Fayette County attorney candidates spar over racial justice, disparities as election nears

A challenger in the race to become Fayette County attorney blasted long-time incumbent Larry Roberts Tuesday for going into specifics about criminal cases involving racial justice protesters who were arrested in the summer of 2020.

Roberts said many protesters who were charged with minor offenses have already received diversion or probation. In the case involving April Taylor and her sister Sarah Williams, the women went around barriers in front of the police department.

Roberts said police told the women to lay down on the sidewalks instead of behind the police barrier but they chose to lay down in front of the barrier and were arrested.

Taylor has since pleaded guilty and received probation. Williams’ trial is scheduled for July.

“I have video of this,” Roberts said at a candidate forum Thursday night at the Lyric Theatre. The forum focused on racial justice and law enforcement and was sponsored by Lexington-Fayette Branch of the NAACP, the Alpha Beta Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Building Cultural Bridges, the Central Kentucky Chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Central Kentucky Council for Peace & Justice.

Roberts said he supported people’s right to protest peacefully.

“What I don’t support is where there is violence or people want to be arrested for what they are doing,” Roberts said.

Roberts was first elected to the office in 2006.

Angela Evans, a former public defender and Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilwoman, is challenging Roberts in the Democratic primary on May 17. There is no Republican in that race.

Evans said Roberts has frequently said he will not discuss the details of open cases yet chose to do so Tuesday night. That’s after he received repeated requests from Lexington Black Faith leaders and the NAACP to drop the charges against Williams, which include inciting a riot, disorderly conduct and disregarding traffic regulations, according to court records.

More than 20 protesters were arrested in summer 2020. None of those charges were dropped.

“On other issues you have been asked about, you always say that it’s an open case and so you can’t talk about it. And you just talked about this entire case in front of a whole group of people,” Evans said. “It seems like you want to talk about cases when you want to talk about them. That is not something any prosecutor, or any government official should be doing. That’s an ethics issue. If it’s an open case, it’s an open case and you don’t talk about it.”

In his comments, Roberts referred to Taylor by name, whose case is closed. Williams and Taylor were arrested at the same time and faced similar charges. Williams and Taylor said they were arrested after they were leaving the protest for the night.

Racial disparities

Evans and Roberts also butted heads during the forum on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Black and Hispanic male teens are over-represented in the Lexington juvenile justice system, statistics have repeatedly shown.

Roberts, however, said five district court judges are the ones that determine if a teenager needs to be detained or released. Roberts said he has not seen disparate treatment of young men of color in the juvenile justice system.

Evans retorted that it was obvious: “If you don’t see any racial disparity in the juvenile justice system then you aren’t looking.”

Evans said a tour of the juvenile justice detention center demonstrates that the vast majority of teens locked up in that system are people of color. If elected county attorney, Evans said she would work with community partners to address that racial disparity and also get more programming and resources for juvenile justice reforms.

Roberts also said he has not seen disparate sentencing for male Black defendants compared to white defendants with similar charges.

“No one has ever said that we haven’t treated this person fair,” Roberts said. All that information is an open record at the court house, Roberts said.

People gather to hear mayoral and county attorney candidates answer prepared questions during a forum put on by six non-profits at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Evans said she would like to see more data on charges, sentencing and what types of plea deals defendants were given to see if there is disparity in sentencing, charges and those outcomes.

That data can also help the county attorney’s office determine how to stop recidivism, or to keep people from re-offending.

When asked how white supremacy has contributed to viewpoints in government and law enforcement and how to address it, the candidates had different answers.

Roberts said he doesn’t know how to deal with white supremacists because “I’m not one. I don’t tolerate it.” Roberts also said his office had Black and white prosecutors and more women than men.

Evans said there are some crimes that on the surface may look like assault but facts may show that they are a hate crime.

“You need a county attorney that can look at crimes directed at marginalized people through the lens of hate crimes,” Evans said.

Incumbent Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts shakes hands and greets attendees for a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Incumbent Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts shakes hands and greets attendees for a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Candidates’ experience

Roberts, who has practiced criminal and civil law for 50 years, has served as county attorney, a public defender and Fayette County Commonwealth Attorney. Roberts said he has developed innovate programs in his office, including mentoring programs for at-risk youth, in his more than a decade in office. He manages a budget of $4 million.

In addition to serving as a public defender, Evans has also served as an assistant attorney general and as a lawyer with the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office. Evans stepped down from council to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at Princeton University, which she recently completed.

Evans said it’s time Fayette County had a county attorney who used evidence-based practices to reduce crime and reduce recidivism.

“It’s time that we are smart on crime,” Evans said.

Angela Evans, candidate for Fayette County Attorney, answers questions during a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Angela Evans, candidate for Fayette County Attorney, answers questions during a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Charles Fields checks his phone outside the after a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022. “I think it’s going to be a lot closer than they think it is,”  Fields said.

Charles Fields checks his phone outside the after a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022. “I think it’s going to be a lot closer than they think it is,” Fields said.

Incumbent Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts prepares to answer questions during a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Incumbent Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts prepares to answer questions during a forum for mayoral and county attorney candidates at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

People gather to hear mayoral and county attorney candidates answer prepared questions during a forum put on by six non-profits at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

People gather to hear mayoral and county attorney candidates answer prepared questions during a forum put on by six non-profits at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

People gather to hear mayoral and county attorney candidates answer prepared questions during a forum put on by six non-profits at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

People gather to hear mayoral and county attorney candidates answer prepared questions during a forum put on by six non-profits at the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, April 21, 2022.

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