Justice Matters: What is a Commonwealth’s Attorney?

Justice Matters: What is a Commonwealth’s Attorney?
Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter

My name is Bryan Porter, and I have the privilege of serving as Alexandria’s elected commonwealth’s attorney. “Great,” the average resident might say. “But what’s the commonwealth’s attorney?”

Forget what you learned in grade school — there are only 46 states in the union. There are also four commonwealths, of which Virginia is one. Unless you are a student of the land grants of the kings of England, this is a distinction without a difference.

However, it does mean that in Virginia we call our elected prosecutors “commonwealth’s attorneys” instead of the more commonly used “state’s attorney” or “district attorney.”

In other words, I am Jack McCoy from “Law and Order.” I’m just not as distinguished-looking. And I am definitely not as good in the courtroom. McCoy is so good at trial, in fact, that I often feel as if his arguments are scripted.

This is the first edition of a new monthly column I will be writing for the Alexandria Times, “Justice Matters.” Unfortunately, the rules of ethics will prohibit me from writing about any pending case my office is prosecuting. Instead, I aim to discuss contemporary legal issues with a focus on criminal law.

My office is responsible for the prosecution of all criminal offenses that occur in the city. We handle everything from drunk driving to murder.

Although the prosecutor’s role is often not fully understood, the fact is we are a vital part of the city’s public safety team. If a murderer is arrested, the community breathes easier. However, if that murderer is not convicted at trial, he is at liberty to strike again, and is perhaps even emboldened having not been held accountable for his actions.

The position of commonwealth’s attorney is provided for by the Constitution of Virginia. Since it is a constitutional office, I must stand for election every four years. This necessarily means that I am both a lawyer and a politician. Please don’t hold that against me.

I grew up in Alexandria and my parents still live in my childhood home. I attended Maury and Lyles-Crouch Elementary Schools, G.W. Middle School and T.C. Williams High School. After graduating from college, I served for five years as a police officer, putting myself through law school by working the midnight shift and attending legal classes in the evening.

When I passed the bar exam, my predecessor in office, Randy Sengel, hired me as a prosecutor and I have served in that capacity ever since. As a line prosecutor, I focused on murder and felonious assault cases and tried over fifty jury trials.

In 2013, I was elected to succeed Randy upon his retirement. I consider it an honor to continue to serve my hometown as I finish my first term.

My office has about 30 employees. In addition to assistant prosecutors, we have an amazing administrative staff that processes the paper flow involved in legal cases and keeps the office running.

We are also lucky to have an outstanding team of victim/witness advocates that is vital to our success. Our advocates serve as a point of contact for victims, keeping them apprised of any change in the status of a case.

Robert H. Jackson, who served as the U.S. Attorney General and as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and who was the lead prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials, once said that “the safety of the community 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.” I believe firmly in these principles and have sought to use them as a guidepost throughout my career.

In next month’s column, I will look at the prosecutor’s role in the criminal justice system and a prosecutor’s ethical obligations. I welcome ideas about topics for future columns. If you have one, feel free to email me at bryan.porter@alexandriava.gov.