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Wednesday, 18 July 2007 00:00

The defense rests: Prominent attorney Reid Brown becomes prosecutor

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One of the most prominent defense lawyers in the region is trading in a long and lucrative career defending the accused to become a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office.

Reid Brown, a defense lawyer based in Waynesville, has built a reputation for getting off — or at least reducing the punishment — for criminals thought not to have chance. Brown was an expert at crafting a defense when there was seemingly no evidence in his favor, said District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.

Now Brown, who knows every trick in the book because he’s deployed them himself, will prove tough competition from the other side of the aisle.

“There aren’t any other defense lawyers that know more about what you can and can’t do,” Brown said.

While most of the 11 assistant district attorneys that cover the seven western counties are assigned to cases in their county, Brown will be sent around the region as a heavy hitter on big trials. There are half a dozen murder trials on the docket in the coming year to which Brown will be assigned. That’s one thing that convinced him to make the switch.

“I enjoy trying big cases,” Brown said. “He’s going to let me do what I like to do best.”

Bonfoey said he is very pleased to have Brown on board.

“Reid Brown has likely tried more capital murder cases than any attorney in Western North Carolina,” Bonfoey said.

Most assistant district attorneys are young, taking the job fresh out of law school and moving into private practice after gaining a few years of experience. Half the assistant district attorneys statewide leave within their first five years. It rarely happens the other way around — that an experienced attorney with a well-established practice would give it up for the lower-paying salary of a public prosecutor.

“One of the difficulties finding someone with as much experience as Reid has is they have a good practice built up over the years that’s very lucrative for them,” Bonfoey said. “It’s hard for them to give that up.”

Brown said he was fortunate that Bonfoey was willing to make a place for him.

“It’s a time in my life when I would like to give back to the community,” Brown said.

Playing the opposite side of the field won’t be entirely new to Brown. He cut his teeth as a prosecutor in Haywood County his first three years out of law school in the mid-1970s.

“I think I have always been a prosecutor at heart because that’s where I got my start. You never lose that bug,” Brown said.

Nonetheless, the new role will require a mental shift. On Aug. 31, Brown will still be the accused’s best friend. But when he wakes up on the morning of Sept. 1, he assumes the job of a prosecutor.

Brown said thinking like a prosecutor comes naturally.

“A good defense attorney always looks at cases from the prosecutorial side, too,” Brown said.

Brown still has clients on his books that he will continue representing up until the day of the switch, and until then, that’s where his allegiances will be.

Bonfoey is looking forward to Brown joining his office.

“We have fought and scrapped throughout the years on the opposite side of cases, but we’ve never worked together,” Bonfoey said.

Good attorneys know how to argue in court without degrading their relationship with the opposing attorney.

“You can’t go in there throwing elbows at everybody,” said Jim Moore, an assistant district attorney that has often faced off with Brown. “You can still try a fair case.”

That’s the kind of lawyer Brown’s tried to be, and why the district attorney’s office is willing to embrace him. Brown said Bonfoey has run a district attorney’s office known for its integrity and fairness, describing Bonfoey as a “straight-shooter,” which is why he was willing to go to work in his office.

Brown will fill a vacancy left by Roy Wijewickrama, an assistant district attorney leaving the prosecutor’s office after six years. Wijewickrama is going into private practice in Waynesville, where his brother is also an attorney.

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