Later this month, I will celebrate my 20- year anniversary in the Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and am finishing up the last months of my second term as the city’s elected prosecutor. The confluence of these two milestones prompts me to write about the arc of my career.
Some may not know that I interned in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney as a high school student. In those days, the office did not use a computer system to maintain records, and my job was to update – by hand – index cards with case data and then file them in the office card catalog. Some younger readers may have no idea what I am talking about.
Obviously, we use computers now, but we are in the process of replacing our generation-old case management system. When a new system is selected and operational, we should have vastly increased administrative and analytic capabilities.
I began my career as a prosecutor one month after 9/11, coming directly from the Alexandria Police Department, where I served as a police officer on the midnight shift while going to law school at night. There was a general tension to life in late 2001, and there seemed to be a cloud of fear and worry over the country that dampened the excitement I felt at beginning a new job. I was assigned to the traffic docket, and for the next 18 months I remained there, spending the majority of my time trying DWI cases in General District Court.
Traffic court was a great experience for a young trial attorney. Not only did I learn to think on my feet, I appeared in front of a quartet of local judicial legends: Judges Becky Moore, E. Robert Giammittorio, Daniel Fairfax O’Flaherty and Robert Colby, who kindly endured my many errors. I was later promoted to criminal misdemeanors, and soon thereafter to what I considered my “dream docket:” violent crimes and narcotics distribution cases.
My predecessor as Commonwealth’s Attorney, Randy Sengel, showed considerable wisdom and patience to me during my salad days. Sengel is the paradigm of what a public servant should be, and he served our city with distinction for more than 30 years.
For about a decade, I carried a significant caseload of grave matters. I was tasked with several difficult murder cases, and, with the help of the outstanding detectives at the Alexandria Police Department, investigated and prosecuted racketeering cases involving human trafficking and complex drug trafficking organizations.
I personally tried dozens of jury trials, many involving deaths, shootings and stabbings. These cases stay with you; I still remember in vivid detail each murder case to which I was assigned, and I stay in contact with many of the surviving family members of the victims.
In addition to trial work, I have frequently taught classes to varied audiences on constitutional law and investigative strategies. Just last month, I collaborated with Alfred Street Baptist Church, teaching a class on civil rights restoration and expungements in tandem with the church’s social justice ministry. I also serve on the faculty of Virginia’s Homicide School for Commonwealth’s Attorneys, where I lecture on prosecutorial ethics, murder investigations and trial techniques.
In 2013, after Sengel’s retirement, I won my first term as the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney. Sengel left behind an office with a well-earned reputation for professionalism and adherence to the rules of ethics, which made my transition from line prosecutor to administrator far easier.
In early 2014, I was just settling into office when the city encountered one of the most grave criminal cases in its history: the serial murders of Charles Severance. That case and the ensuing trial – six weeks in duration – impacted me emphatically. While Severance’s crimes shocked the conscience of our community, the incredible work of the law enforcement professionals who investigated the matter made my job to obtain convictions relatively straightforward.
I am humbled to continue serving my hometown. Next month, I will give some insights and observations about how the role of the prosecutor has changed – and continues to change.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.