Dena King became the top federal prosecutor for 3 million residents of Western North Carolina on Monday, and made history in the process.
The South Mecklenburg High School graduate was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, the first person of color to hold the job.
King, a Charlotte native who joined the federal prosecutor’s office in 2020 as head of violent crimes along with drug and organized crime prosecutions, takes over a staff of 100 prosecutors and other employees that works out of Charlotte and Asheville. The Western District of North Carolina covers a 32-county footprint running from east of Charlotte to the Tennessee line, including the Cherokee reservation.
She was sworn in by Chief U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger in a private ceremony at the federal courthouse in uptown.
In a statement released after the ceremony, King said she was honored to hold the job.
“It is a privilege to lead a team of dedicated and talented public servants who are passionate about their work and delivering justice to the people we serve,” she said. “I also look forward to working closely with our federal, state, local and Tribal law enforcement to ensure the safety of communities across western North Carolina and engaging with our valued community partners in our shared mission to pursue equal justice under the law.”
King was nominated for the job by President Joe Biden in late September and confirmed by the U.S. Senate last week. She replaces her former boss, Andrew Murray, a two-term Mecklenburg County District Attorney nominated for the federal post by President Donald Trump.
King, a graduate of N.C. State University and N.C. Central University School of Law, has spent 15 years in public service. She worked as a prosecutor in the Mecklenburg DA’s office before serving five-year stints with both the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
She takes over the federal prosecutor’s office in one of the most conservative court systems in the country and at a time when many Americans are calling for major reforms — particularly in the way minority Americans are treated by the criminal justice system.
Her candidacy, which the Observer first reported in February, drew mixed reviews. Several prominent defense attorneys in Charlotte described King as having an extremely low profile. While others were happy to see the district color barrier finally broken in the prosecutor’s office, they said diversity alone is not enough.
“A career prosecutor who hasn’t demonstrated any commitment to really examining the policies and practices that have fueled mass incarceration and increased distrust between communities and law enforcement isn’t the answer,” Robert Dawkins, political director of Action NC, said in February.
Veteran Charlotte attorney James Ferguson, however, said King could bring a fresh approach to the Western District, where he said minority residents have long suffered from “antiquated notions of justice and safety.”
“I think she will be someone who would bring fairness and skill and sensitivity to that position,” Ferguson said. “A sensitivity to what it means to be an African American in this society, a sensitivity to the fact that the picture we have of African Americans going through the criminal justice system is not a pretty one.”