Frank and Pettitt continue discussion of differences as election nears
The candidates for Montgomery County commonwealth’s attorney have clashed over leadership styles, the evidence discovery process, over courtroom trial experience and even over the current total of unpaid court fees and fines in Montgomery County.
Democrat Peggy Frank, an assistant prosecutor in Pulaski County and a former assistant in Montgomery, is battling Republican Mary Pettitt, who became the Montgomery County commonwealth’s attorney this year when her boss Brad Finch was named to a judgeship. The winner of the special election will serve the remaining three years of Finch’s term.
The winner will be the first woman elected to the commonwealth’s attorney’s job in Montgomery County.
An opening salvo in the campaign came not from the candidates but from Blacksburg lawyer Tom DeBusk, who sent an email to attorneys and reporters asking the candidates if they would change the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office’s discovery process to make it easier for defense attorneys to review evidence against their clients. Frank said she would shift to the policy in place in Pulaski County, which DeBusk described as more open. Pettitt said she would consider a change but hadn’t heard many complaints except from DeBusk.
Then at a candidates forum last month, Pettitt asked Frank when her last jury trial was and Frank said it was a 2000 case. Days later Frank said she had misunderstood the question and had a jury trial in February. When Pettitt questioned that, Frank said the February case had been resolved with a plea before it reached a jury, and said the last time she argued a case before jurors was in 2009. She said she handled cases that were heard by a judge or that ended in pleas on a regular and ongoing basis, however.
The latest flap in the contest is a dispute over the total of unpaid fines and costs. The exact amount is an ever moving target, and the candidates gave The Roanoke Times differing reports to support the numbers they are using.
Frank said that there are $5.6 million in outstanding unpaid fines and fees owed to Montgomery County courts. Asked for a source for her figure, she encouraged The Roanoke Times to file Freedom of Information Act requests with court officials, who said they were unable to respond before the end of last week.
Pettitt said the amount of outstanding fines is less than $5.6 million. When asked for a figure, she pointed to a report on fiscal year 2011 that indicated that about $1 million went unpaid that year, but did not indicate the overall total for the county. Pettitt said that the fiscal year 2012 report has not been filed yet, but that the number she has for unpaid fines and fees for that year $1.6 million.
The candidates differed as well about whether Montgomery County presently is pursuing unpaid fees and fines through appropriate measures.
With the election on Tuesday, Frank and Pettitt responded in writing last week to three questions sent to them by The Roanoke Times:
In 2000, the state funded 89 percent of the budget of the Montgomery County commonwealth’s attorney’s office. This year the state is funding 59 percent. What, if anything, would you do about the decline in state support?
Pettitt: Local governments across the commonwealth struggle with the decline in state support. My approach is two-pronged: careful budget management and efficient use of staff and court time. I plan to continue the fiscally responsible management of this office that enables it to return to the county unused an average of 12 percent of its operating budget each year. I will continue the successful program of in-house collection of delinquent court costs and fines which generates approximately $90,000 per year for the county general operating fund.
I will also continue my eight-year history of successful, effective prosecution of criminals. Through efficient use of staffing and trial preparation this office closes 40 percent more General District Court cases and 28 percent more Circuit Court cases per attorney per year than my opponent’s current office. This saves the costs associated with the constant continuing of cases and enables current staff to handle many more cases.
Frank: Let’s first take notice of the fact that Montgomery County is struggling financially and cannot be looked to for additional support or supplements, even though the state is not funding its mandates.
How do we deal with that shortfall?
First, I would promote the enhancement of information technology by being a leader in taking the judicial system paperless. This project does not require large dollars of support, is beneficial not only to my office, but also to law enforcement, the clerk’s office, defense attorneys and the public. The net savings and efficiencies are estimated to save Montgomery County $100,000 annually.
Second, I would hire staff to actively collect the $5.6 million of accumulated unpaid court fines and costs. Collecting only 10 percent of that outstanding balance would immediately bring a half million dollars to the treasury of the county. An organized system (not simply writing a letter as is the current policy) must be established and maintained. As an example, our county treasurer has collected almost $12 million in unpaid taxes using a similar approach.
