Our View: An astonishing, shameful action

Our View: An astonishing, shameful action
The Franklin P. Backus Courthouse in Old Town. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

There are two victims in the Karla Dominguez murder saga: Dominguez herself, who tragically and needlessly lost her life last year when Virginia’s criminal justice system failed her at every turn, and Elizabeth Fuller, the Alexandria magistrate who lost her job on Tuesday for attempting to put the public interest first.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that the victims are both women.

It is equally unsurprising that only men were involved in the release of Dominguez’ alleged murderer, Ibrahim Bouaichi, last April: Bouaichi’s defense attorneys, the assistant Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney present at Bouaichi’s April 9, 2020 bond hearing, and former Judge Nolan B. Dawkins, who at the hearing ordered Bouaichi released on bond without a GPS ankle bracelet.

The other main players in this case were the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office, which at the time was responsible for pre-trial services but apparently didn’t know Bouaichi’s whereabouts, and the bondsman himself who worked with the Alexandria Magistrate’s Office.

Man Nguyen, the bondsman who signed for Bouaichi’s release, whether wittingly or not, actively enabled Bouaichi to violate the terms of his bond. Nguyen’s gun and vehicle were used by Bouaichi to allegedly kill Dominguez and then himself.

One of the most astonishing facets of this tragic case is that, according to Fuller, the Alexandria Magistrate’s Office, headed by Adam Willard, did not want anyone to file a motion to strip Nguyen of his bondsman’s license.

The implications of this are staggering: the Virginia Magistrate’s Office, which operates as part of the Supreme Court of Virginia and reports directly to the executive secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court, was seemingly so concerned about the potential for negative publicity that it was prepared to allow Nguyen to continue in his role as a bondsman after this unthinkable lapse.

Willard declined to comment for the Times’ page one story, “Magistrate fired over comments to Times,” so it is difficult to ascertain whether it was Willard’s decision or an edict from a superior to eschew the potential negative publicity that filing a motion against Nguyen might generate.

It was a full year after Fuller filed her motion to strip Nguyen of his bondsman’s license that the story came to the Times’ attention following a resident-filed Freedom of Information Act request. When the FOIAed document from Nguyen’s hearing before the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services revealed Fuller’s role, the Times reached out to her for our Oct. 7 story, “Bondsman in Karla Dominguez case charged.”

In this story, Fuller did not reveal any information that wasn’t already in the public domain as a result of the FOIA, she simply elaborated on her reasons for acting 14 months prior and expressed frustration with the system that failed Dominguez: “I do not know why [Maryland officials] didn’t know he was out on bond; it’s like living a bad lifetime movie,” Fuller said. “ … “Nobody responsible, really, is being held responsible. [Bouaichi] is dead; the judge is retired. How did everybody in this whole process drop the ball?”

We think Fuller’s firing is a horrible injustice and believe it is wrong on multiple fronts:

First, it doesn’t appear to us that Fuller even violated the “canons” that govern magistrate behavior, as she did not comment on an active case and she did not say anything that wasn’t already in the public domain. The termination letter from Magistrate Regional Supervisor Elizabeth Edwards emphasized the embarrassment Fuller’s comments caused the department, “You have demonstrated a flagrant disregard of your responsibility … which has resulted in a public and wide-spread decimation [sic] of your inappropriate conclusory commentary,” Edwards wrote.

Second, there is considerable question whether the canons that govern magistrate behavior are constitutional, per First Amendment experts consulted by the Times.

Third, Fuller’s firing is a form of censorship by intimidation.

It appears that Virginia’s Magistrate system, and by extension the Virginia Supreme Court, has forgotten that everyone within state government, regardless of the branch, works for the public. And that even state employees have the First Amendment right to free speech.

Elizabeth Fuller is the main person in the Karla Dominguez saga who acted in the public interest. Fuller should have been given a medal for heroically serving the residents of Virginia. Shamefully, instead she was fired.