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SMITHFIELD — Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle remembers the case that determined her career choice.
At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, she was majoring in psychology and considering graduate school in either psychology or law.
“My mother said I ought to be a lawyer because I love to argue,” said Doyle.
So she pursued her law degree at Campbell University. One summer, she took an internship with what was formerly the Dunn law firm of Stewart and Hayes. The next summer, she wanted to see what law was like on the other side of the street, so she interned at the district attorney’s office under then-District Attorney Tom Lock.
It was the summer of 1992. Lock was prosecuting the Robert Vernon Jones murder trial.
“As I sat there and watched the trial unfold, I knew that I wanted to be a career prosecutor,” said Doyle. “I was moved by the passion and emotion of the trial and realized the prosecutor is the voice of the victim.”
Doyle said Lock told her that if his office had an opening when she graduated, he’d like her to work for him. She became an assistant district attorney in January 1996.
The Robert Vernon Jones case, 27 years later, still weighs on Doyle’s mind.
“The jury gave him a life sentence,” said Doyle. “That means every three years, I go before the parole commission with the victim’s family. I want justice for that family and I’m still fighting for them.”
Lock was elected Superior Court judge in 2006 and sworn on Jan. 1, 2007. Doyle said she has no such ambitions.
“I truly enjoy what I do as district attorney,” said Doyle. “Hopefully, I will continue in this role.”
Although Doyle has run unopposed in the past two elections, she said she never takes her position for granted.
“I never underestimate an opponent,” said Doyle. “I do enjoy campaigning, getting out and meeting new people.”
She also enjoys public speaking opportunities.
“Two years ago, I spoke at an orientation meeting for new district attorneys,” said Doyle. “I spoke about the office and how having a positive relationship with law enforcement is so important.”
Doyle said she and Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell have a good working relationship.
“I’ve always enjoyed an excellent relationship with Sheriff Bizzell, we work well together,” said Doyle. “We jointly lead the monthly police chiefs meeting, which also includes 911, emergency services and the Highway Patrol. We work together to make sure all law enforcement receives important information.”
Another speaking engagement Doyle recalled was being the keynote speaker at the North Carolina Homicide Investigators Association meeting at Carolina Beach.
“When you’re a police officer, it’s frustrating to be constantly getting questioned about a split-second decision you have to make,” said Doyle. “I got to tell them how important their job is and how much I value what they do. Not just me, but the victims of crime. I included quotations from family members they may never get to meet and thank them for what they’ve done. Victims’ families appreciate them. It made me happy to share that information because (some) have never heard those kind of appreciative thoughts.”
Doyle said she couldn’t discuss specifics in the Bonnie Neighbors case because the prosecution is ongoing, but she revealed how she felt in April when she heard a suspect in the 47-year-old cold case had been arrested.
“I was shocked but mostly felt relief for the Neighbors family,” said Doyle. “It’s a very slow process, going through 47 years of information in investigating the case. The evidence is voluminous. But that was a great moment.”
Doyle said she doesn’t know when Larry Joe Scott, the man accused of kidnapping and killing Neighbors, will face a jury.
Not all of Doyle’s investigations are professional. One in particular was extremely personal — the search for her birth family. Doyle grew up in Weaverville, just outside of Asheville.
In 2018, she discovered her birth mother lives in Florida and that she has two younger sisters. Doyle has an older sister in her adopted family.
She said she had a great childhood and it wasn’t dissatisfaction or disappointment that prompted her search.
“When I started thinking about having children, I knew that genetic family history was important,” said Doyle. “That fueled my desire to learn more about my birth family. That was my sole motivation. My adopted family is the one that played a role in who I am today.”
Like many people, Doyle went to Ancestry.com for help and she said it showed all known relatives. The service determined the closet match was either a parent or sibling and she made contact with her youngest sister. It was through her that Doyle met her biological mother.
“I was very excited and it was emotional to see someone who looked a lot like me,” said Doyle. “To see someone that looked like me for the very first time was overwhelming.”
Doyle said she and her birth family will soon travel to the Bahamas to celebrate her mother’s 70th birthday.
A single mother, Doyle said juggling the district attorney’s office and motherhood is challenging.
“I always try to be a mom first,” said Doyle
As a parent, she was very active this summer in the Bring Bennett Back movement after Clayton High School Principal Bennett Jones was transferred to a central office position without explanation in August.
Doyle has served on the Clayton school parent advisory council since 2014. Her son Ross graduated from Clayton and her daughter Katie is a sophomore cheerleader. So every Friday night, Doyle’s at the football game, cheering on the Clayton Comets.
“I’ve been involved with parents and have worked closely with Dr. Jones,” said Doyle. “I have tremendous respect for him as do all the teachers, students and community as a whole. He has a passion for those students unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. I knew I had to be visible and vocal about my support for him.”
Ross is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, like his mother, majoring in psychology, like his mother. Does Doyle detect deja vu?
“He’s said he might like to do some postgraduate work in law,” Doyle said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Doyle said she likes to travel. She and her children went to Belize and had lots of fun.
She is also a season ticket holder at the Durham Performing Arts Center and loves the theater.