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Former Cumberland County District Attorney Ed Grannis, who prosecuted people charged with everything from speeding to first-degree murder for nearly four decades, died last week after a brief illness. Many are still reeling from the news. 

The Grannises and the Dicksons have been friends for all of that and before. I grew up in Fayetteville with both Ed and his wife, Winnie McBryde Grannis, the sister of former Fayetteville Mayor Milo McBryde. In 1976, Ed Grannis hired my then beau and eventual husband, John Dickson, as an assistant DA, and John and Ed prosecuted major felonies together for more than 20 years. The Dickson Precious Jewels and the Grannis’ boys grew up together, and our families had many happy occasions in each other’s company in Fayetteville and along the North Carolina coast. A practical joker, Ed once released two bantam chickens into our front yard at a time when I was home with a newborn baby and had no way to catch those little critters. Our new rooster said howdy from a magnolia tree every morning at dawn, and our neighbors were vocally underemployed, which was the point, of course.

My family is hardly alone in recognizing the contributions Ed Grannis made not only to our community and our state as a person of intellect, ethics and common sense who sought not conviction above all, but justice in each situation. He did it day-in-and-day-out and is widely recognized as one of North Carolina’s most effective and longest serving district attorneys. Very few of us stay in one job for all our working lives, much less one in the public service sector. Fewer still achieve the long and profound positive impact on our community and our state that Ed Grannis did for several generations of North Carolinians, from 1972 until 2010.

With that in mind, defense attorney Harold “Butch” Pope of Whiteville and I sat down with Ed last year after he was well into his retirement to talk about his extraordinary career and the meaning and impact of the law. Our interview was published earlier this year in the State Bar Journal, a publication that goes to attorneys throughout North Carolina. It reveals a man who has seen and been part of major legal events of the last quarter century and who has reflected deeply on our criminal justice and judicial systems, how they have evolved and how they affect us today.

Here are excerpts from what Ed had to say:

On the positive aspects of elective service.

Ed Grannis: “I think those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been elected and to serve in some capacity whether it is on the town council or statewide all understand what a challenging experience it is to go through a campaign. No one can understand that unless you are the candidate…when you wake up trying to decide whether or not to spend money on TV, whether you are going have to pay for all this or raise money…I think the honor, the privilege, the responsibility is really one of the neat things in a democracy… it is such a unique part of being an American and part of a democratic society.”

On the death penalty in North Carolina.

Ed Grannis: “One of the disillusioning things, when I started in the game of justice, bad cases were supposed to get the death penalty. After a while it becomes very clear that it is a very inexact system. While the death penalty needs to remain and be a viable possibility in the worst of situations, for the most part society has moved way on beyond the death penalty. The fact that last year (2013) there was (only) one in North Carolina tells you all you need to know about it. We as a corporate community no longer really use that tool anymore…the best thing I can do for most of these people is give them life without parole as quickly as I can and avoid these lengthy delays...from the point at which the event occurs until the trial occurs. I think the one thing North Carolina should try to do is figure out how to expedite the process.”

On the increasing numbers of lawyers in North Carolina.

Ed Grannis: “There are way too many lawyers out there for the economic opportunities…I’ve had kids who come to me owing more than $100,000, and I am giving them a $40,000 job. There is no way those numbers are going to work. Now it has become a business…We are no longer dealing with ‘Does society need this many lawyers?’ I think it is a recipe for a bad situation.”

On retiring from his long career and whether he missed it.

Ed Grannis: “It’s really interesting. You miss people some, but when you are finally able to get away from it, it’s like that old Martin Luther King Jr. line, ‘Free at last, free at last.’ It was something.”

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