At first glance, the race to become Arlington County’s next prosecutor wouldn’t seem to be a close call: Theo Stamos, a 24-year veteran prosecutor, backed by all the political might and money of Arlington, versus David Deane, a criminal defense lawyer with less than three years of prosecution experience in Fairfax County.
But Deane is raising some interesting issues that might gain some traction in the hard-left leaning districts of Arlington, particularly his view that he would never seek the death penalty if elected. Which is quite a thing for any prosecutor to say. Whether anyone is paying attention right now, that’s another matter.
First, some context. Criminal prosecutors, called commonwealth’s attorneys in Virginia, are quietly powerful people.
They decide who gets charged with crimes, and chances are if you get charged with a crime, you’re gonna get convicted. That’s a lot more power than any state delegate or senator can wield in court. But for some reason, when prosecutors’ elections are held, they don’t attract much interest from voters or the media. Maybe because there aren’t many differences on the key issues. ”I’ll be tough on criminals.” “I’ll be tough on criminals too!”
There are only two prosecutors’ elections in Northern Virginia this year: the Democratic primary in Arlington (which also handles Falls Church City) on Aug. 23, which will decide the successor to retiring Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Trodden; and a general election in Loudoun County in November between incumbent Republican Jim Plowman and Democrat Jennifer Wexton. The incumbents in Fairfax (Ray Morrogh) and Prince William (Paul Ebert) are unopposed, and Alexandria’s election is in 2013.
Here are brief video interviews with Arlington candidates Stamos and Deane, and more about them after the jump:
Theophani Stamos, 53, is a Chicago native who still has the accent and South Side edge that have endeared her to cops, fellow prosecutors and even defense attorneys, who respect rather than badmouth her. She is also a recovering newspaper reporter, with a journalism and political science degree from Northern Illinois University, and stints at Chicago’s legendary City News Bureau (sort of that city’s own wire service in newspapers’ heyday, with graduates such as Kurt Vonnegut, Mike Royko and Herblock), the Bureau of National Affairs and The Washington Times.
But she wanted to be a participant, not an observer, so she began going to night law school at American University, and when she graduated in 1987 a vacancy had just opened in the Arlington prosecutor’s office. She was hired by then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Helen Fahey, and has never worked anywhere else since.
She has been Trodden’s chief deputy for the last eight years, has handled numerous big cases including a dozen murder trials and an estimated thousand or so bench trials. She won convictions in the 2003 triple murder trial of Zachary Cooper and the 2006 decapitation murder by Matthew Pahno, among many other cases.
David W. Deane, 39, the son of an FBI agent and grandson of a Greene County, Va., sheriff, grew up in Chesapeake. (His uncle is current Prince William Police Chief Charlie Deane.) He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from James Madison University and his law degree from George Mason, and was hired as an assistant prosecutor by then-Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan in January 1998.
He was not in the office long enough to try many heavy-hitting cases; he went into private practice in October 2000 with the firm of Albo and Oblon, where he’s been ever since. Deane argues that yes, Stamos has been a prosecutor for 24 years versus his less-than-three, but he’s practiced in state and federal courts on “both sides of the aisle. I kind of bring a new set of eyes to this office.”
Other new eyes Deane would bring in, he says, would be Spanish-speaking prosecutors, of which there are none in the Arlington office now. Arlington has a sizable Hispanic population which would be better served with prosecutors who could speak directly to victims, rather than through interpreters, Deane said. Stamos said police and prosecutors have long experience dealing with non-English speakers from many different backgrounds, and represent them just as well in court.
Deane said he is completely opposed to capital punishment. He said it is far more costly to prosecute someone all the way to the death chamber, it has no deterrent effect on crime, and “it’s hypocritical. It’s the state saying, ‘You murdered somebody, so we’re going to murder you.’ As a society, we need to say we’re better than those people.”
At a public forum, Deane said he would not have sought the death penalty for D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. He said the life-without-parole punishment of Muhammad’s co-conspirator, Lee Boyd Malvo, is ”harsher than getting a needle in your arm.” Deane also said that in Arlington “a lot of people I’ve talked to oppose the death penalty, so this would be taking the community’s sensibility to heart.”
Stamos, while wondering whether some of Deane’s stances are newly tailored to Arlington’s liberal community, said, “My position’s been consistent. There are certain cases where the community needs to weigh in on whether the death penalty is an appropriate sentence.” In Virginia, juries impose sentences as well as decide guilt or innocence, and though judges can reduce a jury sentence, they rarely do.
“The community decides the penalty,” Stamos said. “I think it’s the responsibility of the prosecutor to put the question to the community in the appropriate cases.” She sought death in the case of Cooper, who killed his wife, girlfriend and child, but the jury gave him a life sentence.
So why not bring capital murder charges in every murder case, and let the juries sort them out? “That’s where my 24 years of prosecutorial discretion comes into play,” Stamos said. She said there are cases where the best result is not the death penalty, where it’s not worthwhile to pursue it, and that she is best qualified to decide when that is. She said her experience plays into all levels of cases, not just murders, which are infrequent in Arlington and Falls Church.
Deane also favors starting a drug court in Arlington, with more intensive supervision of drug defendants. Stamos said “you have to work very hard to get incarcerated in Arlington for drug possession,” and that with shrinking judicial resources she would rather press for better use of probation and parole tools.
Deane has an uphill battle. If money matters, he has raised less than $8,000, and had less than $2,200 on hand as of June 30.
Stamos has raised nearly $100,000, and had more than $60,000 on hand as of June 30. Her website notes that the Arlington and Falls Church police officers’ associations endorse her, as do four of the five members of the Arlington County Board, various other elected officials and prosecutors from around the state.
Deane’s website is here.
Stamos’s website is here.