For most of the time I’ve been involved in Virginia politics, there’s been little if any attention paid to Commonwealth’s Attorneys, let alone primaries to incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorneys. This, despite the fact that the Commonwealth’s Attorney is a very important office:
“…the highest law enforcement official in his or her jurisdiction and in many jurisdictions supervises a staff which includes a chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney, deputy commonwealth’s attorneys and assistant commonwealth’s attorneys. The prosecutors decide what criminal charges to bring, and when and where a person will answer to those charges. In carrying out their duties, prosecutors have the authority to investigate persons, grant immunity to witnesses and accused criminals, and plea bargain with defendants.”
More broadly, I’d say that the job of the Commonwealth’s Attorney is first and foremost to protect public safety and to focus on the victims of crime, while working to be as fair (and certainly non-biased when it comes to race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, or anything else) as possible and to minimize the number of people – particularly those who are not violent or who are mentally ill – incarcerated. It’s a super-tough balance, and definitely requires not just the right approach to policy, but also an enlightened/progressive attitude; attention to evidence, data and “best practices”; great people skills; compassion but at the same time toughness; top-notch prosecutorial chops; and preferably a LOT of experience in doing this stuff, particularly in large jurisdictions.
In 2019, as I consider who to support in Commonwealth’s Attorneys races, I’ll be looking for who best fits those criteria – or doesn’t fit them. No matter what, I plan for Blue Virginia to focus a lot more on Commonwealth’s Attorneys races this cycle than we have in the past. The other day, for instance, Cindy interviewed Parisa Tafti, who is running for Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney against incumbent Theo Stamos (who I plan to interview in the near future). And last night, I attended the campaign kickoff for long-time Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh. See below for video from that event, as well as highlights from his speech. I also had the chance to talk to him a bit and to ask him specific questions that I’ve heard raised a lot recently:
- I asked Morrogh why he signed the June 2016 “amicus brief” regarding then-Gov. McAuliffe’s restoration of various rights to ex-felons. Morrogh said he did so overwhelmingly because he was concerned about restoring gun rights to violent ex-felons.
- I asked Morrogh if his signature on the amicus brief meant that he opposed the restoration of voting rights to ex felons. His response was absolutely not, that he 100% supports restoring voting rights to ex felons, that voting can’t hurt anybody but guns can.
- I asked Morrogh about whether he supports the death penalty, and he responded that a) the death penalty is the law of Virginia, and if Virginia wants to change that it’s up to state elected officials; and b) that he has only sought the death penalty a few times, for the most heinous cases (e.g., rape/murders, serial killers).
With that, check out the video of Morrogh’s speech (from his campaign’s YouTube channel) and, below that, some key points from the speech (bolding added for emphasis).
- First, defense attorney Todd Sanders introduced Morrogh, saying that of all the jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, he likes practicing in Fairfax the most, because “you know you’re going to get a fair trial and fair treatment from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office…[Morrogh] is an amazing attorney, but he’s also extremely fair…[including] decisions NOT to prosecute or to not authorize a search warrant…He doesn’t just seek convictions, he seeks justice…”
- Sanders added that Morrogh’s “tough, he knows who the bad guys, but he also knows there are a lot of people who need a break, and he knows the difference.”
- Morrogh said he’s “never lost the passion for…justice, especially for the weak and those who are preyed upon.”
- Morrogh said he was introduced recently by someone who said he’s the person who “puts people in jail.” Morrogh said he doesn’t view his job that way, that “putting people in jail is a central part of what I do as a prosecutor.” Instead, Morrogh said his view of his job is “to do the right thing in every case for the right reasons; you don’t count convictions…sometimes the right thing means not charging a case, which can be very controversial…I don’t charge cases that I can’t prove and lay it off on the judge to take the heat, I do the right thing.“
- Morrogh said he keeps up with the literature “just like a doctor would” – the latest studies “that help prosecutors do a better job to make a healthy community.”
- According to Morrogh, the job is about “balancing” the rights of the defendant, the victim, and the community. “it is my duty to make sure the defendant gets a fair trial, and I take that very seriously.”
- Morrogh noted that “Fairfax County is one of the safest jurisdictions in the nation for its size…a key part of my job to continue that record of safety, to keep the public safe.”
