CA Report Card: Prince William County
Prince WIlliam County is unique among jurisdictions where potential reform candidates are running in primaries in that neither candidate is an incumbent or a current member of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. As discussed below, this makes the picture less clear as to which primary candidate is more likely to implement real, meaningful prosecutorial reform. For that reason, our Prosecutor Report Card for Prince William County focuses more on the history of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, its current practices, and areas where reform is most needed.
Largely rural until recent decades, Prince William has grown to become the second largest county in Virginia, and with that growth has come a change in demographics and community values. One fixture in Prince William [PWC] who has managed to weather all of the change, however, is its elected Commonwealth’s Attorney, Paul Ebert, who has held the office for over 50 years. During that time his approach to criminal cases has not evolved much; he is best-known for his long-standing and continuing commitment to capital punishment, having sent more people to the death chamber than any other Virginia prosecutor. His office is also responsible for one of the highest-profile ethical violations to occur in a capital case: when, in prosecuting Justin Wolfe, prosecutors essentially suborned perjury by threatening to execute a co-defendant.
Given the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that similar problems plague the office in non-capital matters. Although PWC has in recent years become more reasonable in certain types of cases, a “win-at-all-costs” mentality remains far too prevalent. And it still impacts the office’s ethics, most recently when a PWC prosecutor—supervised by the same deputy implicated in Wolfe—listened to jail calls between a defendant and his lawyer.
Ebert announced his retirement this year. None of the challengers for the seat have definitively claimed the mantle of “reformer,” however. Defense attorney Amy Ashworth (D) is a veteran of Ebert’s office and was known to be tough as prosecutor, but she is also more comfortably speaking the language of criminal justice reform than her primary opponent, and has secured key endorsements partly because of that. Tracey Lenox (D) has an excellent reputation as a zealous defense attorney, and enjoys the support of some justice reform advocates, but reform has not been a focus of her campaign messaging; to the contrary, she boasts of an endorsement by Ebert himself. Mike May (R) has expressed concerns about transparency in the office, but his campaign is still in its early stages (the general election isn’t until November).
One thing is clear: although PWC has taken baby steps forward in recent years, there are many arcane “tough on crime” practices it has yet to reckon with. Over-prosecution of felonies, use of aggressive, “trial tax”-type coercion, and disregard for rules of fair play—this is what keeps PWC mired in the past. Some assistant CAs have shown openness to a more forward-thinking approach, consistent with the 21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor. The office needs a leader who encourages that approach; who understands that embracing reform doesn’t require jeopardizing public safety. In addition, the next CA must make opening a public defender’s office a top priority. PWC is the largest Virginia jurisdiction without a public defender. A stronger, more unified defense bar would help restore balance in the courthouse and keep the CA’s office accountable.