County Judges on Rise at Circuit, Appeals Courts

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. jokes that he chose a career in law rather than medicine after dissecting a frog in 10th-grade biology class.

Decades later, that Dale City native is poised to become Prince William County Circuit Court's chief judge, replacing Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., who was recently named to the Virginia Court of Appeals. Alston said he's looking forward to the position.

"I'm pleased that my colleagues think I am worthy of serving in this capacity, and I hope to do a good job and live up to the legacy of the other 15 chiefs that proceeded me," he said.

Alston, 50, became a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge in 1998 and was appointed to the circuit court in 2001. In those years, he has presided over several high-profile cases, including the trial of Kevin Kelly, who left his 21-month-old daughter in the family's sweltering van, where she died. In that case, the jury recommended Kelly spend a year in jail, but Alston handed down a unique sentence, ordering Kelly to spend one day in jail for the next seven years and run an annual blood drive in his daughter's name.

"That was a difficult case for me on many levels," Alston said this week. "It was compelling from the jurisprudence standpoint. But it was more compelling from a human standpoint."

In that case, Alston said, he did what he has done in many other cases: prayed.

"I'm not ashamed to say it," Alston said. "There is not a day that goes by that I don't say a prayer about some case I'm doing."

When Alston recently sentenced Donald A. Brew for a murder committed 38 years ago, he told the defendant, "Any judgment I may render today is a distant second to the judgment that God will ultimately have for you. . . . I can't imagine the tortured spirit that must haunt your existence every day of your life."

Brew, 62, confessed to the murder and described how before the victim, Patricia Adams, was shot, she asked him for a few minutes to pray. Alston described it as one of his "most emotional cases."

Alston is scheduled to issue a sentence early next year in the capital murder case of Joshua W. Andrews, who killed two men during a 2002 shooting rampage that stretched from Northern Virginia to New York City. The jury recommended a death sentence. Alston must decide between that or life in prison for the 25-year-old.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) named Millette to an eight-year term Monday, and if he is confirmed by the Virginia General Assembly, he will be the first lawyer from Prince William to serve on the state's second highest court. The court of appeals handles most criminal appeals from circuit courts before they go to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Millette has been a circuit court judge since 1993 and before that was a district court judge. He has spent 17 years as a judge, 12 years as a defense lawyer and four years as a prosecutor. Officials said his handling of the 2003 trial of Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad was key to his appointment.

"I'm excited," Millette said this week about the appointment. "I think it's going to be interesting work."

Alston described the appointment as a "proud moment for Prince William County."

"He's going to serve the court of appeals well," he said of Millette, noting that a loss will be felt locally. "Judge Millette has been part of the fabric of the system around here for 30 years and it's hard to replace Lee Millette."

Alston said that many circuit court decisions are made by consensus and that he plans to continue that approach.

"If it's not broke, don't fix it," he said.

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