted that the district could actually by law have 23 prosecutors, but a lack of funding is the issue. If elected, he said he would work with local legislators to secure more funding. Prosecutors in the district have a daunting workload and that needs to be remedied to a degree, he said. Relationships between the prosecutor’s office and some rural police agencies within the district need to be better cultivated, he added.
“Prosecutors often have a caseload that is two to two and half times larger than what they can ethically handle,” he said.
Fonticiella agreed with Seats that the relationships between law enforcement and prosecutors need to be better developed. Another problem that needs to be tackled is outdated software in the office. If elected, one of her top priorities will be to update the electronic filing software that is used. This will speed up the justice process.
When asked why she is the best candidate for the job, Fonticiella said she has a vast amount of trial court experience. Keeping violent criminals off the street has to be a priority that has to be balanced with a defendant’s right to a fair trial, she added.
“My role as a public defender was to be a truth seeker. I see the prosecutor’s office as the same thing,” she said.
Lilly leaned in with his experience when asked what made him the most qualified. Seats said his previous experience in the prosecutor’s office coupled with his previous military career experiences make him the most qualified for the position.
When asked whether new DNA testing should go forward in the district’s most famous criminal case ever – the West Memphis Three case – the three were non-committal without knowing more facts.
Damien Echols, one of the three men who made an Alford Plea to killing three boys in West Memphis on May 5, 1993, is suing the state to get advanced DNA testing done in the case, while Crestman has been opposed to those efforts.
Fonticiella said she isn’t privy to the facts in the case, but as a general rule she supports “conviction integrity.” Seats said he, like Fonticiella, hasn’t examined all the facts in the case file, but “as a general rule he’s not afraid of scientific testing and the prosecutor’s goal is to seek justice.”
Lilly noted that he was a prosecutor when the plea deals were reached and was in the courtroom when Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were released on Aug. 19, 2011. He said he might oppose sending evidence out-of-state to be tested.
The office is non-partisan. If one candidate fails to get 50% plus one of the vote during the primary election, the top two finishers will then go onto a runoff to be held during the November general election.