Third, I would use my statewide contacts to actively lobby our legislators requesting that constitutionally mandated offices like the commonwealth’s attorney be adequately funded in the name of public safety.
Much of the discussion during the campaign has revolved around the role of the commonwealth’s attorney. In a few sentences, can you discuss the importance of being an office manager versus a courtroom prosecutor?
Pettitt: The question suggests more of a separation between the two roles than actually exists. As commonwealth’s attorney my job is to lead my office of seven attorneys and eight support staff in its primary mission — the prosecution of criminals. To successfully manage prosecutors, you must be an experienced, active prosecutor yourself. You must be a prosecutor the other attorneys trust to turn to for guidance on the tough questions and cases.
When the police call at 3 a.m. they need fast, accurate information on how best to handle evidence recovered at a crime scene or how best to question suspects so that the people’s ability to seek justice in a court of law is not compromised. Only an active trial attorney who is current on the law and appears regularly in the courtroom can answer those questions. The New River Valley chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police and Police Benevolent Association have expressed through their endorsements that I’m the candidate it trusts to give those critical answers.
The Montgomery County commonwealth’s attorney has always been in court two or three days a week while still managing the office. If this policy was changed, it would require hiring additional staff to cover the trial work no longer being covered by the commonwealth’s attorney. The citizens expect me to put my 20-plus years of trial experience to work in the courtroom and also to efficiently manage the office. After seven years as chief deputy, I am well prepared to continue this tradition as a courtroom prosecutor.
Frank: A major difference between my opponent and I is that I don’t believe that being a professional, successful prosecutor and a progressive public servant are mutually exclusive.
The primary job description is to prosecute crimes committed in Montgomery County. Law school training, tenacity, preparation and intelligence all are attributes that are necessary to be successful. I would submit for the voters’ consideration that both candidates have shown they are quite capable.
The difference that separates us is that I feel the position entails much more than being a very capable prosecutor. A constitutional officer like the commonwealth’s attorney answers only to the voters. What that responsibility requires is that I do my utmost in every facet of the position and not just the one I’m legally trained to do.
This does not mean that, as my opponent has stated, I’m more interested in managing (leading) than in prosecuting. I intend to handle a full range of cases, while being an outstanding, innovative public servant to the citizens of Montgomery County. My original ideas of enhanced information technology, more aggressive collection of the outstanding $5.6 million of unpaid court fines and costs owed to the county, and an open, strong working relationship with other court personnel, are examples of what I bring to the position. I intend to make a difference to our citizens, both as a hardworking prosecutor and a professional leader.
If you were to be remembered for one case in your career so far, what case would it be and why?
Pettitt: I have tried some high profile cases such as Morva and McPeak, but those aren’t the cases for which I would choose to be remembered. My most fulfilling cases are the ones which result in a positive change for the victim or the defendant. For example, many years ago I prosecuted a father for almost shaking his infant son to death. For weeks I waited and prayed that the swelling around the baby’s brain would diminish and that he wouldn’t die. Although he suffered extensive lifelong injuries, thankfully he did not die. I couldn’t tell you the name of the defendant or what his sentence was but I can tell you that I still have the thank you card and photo of the baby that his adoptive parents sent me. I know that for him and his adoptive parents this is the one case they remember.
Frank: Although there have been many meaningful, serious cases I have handled over the last 21 years, including capital murder and inanimate sexual penetration cases, the second-degree murder case of Commonwealth v Martinez Maynard Price best exemplifies my prosecutorial skills and tenacity in the courtroom.
This case involved the horrific death of 18-month-old Deemechan Peoples, who suffered repeated acts of physical abuse between May and July of 1991 at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend and caregiver.
In a case of first impression (first time this legal theory was successfully applied in Virginia), I was able to obtain a second-degree murder conviction based on the “battered child syndrome.” The jury imposed the most severe penalty available at that time. The case went to the Virginia Court of Appeals and Mr. Price’s conviction was affirmed without error.
The case made new law in Virginia. Bringing Mr. Price to justice was a voice for abused minors who cannot speak for themselves. From the standpoint of professional pride, the case “made new law in Virginia.” Today, the willful, deliberate and premeditated killing of a person under the age of 14 by a person over age 21 is capital murder.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1669
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