Mixing politics, law enforcement and religion is a difficult high-wire act under the best of circumstances. Add in a sex sting operation and you’re toeing the wire over the Grand Canyon without a net or safety harness in the middle of a blizzard.
Chesterfield County’s commonwealth’s attorney, Stacey Davenport, should know that.
A lurid, real-life soap opera with all those elements, and more turns than a mountain backroad, is playing itself out in Chesterfield County and showing up in headlines from sea to shining sea.
It began at the end of an online chat that allegedly occurred between a Virginia Beach megachurch pastor and a police detective posing as an underage prostitute who directed him to a Chesterfield motel room in October 2021.
The Rev. John Blanchard, pastor of Rock Church International, was arrested and booked on charges of solicitation of prostitution. He was one of 17 men snared in a two-day Chesterfield County Police Department sting.
Three months ago, in October 2022, Davenport — Chesterfield’s Commonwealth’s Attorney — announced she would nolle prosequi (not pursue) the case against Blanchard, giving no explanation beyond suggesting that the evidence was insufficient to win a felony conviction.
“The interaction between the detective and the defendant in each case was different,” Davenport said in a statement announcing the decision to not prosecute Blanchard’s case. “As a result, the evidence available for use in the prosecution of each case was different, and the outcome of each case was different. Some of the cases had sufficient evidence to support felony convictions, and some did not. As ministers of justice, prosecutors are required to individually evaluate the strength of the evidence provided by the police in each case.”
Blanchard vehemently asserted his innocence. He returned to the pulpit and called the charges against him “vicious and inhuman accusations” and said that statements made in support of the charges were “demonstrably false.” He also petitioned a court to expunge the charge from his record.
“You dress up a lie. You can twist it. You can misrepresent it. But I’m sorry, a lie is still a lie,” he said according to a television report.
Perhaps Davenport failed to anticipate the fires of condemnation ignited by her decision to not prosecute an influential pastor who allegedly drove nearly two hours for a “QV” (flesh trade shorthand for “quick visit”) in a suburban Richmond motel room with a person who purported to be a 17-year-0ld girl named Maddie. How such a public relations miscalculation is possible for a Republican elected to her job in 2019 with 54% of the vote — and who seeks reelection this fall — is bewildering.
In November, Timothy Anderson, a lawyer and politically ambitious Republican who represents a Virginia Beach district in the House of Delegates, was among the first to raise hell. He used Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to obtain police incident reports and posted the documents on his law firm’s Facebook page.
The real game-changer, however, came in early January when Chesterfield County’s normally taciturn police chief, Jeffrey Katz, posted a blistering rebuke of Davenport’s decision on his police department Facebook page. In it, he acknowledged granting a FOIA request to release his department’s records in Blanchard’s case and argued, point by point, why Blanchard’s case should be tried.
“I believe a jury of Chesterfield County residents deserves to weigh in on the matter of criminal culpability,” Katz wrote. “The decision to nolle prosse [sic] this case has made such a deliberation impossible … but I want to be clear; this is NOT due to a lack of evidence or a substandard investigation.”
Cops and prosecutors work closely together and sometimes disagree. In nearly 40 years as a journalist and six as a PR guy, I’ve never seen such a sensational public imbroglio between the leaders of two essential parts of the criminal justice system, as every fan of the long-running “Law & Order” TV series can recite by heart.
Cops and prosecutors work closely together and sometimes disagree. In nearly 40 years as a journalist and six as a PR guy, I’ve never seen such a sensational public imbroglio between the leaders of two essential parts of the criminal justice system.
– Bob Lewis
After Katz’s fusillade, Davenport fired back. Sort of.
In a mid-January statement, she called out Anderson, saying her office “takes great exception” to his efforts to politicize the case. She said assertions that Blanchard’s expungement petition was a bid to “silence any political opponent [of her office] from using published police records is unwarranted and without merit.” What the statement didn’t include was any elaboration that would help the public understand where and why the case against Blanchard, at that time, fell short.
The statement further said that “moral outrage is no substitute for evidence, and this office stands by its decision.”
It did, too. For six more days.
On Thursday, Davenport announced that new evidence had persuaded her to recommend reinstating the case against Blanchard. She also said she would step aside and entrust the matter to a yet-unnamed special prosecutor. Because Davenport chose to nolle prosequi the case without prejudice, she had the option of resuming the prosecution without breaching Blanchard’s Fifth Amendment double jeopardy protections.
As one might by now imagine, there was no information about the nature of the new evidence that put the prosecution back on track from Davenport’s brief remarks, all read from written text without taking any press questions.
This column is not a commentary on the rightness or wrongness of whether Blanchard should stand trial. I have not seen all the evidence in this case, and even if I had, I am not a lawyer and am unqualified to determine whether it meets legal and ethical standards for proceeding to trial.
It’s about the persistent, airy refusals to provide better, more relevant answers and explanations that help ordinary people understand this sensational saga while respecting the legal protections and confidentialities of both the government and the accused.
There are communications professionals out there who advise and shepherd attorneys and public officials through the media maze. I’ve done it myself.
Davenport was not without opportunities to provide a helpful, cogent explanation. For days, journalists invited her to do just that in on-the-record interviews, and I was one of them. (My offer still stands, by the way.)
Davenport’s an accomplished prosecutor whose reserve and reticence in this volatile case does her a disservice. The lurching, on/off/on-again approach to a case involving alleged efforts to victimize a minor not only hasn’t quelled the tempest, but has aggravated it in the court of public opinion.
She’s left a door open for Republicans who might challenge her for the nomination. Appearing unsteady in the handling of Blanchard’s case also gives oxygen to the malignant foolishness advanced by conspiracists who claim a cabal of pedophiles controls major public and private institutions of national power.
More broadly, it feeds the cynical notion that justice needn’t apply to favored people in powerful positions, only to the poor and powerless – a notion that’s poisonous to the rule of law and the free civil society it sustains.
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