Prosecutorial discretion is one of the greatest tools in a prosecutor’s toolbox. But the chief prosecutor in Tennessee used that power to impose his moral and religious views onto the people his office was tasked with protecting, according to a video released by Nashville television station News Channel 5.
Craig Northcott, the district attorney general of Coffee County, was recorded telling participants at a 2018 Bible conference what happens when voters elect a “good Christian man as DA.”
“Y’all need to know who your DA is,” he reminded the crowd. “You give us a lot of authority. . . . We can choose to prosecute anything. We can choose not to prosecute anything.”
Using what he termed “prosecutorial discretion,” Northcott said, “the social engineers on the Supreme Court now decided we have homosexual marriage. I disagree with them.”
In his jurisdiction, which includes the area that hosts the summer music festival Bonnaroo, Northcott ensured that same-sex partners would not be afforded the protections of domestic violence laws.
In Tennessee, a domestic assault conviction carries enhanced punishments, like permanently forfeiting the right to own a firearm. The prosecutor’s interpretation of the statute was that the sanctions were created to “recognize and protect the sanctity of marriage.”
When reached by phone, Northcott said, “There’s no marriage to protect with homosexual relationships, so I don’t prosecute them as domestic,” and refused to comment further.
It is unclear if Northcott, who took office in 2014, has acted on his statement, though as the chief prosecutor in Coffee County, he has discretion to make charging decisions.
A group of more than 200 attorneys permitted to practice in Tennessee wrote the state’s Board of Professional Responsibility on Wednesday, reporting Northcott and calling his “unacceptable” and “unethical” conduct the “highest level of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of discretion.”
“We find this disturbing and unacceptable on multiple levels, the least of which being Mr. Northcott’s misunderstanding of domestic violence law in the State of Tennessee, where marriage or even romantic status is not an essential element for a charge of domestic assault,” the letter, written by attorney Sunny Eaton, said.
In most states, the law does not require that a victim be married to his or her abuser to constitute a crime of intimate partner violence.
Under Tennessee law, while a victim of domestic abuse can be a former or current spouse, it is also defined as individuals who previously had or currently have a sexual relationship or people who previously or currently live together.
“Our definition of domestic abuse is extremely broad,” said Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence executive director Kathy Walsh, noting that Tennessee laws are not gender specific and do not discriminate based on sexual orientation. “We want to protect as many people as possible with our laws.”
But just having good laws is not enough, she said.
The consensus from advocates was that Monday’s video reinforces the need to continue educating the public about domestic violence and LGBTQ rights.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, called it surprising that a Tennessee district attorney would refuse equal protection of the law to all victims of domestic violence.
"The scariest part of [the video] is that there are people whose cases have been affected, but they didn’t know why they were treated differently,” Sanders said. “Now, we do.”
Northcott is no stranger to controversy.
Less than two months ago, he was severely criticized for saying that Muslims have “no constitutional rights."
“There are only God-given rights protected by the Constitution. If you don’t believe in the one true God, there is nothing to protect,” News Channel 5 quoted him as saying in response to a claim that Muslims worshiped the same God as he.
Northcott refused to apologize and dismissed calls for his resignation at the time.
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