Trey Gowdy

Two passions—politics and prosecution—collided a year ago this week. Standing before a small group at the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg, S.C., I left the security of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the vagaries of candidacy for circuit solicitor.

South Carolina’s 46 counties are divided into 16 judicial circuits. The 7th Circuit consists of Spartanburg and Cherokee counties. It’s been home to my family for more than 30 years and the Beacon Drive-In for more than 50. It was also home to a popular 16-year incumbent solicitor with an enviable death penalty record and wealth of political endorsements. But I had to run.

Growing up in Strom Thurmond country, politics was a noble calling. Dad took me to the airport to see Nixon. And got me out of bed at midnight to meet the newly elected first Republican congressmen since Reconstruction. Goldwater’s picture hung in our house. Tears flowed when Jimmy Carter won. He was a Southerner, but he wasn’t who we were pulling for. Politics got into my blood early. Later it would be blood that got me into politics.

After four years at Baylor University and three more at the University of South Carolina School of Law, it was time to get a job whether I was ready or not. A clerkship here and then another, civil law—nothing seemed to capture my passion. Nothing seemed to have purpose. Until mom called.

The phone rang right after lunch. Sitting on the 23rd floor of one of South Carolina’s tallest office buildings, working for the largest law firm in the state, I was no nearer deciding what to do with my life than in junior high school. Twenty-eight years old, three years removed from law school graduation, and still searching for a purpose. “Jeff Adams is dead,” my mom said. Then she was silent. Then she wept, “He was murdered in Charlotte.”

Murdered indeed. Bullets splashed from the gun of someone with a value system tortured enough to equate life with the contents of a pocket. I can’t get Jeff out of my mind. Not then. Not now. I imagine the powerful legs of one of North Carolina’s greatest tennis players thrusting at the asphalt of a parking lot outside a Charlotte apartment building. I imagine his last thought. I wonder why God let this happen. Jeff Adams was barely 30 years old. He was a beautiful person who never felt the sweet kiss of a daughter. If the thug who shot him had only known the loss and havoc he wreaked.  A family friend died in utter, useless vain. A tennis complex in Charlotte bears his name. Small consolation to those of us who loved him. Jeff Adams’ murder, and the raw senselessness of it, finally had given me a purpose.

For six years after his murder, I toiled in the federal system—a clean, efficient system replete with drug trafficking and white-collar fraud. It’s a marvelous and secure system. But it lacks blood. A federal prosecutor is to a state prosecutor as a research physician is to an emergency room doctor. There is simply not enough blood. So I left. Rather, I was called out. Called out and into life’s gutter known as state criminal court. Ten thousand cases. Murders. Child abuse. Child sex abuse. Drugs. Criminal domestic violence. It’s the real world—it’s the subculture that spawned the recidivist who killed Jeff Adams.

Everyone knows Timothy McVeigh and Susan Smith. What about Joseph Hartzler and Tommy Pope? The former two robbed each of us of some innocence. The latter restored a measure. They spent months away from their families working deep into the literal and figurative darkness. But you probably don’t know them. Hartzler prosecuted McVeigh and gave an opening statement as beautiful as a sonnet. Pope sought the death penalty for Susan Smith. I wonder if there was a Jeff Adams somewhere in their past. I bet there is now. I wonder if Hartzler can escape the image of a fireman carrying a bloody baby corpse away from the federal building in Oklahoma City. I wonder if Pope sees his own children when he sees the car seats being pulled out of John D. Long Lake in Union, S.C.

I’m a prosecutor because I feel compelled to help give power to the powerless, honor to the deceased, security to the robbed, and healing to the beaten. For the next four days you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like to be accountable to diverse constituencies. Victims of crime. Defendants accused of crimes. The media. Law enforcement. Defense attorneys. And judges. It’s an impossible job made honorable by the Hartzlers and the Popes. Made meaningful by the memory of Jeff Adams.