DA shapes office in first six months

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Organizations have a character, and new District Attorney Trent Kelly says that’s what he’s building in the 1st Circuit Court District.
“We’re building a reputation and a personality,” he said from his Tupelo headquarters, six months into his new job.
Kelly’s military connections are borne out in his approach to his job and also in the multiple photographs, certificates and artwork on the walls of his humbly furnished, second-floor office in the Lee County Justice Center.
The 46-year-old native of Union in Newton County and former Tupelo city prosecutor knows he’s arrived at the big leagues of crime and punishment.
And he’s taken a methodical, systematic approach to the multi-county office’s staffing and operation.
“I’ve been reminded of how important the people around you are and to empower them to do their jobs,” the lanky, country-drawling Kelly reflects from one of the sunken-seated leather chairs around his desk, on which notes and file folders find a temporary home.
These six months since taking office, after defeating 36-year veteran John Young, haven’t been easy, Kelly admits.
But they’ve been “rewarding,” he says.
The most difficult decisions so far have been putting the right staff in the right place.
Soon after his election, Kelly took a little heat when he replaced veteran prosecutors with new faces.
“Things haven’t come as quickly as I’d like, but nothing’s ever quick enough for me,” says the Saltillo resident who earned a master’s degree from the U.S. War College, in addition to his college and law school degrees.
His milestones since taking office include a staff of 19 across the seven-county district and creating a centralized, digital filing system, which allows various legal documents and other information to be access remotely and sent by email.
The 1st District includes Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties.
Kelly’s biggest wish for the operation is a full-scale digital document management system, but he’s taking his time to find the right one at the right price.
“It’s a lot better,” he said about the office’s technological strides so far, “but it’s still not where we want it to be.”
Kelly also is a hands-on manager and he meets regularly with staff to listen to their concerns and ideas. He says he’s ready for their six-month evaluations, which will be informal.
“We’ll talk about what we’re happy with and talk about improvements,” he said. “I’m always watching and learning and listening.”
Kelly isn’t afraid of a little evaluation for himself, too. He said he’s asked for honest assessments on what he can do better.
“Everything is about people,” Kelly said. “Relationships move at the speed of trust, somebody famous said. The more trust, the more you get along.”
Kelly also wants every county in the district to feel consistent attention from the staff in addition to the work done in the Tupelo and Corinth offices.
What’s next?
Matching up assistant district attorneys for mutual learning experiences is important, Kelly said. And taking care of more cases than each grand jury indicts keeps the court term docket moving instead of growing.
He’s also interested in raising standards as his prosecutors prepare for trials, which may include testimony from law officers. Last week, he hosted a morning training session for officers to help them be better prepared to testify in court and not to be intimidated by the courtroom environment.
Kelly also said he continues to emphasize concern and outreach to the victims of crime, although he says his office “isn’t 100 percent there yet.”
“Do what you think is right, and do what you think is best to serve the entire community,” he says like a personal mantra.
While he’s still very involved with the Mississippi Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel with two Iraq deployments under his belt, his commander-like focus is to keep “pushing folks wherever the fight is.”
That means he’ll bring staff wherever the workload needs most immediate attention.
His advice to the operation: Only take the cases we believe in to a grand jury, and don’t over-indict because you can’t ever take it back from someone’s reputation.
“I want to be able to look in the mirror and be proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “If we’re doing right, it will show.”
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com