- “There are other ways to protect public safety…sometimes you can protect the community better by keeping someone out of jail or prison who doesn’t belong there. That’s why I’ve kept up with the data and the studies, and I’ve used every progressive program that I can get behind to help make our community healthier.”
- Morrogh cited the example of the Veteran’s Court -“those who have served us so well and so selflessly, when they fall upon hard times, when they have PTSD…drug and alcohol problems, they are homeless, we have a program…very proud of that program.”
- Morrogh also cited the Drug Court – “aimed to keep people who would otherwise be in jail out of jail…we know we can’t arrest our way out of this drug problem, it’s a medical problem, people need help, and I’d rather keep someone out of jail then put them in jail if they’re not hurting other people…”
- Morrogh talked about his mother having serious mental illness when he was a child, and “that was another thing in my life that just touched me…wanted to make sure in my life I reached out and helped people, and especially people suffering from mental health problems, so we have a Mental Health Docket….Mentally ill people don’t belong in jail.”
- Morrogh said he’s “not a big fan of cash bail, I’ve never asked for a cash bail in my life in Fairfax.”
- Morrogh mentioned the “Shadow Prosecutor Program, where we primarily recruit from underrepresented communities, high schools with high minority populations…”
- On the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Morrogh said it’s “not necessarily a good thing to lock a child up who did something that’s not a murder or something, it can stigmatize them and result in more recidivism on that person’s part.” Currently, the juvenile jail population in Fairfax County is “its lowest ever.”
- “I’m not late to the party to the party on this criminal justice reform: I was a progressive back when progressive wasn’t cool in the mid-2000s. The first thing I did upon getting elected was to expand the discovery rule…I turn it all over…because it’s fair, it’s the right thing to do…I did it the first day I got in and I’m proud of that.”
- 10-11 years ago, he said he went down to Richmond and testified in support of raising the grand larceny threshold from $200 to $750 (he wanted it raised to $1,000), and “they just made it $500 now...I was way ahead of the curve – why, because it’s fair.”
- Of course, Morrogh said, the focus has to be on victims – “One of the big things that sometimes is left out when people talk about criminal justice reform is the victims. The thing about me is I’ve stepped over a lot of bodies of children, I’ve seen a lot of horrific crime scenes, I’ve sat with a lot of families that lost their loved ones – I’ll never forget the victims, I’ll always fight hard for the victims.” Morrogh specifically mentioned MS-13, the DC sniper, serial killer Alfredo Prieto (carjacked, kidnapped raped and murdered two GWU college kids – Warren Fulton and Rachel Raver – coming home from a Christmas party) – “yeah, I took that case and I went after them hard and I think that was justice in that case.” Also mentioned the horrific Hannah Graham/Morgan Harrington case – he went hard after that guy too.
- Morrogh pointedly said “this job of the prosecutor…that I am so privileged to hold is not a job for amateurs, it’s no place for on-the-job training; the newest assistant in my office is more experienced than my opponent.” Morrogh also said that his opponent (Steve Descano) “tried a couple tax cases with the IRS as a victim…one of which got reversed on appeal; I don’t dishonor that, but this is serious business we’re talking about…If your daughter was kidnapped, god forbid, or your mother’s life savings were stolen, would you want a guy who has 35 years of experience fighting in the courtroom and who has a staff of the finest lawyers in the state? Or do you want a guy who tried a few tax cases and says he’s going to be out in the public more? I’m not in the public more because I’m working 6-7 days a week.”
- “In the end, my job is not sending people to jail necessarily…my job is to protect the community…believe in second chances (there’s nothing inconsistent with compassion and prosecution – I have a big heart and I’ll help anyone who needs help, but if you’re hurting women and children in this county, I’m coming down hard on you).”
- Morrogh closed with a quote from one of his “heroes,” former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Robert Jackson, who was the lead prosecutor on the Nuremburg trials in the wake of the Holocaust. Jackson described the qualities of a good prosecutor – “The qualities of a good prosecutor are as elusive and as impossible to define as those which mark a gentleman. And those who need to be told would not understand it anyway. A sensitivity to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and the citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.“
- Morrogh asked everyone for their vote on June 11, promising to “work as hard as I can to keep you safe and to help everyone in this county who needs help.”