Virginia lawmaker responds with poop emoji after prison officials complain about news coverage

The Virginia Department of Corrections issued an unusual news release Wednesday complaining about a news story published nearly two weeks ago by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The article had described how lawmakers voted down legislation that would have created a layer of independent oversight over the department.

Prison officials complained in their release that the article implied the department “is determined to reject all forms of external oversight or authority.” They also took issue with the fact that it included a recounting of some of the numerous lawsuits the department has settled, calling the issues unrelated.

“That VADOC voluntarily elected to settle a case, conserving taxpayer dollars in the process, should not be construed as an admission of wrongdoing or a sign that VADOC needs additional ‘oversight,’” the release said.

The lawmaker who proposed the oversight legislation, Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, has said in past years that one of the goals of creating a prison ombudsman is to reduce the number of lawsuits faced by the department.

Last year, he accused the department of attempting to subtly tank the proposal by attaching an $11 million price tag to it when he said a similar program had been started in Washington State for less than $2 million.

Hope tweeted a link to the press release Wednesday afternoon alongside the word chutzpah and its dictionary definition.
“VADOC has a lot of ‘chutzpah’ to put something out with this level :hankey:,” he wrote.

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Youngkin’s new parole board includes sheriff who confronted McAuliffe on campaign trail

On the campaign trail, Gov. Glenn Youngkin promised to fire his Democratic predecessor’s Parole Board on the first day he took office.

And a few hours after he was sworn in on Saturday, that’s exactly what he did.

The reconfigured board — a decidedly more conservative group than the body that approved a series of controversial release decisions that angered Republicans last year — includes a few familiar faces from the campaign trail.

Among the appointees are Montgomery County Sheriff Hank Partin, who drew a testy response from Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, during a campaign event last year.

The exchange was captured on video and promoted by Youngkin’s campaign. In it, Partin asks McAuliffe if he supports defunding the police in light of his endorsement by a group that called for reallocating law enforcement dollars.

McAuliffe, who had said he backed increasing law enforcement budgets, bristled at the question. “Are you out of your mind? I invested in law enforcement.” He went on to ask if Partin was “out of his mind.”

Partin called McAuliffe’s response “unbelievable” and McAuliffe replied, “I don’t care what you believe.”

Youngkin’s new Parole Board also includes Cheryl Nici-O’Connell, who Youngkin’s campaign featured in an ad accusing the current board of being too lenient. In the ad, Nici recounts being shot in the head in 1984 as a young Richmond police officer.

“I’m terrified because McAuliffe puts politics over the safety of Virginians and victims’ rights,” she says in the TV spot. “I’m speaking to you as a victim. Virginia simply won’t be safe with four more years of Terry McAuliffe.”

The advertisement was criticized as misleading by The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, who noted that it gave the impression the man convicted of shooting Nici was released when, in fact, the Parole Board under McAuliffe denied his release.

The board will be chaired by Chadwick Dotson, a former prosecutor and circuit court judge in Wise County who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination to run for state Senate last year in the seat left empty following the death of former Sen. Ben Chafin from COVID-19.

Dotson currently serves as dean of students at Appalachian School of Law and writes about Major League Baseball.

Youngkin also appointed Tracy Banks, a Charlottesville lawyer and Carmen Williams, who works in Chesterfield for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.

The Parole Board is responsible for making parole determinations for people convicted of crimes prior to 1995, when the state abolished parole. The board also reviews requests for geriatric release.

Youngkin’s executive order also tasks the new board with reviewing its procedures, increasing transparency and providing “recommendations for legislative, administrative and policy changes that will improve the administration of the agency in fulfilling its solemn public safety mission.”

And it authorizes new Attorney General Jason Miyares to open a criminal investigation into the previous board’s alleged failure to follow laws requiring the notification of victims.

“To this day, the family members and victims have no answers as to how or why the Virginia Parole Board failed to abide by the laws governing its operations, and no one has been held accountable,” Youngkin wrote in the order.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Virginia judge jails alleged domestic violence victim for smoking pot on day of court testimony

A judge in Loudoun County interrupted the testimony of the alleged victim in a felony domestic violence trial last week to question her drug use, sentencing her to 10 days in jail for contempt of court after she said she had smoked marijuana earlier in the day.
She was then “physically removed from the witness stand by multiple deputies," according to a brief filed by the commonwealth's attorney's office, which supports the woman's motion to vacate the contempt charge lodged by Circuit Court Judge James P. Fisher.

