Staff Writer-Davin Eldridge
Last week, Western North Carolina District Attorney Ashley Welch confirmed that former Assistant DA Eric Bellas was no longer employed with her office. This week, the details surrounding his departure remain scarce. However, Welch was able to affirm that Bellas wasn’t technically terminated.
“I can’t really confirm that it’s a firing,” she said. “All I can say is he’s no longer in the office. I really can’t go into any more detail about why he left at this time.”
What Welch was able to discuss on Monday was how the vacancy left by Bellas affected her office, and by extension, the state’s 30th Prosecutorial District—which oversees North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties. According to Welch, the absence of her last ADA is negligible.
“The good thing is I’ve got a pretty strong office, in terms of trial lawyers,” she said, adding that, as a DA, she’s able to pull from a rather sizable pool of qualifying attorneys that are available in other districts throughout the state if she needs to. “The good news is there’s a lot of talent on my team already. Of course when [Bellas] left, everyone took notice. But our first concern was really just, ‘how are we going to adjust?’”
Welch said her entire office worked quickly as a team when word got out about Bellas’s departure. In short, the small army of District 30 ADAs in Welch’s employ stepped up to take on the extra work. By week’s end, she said her team had already divided up the district’s caseload.
“I’m going to step in and take some of his cases,” said Welch of Bellas’s workload, which consisted largely of “major crimes”, such as capital offenses like murder and rape. Most of his cases were concentrated in the Macon County area, followed by a few others in neighboring communities, including Swain County and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. “We’re really not going to miss a beat because we already did a good job of communicating and staying up on everything. I mean, any time you have a vacancy that can cause problems, sure. But [the office] was pretty much up to speed on everything.”
Welch’s confidence in her office’s transition essentially translates to good timing, more than anything else.
Between 2013 and 2016, the 30th District’s median number of cases filed annually came in at 49,955—an average volume of 4,945 cases every year, per prosecutor. At the time of the figures, Welch had just assumed her new role as the 30th District DA. Her first order of business was reassigning the six ADAs she had on staff to different areas in order to make the most of what she had while playing to their strengths. Major crimes took priority, as they cost the most time and resources.
Not much of this arrangement has changed since then, said Welch, with one exception—her team has grown more seasoned and versatile. Since capital cases aren’t as prevalent these days as they used to be in her District, Welch’s office wouldn’t face the same logistical burdens which come with them as it would have before.
“I’ve got ADAs sworn in all seven counties,” she said. “We can try cases. I can pull people from other counties, make rearrangements on who to put where… I’ve got tons of experience in my office and the nice thing about the people in my office is we’re all one team. Everyone has been ready to step up and help.”
Welch doesn’t intend to bank on the strength of her team of prosecutors for too long.
Prosecutors typically have far heavier caseloads than those of most other kinds of lawyers. According to national figures, an ADA’s average annual workload consists of around 2,282 criminal cases, and just under a thousand minor infraction cases. Conversely, the closest comparison goes to public defenders, who average about 330 cases per year. While the amount of capital cases in the region is still currently down, Welch isn’t blind to the reality of other districts.
“The thing about capital cases is, those are as serious as it gets,” she said, adding that there’s currently only one murder case on the books in her district, that of alleged murder of Macon County infant Liam Wilson by his father Jesse—a case that fell squarely into Bellas’s purview as ADA. “I’m not putting just anyone on something like that. So, I’m really—really careful—when I make that kind of determination. I spend a long time considering something like a death case.”
While Sheriff Robert Holland said on Monday that he hadn’t been in contact with Bellas since word of his termination first got out, he did express optimism for the former prosecutor.
“I had a great working relationship with Mr. Bellas,” said Holland. “We build our cases, and whoever the prosecutors are, we’ll work with them. We wish Eric Bellas nothing but the best in his future endeavors.”
Asked how the recent vacancy in the District Attorney’s office might impact any pending criminal cases, Holland remained confident that they’d be unaffected.
Welch echoed the Sheriff, adding that something like the sudden departure of an ADA like Bellas doesn’t go unnoticed for very long in the world of lawyers. Especially when it happens in a district like Welch’s.
“We’ve cut murder cases in half since I was elected,” she said. “They’re substantially down. We’ve tried them, we’ve pled them, and we’ll handle them. They’re in a manageable place right now, which is great. When I took office four years ago, I was short six prosecutors. I have just as many now as I did when I was first sworn in. It’s sort of nothing for my office to not panic over something big anymore.”
Despite the slight need for an additional ADA, Welch said there isn’t a time table in place to hire another one.
“I don’t want to rush that. You want to make sure you get the right person with right experience. You don’t want to do it on a time crunch. I had people sending me their resumes the day [Bellas] left… in the legal community word spread statewide. I have several resumes on my desk right now. I really don’t know how long it will take me. But I am going to fill it.”
As of press time, Bellas couldn’t be reached for comment on his departure, nor had the NC Bar Association named him for any sort of disciplinary hearings.