DANBURY — It’s a long way from the Surry County community of White Plains to the high court of Stokes and Surry counties, not so much geographically but at least in the personal story of District Attorney Tim Watson.
Watson officially took over the office April 1 when Ricky Bowman retired and he was appointed by the governor as replacement. But he’s been a familiar face in Stokes and Surry county courthouses for more than two decades.
He still lives in White Plains, between Mount Airy and Dobson, where he’s lived his entire life save a brief sojourn to Durham for law school. His educational background includes Surry Community College, Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central’s law school, where he graduated Cum Laude in 1990.
Unlike many bright young people, Watson had not set out to enter the legal profession.
“That was sort of an accident,” he said. “I was working at Sherwin Williams and they had this deal where they would give you more dollars a week if you got so many (college) credit hours. So I realized if I went to community college I could make $32 more a week. That was the early ’80s.”
But Watson did find himself intrigued by the proceedings in the local courtroom, the verbal give-and-take between attorneys, witnesses and judges.
“I would watch trials, watch court, and sort of became interested in it. I never set out to go to law school. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do. But I was fascinated watching court and thought ‘I think I can do that.’ So I kept going.
“No one in my family had ever gone to college so it was a new experience for us. Most in my family were either brick masons or farmers. My granddaddy worked in the quarry at Mount Airy.”
Watson says he took mental notes while watching local lawyers such as Mike and Steve Royster, or prosecutor Moses Massey. Watson said he also had the privilege of working for many years with Jimmy Yeatts who, in his opinion was the best prosecutor in North Carolina.
“I was fascinated by him in court. So I ended up coming back home, but Mount Airy is a small town and all the lawyers are either in solo practice or a family firm. And I wasn’t related to anybody. So I hung out a shingle and practiced law for five years.”
He found his greatest interest was in the area of criminal law. “Ricky Bowman offered me a job in the District Attorney’s office and I’ve been here 26 years. I never thought I’d get out of law school and now it’s been 31 years.”
He takes over the top spot in the office at a time when district attorneys nationwide have been in the news for not filing charges in some cases, or filing charges that are sometimes not at the level that public opinion might expect.
“Every single case is different and we have to look at each case individually,” Watson said. “In the past year there have been a lot of police officer-involved shootings that make the news. Trust me when I say those are about the toughest decisions we have to make. We have to talk to every witness and do all we can.
“Luckily in Surry and Stokes we don’t have very many, and I’m praying we don’t have any. But if a crime has been committed we will pursue it. At the same time, if no crime has been committed we have the same obligation to say no. We take it very seriously and always will.”
Watson describes his own philosophy as keeping an open mind about every case.
“I don’t like to make a rash decision,” he said. “My staff would probably say ‘he takes too long to make decisions.’ But I don’t want to make the wrong decision because I make it hastily. So be patient, listen to everything, learn everything, and make the best decision you can based on what you have. We often don’t have all the facts, or we have someone’s slant on the facts.
“Every case has a lot of pressure, but especially if someone has been shot or killed. I don’t know if it’s added pressure – it might be added pressure because the media is interested in it or because more people are watching what you do and paying attention to it. But in reality the pressure is the same.”
He adds that his more than two decades in the prosecutor’s office has come with some hard lessons.
“The most important is that there is no black and white in this job. Everything has some degree of grey to it. I read about D.A. offices that take an extreme line in ‘this is what we have to do,’ but every case for us is somewhere in the middle. While some defendants deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, every defendant is not bad, not a horrible human being. I think we pride ourselves here – and we have a good staff here – in looking at the facts and the people involved and not making a rash decision.”
That staff includes eight assistant district attorneys and nine support staff (when at full strength) for both Stokes and Surry counties.
“For some that sounds like a lot but for me it doesn’t sound like enough,” Watson said. “Funding is always a problem. We have three grant positions that the Governor’s Crime Commission has funded for about five years. The state has passed Marcy’s Law, which requires more information about the victims than we got in the past. I think this office has always been good about working with the victims, but apparently that wasn’t the case in other parts of the state.”
And of course prosecuting crimes related to illegal drugs remain a huge part of what the office is working on.
“Drugs affect almost every case that we have, even if it’s not a drug charge,” he said. “You may be prosecuting someone for an assault, but they may have been high when they committed it or may have been arguing about drugs. You may be prosecuting someone for breaking and entering, but the purpose of that crime was to steal something to buy drugs. So yes, drugs are about the most serious problems we have, if not the most. A lot of people who are addicted to drugs or can’t make enough money to buy drugs or can’t work because of drugs commit crimes.”
He’s been married for 36 years to his wife, Desirae, and they have two grown sons and two grandchildren. He’s been a member at Flat Rock Baptist Church for more than 40 years.
Watson also has a love for Scouting, with 20 years of experience as a Boy Scout troop leader. Both two grandchildren started in Cub Scouts and have worked up to Scouts. He also started the first female troop in Surry County, which was chartered by a United Methodist church in Dobson.