The woman, who prosecutors say did not appear intoxicated, served two days in jail before she was released on $1,000 bond, according to court records. Meanwhile, the case against her alleged abuser, who was facing his third domestic violence charge, ended with Fisher declaring a mistrial.

“In the middle of a difficult (cross examination), she was detained, interrogated, arrested and removed from the courtroom," wrote Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Elena Ventura, who argued the woman was “not treated with the respect, sensitivity or dignity required by law."

Marijuana is now legal in Virginia and prosecutors wrote in their brief that their witness was just anxious and nervous during the approximately hour and a half of testimony she provided. They said Fisher's inquiry followed “intense and assertive (defense) questioning focused on drug-addiction and infidelity."

Prosecutors also wrote that Fisher refused to hear from detectives who had interacted with her before the trial, who they said would have testified her “behaviors were consistent with all prior interactions and that she exhibited no signs of intoxication prior to her testimony."

But the biggest issue, the commonwealth's attorneys office said, was that Fisher's actions “may create a chilling effect surrounding victim willingness to testify in cases of domestic violence, an area of law already replete with victims recanting and/or refusing to cooperate, due to the extensive trauma domestic violence victims experience through the cycle of power and control, especially in cases where victims have mental health concerns, as … in the case at bar."

In a statement issued by her lawyers, the woman said that's exactly the message she received in court. “I have learned that it does no good to report domestic abuse because the system and the courts appear to have no real interest in protecting victims and punishing abusers," she said. “The judge has sent me a clear message."

Fisher, the former commonwealth's attorney of Fauquier County and onetime chair of the county's Republican committee, was appointed by the General Assembly to an eight-year term in 2019. Efforts to reach his office were unsuccessful and judges in Virginia rarely comment on proceedings.

It is not the first time Fisher has jailed someone in his courtroom for contempt — a step that legal observers say is unusual in Virginia.

Fisher had divorce lawyer Rachel Virk jailed overnight in January 2020 after finding her in contempt of court during a hearing in which she pressed him to clarify a ruling. The Virginia Court of Appeals dismissed her appeal of the charge on a technicality, finding that because the order jailing her was signed by the clerk of court rather than the judge, there was no jurisdiction to contest it. Virk has since filed a lawsuit against the clerk of court and sheriff, which is still pending.

Under Virginia's summary contempt statute, a judge can immediately fine someone up to $250 and jail them for a maximum of 10 days for misbehavior, violence, threats of violence or “vile, contemptuous, or insulting language" in court.

In last week's domestic abuse trial, the witness' lawyers say her actions did not meet that standard. The Mercury is not identifying her because she is an alleged domestic violence victim and has not given permission to use her name.

“She did not admit to doing any illegal activity nor did she admit to being under the influence in the courtroom," said Thomas K. Plofchan, Jr., an attorney with Westlake Legal Group, which is representing the woman with Ryan Campbell at King Campbell Poretz Mitchell. “There was no slurring of her words, nothing that indicated that she had taken some sort of intoxicant that affected her speech or muscular movement."

Plofchan also questioned the timeline, noting it was an afternoon trial and there was no inquiry as to when in the morning she had used marijuana and how much she had taken.

Both parties also took issue with the way Fisher questioned the witness, noting she was never advised of her constitutional and Miranda rights and that the “independent investigation" he conducted by asking her about her drug use is barred by judicial canon.

A hearing on the motion to vacate the contempt charge is scheduled for next week.

The case has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers from the region, who called Fisher's decision to jail a domestic abuse victim troubling.

“Just in general when dealing with domestic violence victims, there's a history of not treating the victim with respect and dignity and we're supposed to be protecting them first," said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, a Democrat who represents parts of Loudoun.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, an attorney, questioned whether the witness would have been treated the same way if she had said she had a beer that morning instead.

“When we passed the marijuana legalization statute, one of the things we tried to do was ensure marijuana would be treated the same as alcohol," he said. “I think it's important going forward that everybody remember that marijuana possession and consumption is now legal."

The case has also garnered attention from marijuana reform advocates, who called the case emblematic of the stigmatization cannabis users continue to face.

“In 2020, Virginia ended the practice of jailing individuals for using cannabis, and in 2021 made such use explicitly legal for those age 21 and older," said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. “Yet, these changes in code do not facilitate an immediate end to the stigmatization faced by those who choose to consume cannabis, many of whom will continue to be singled out for discrimination by those still wedded to longstanding stereotypes."

This story has been updated to include a statement issued the woman jailed on contempt charges.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.