A Virginia judge convicted a Prince William County newspaper reporter tonight of impersonating a law officer last January to gain entry to the maximum security Mecklenburg prison in southern Virginia and interview a prisoner.
The judge dismissed felony charges against William Britton, the former superintendent of the Prince William-Manassas Regional Jail, and Dell Audry, another jail official, who prosecutors alleged had conspired to forge a public document in connection with the reporter's visit to the Mecklenburg prison.
The reporter, Dave Roman, Manassas bureau chief for the daily newspaper Potomac News, was fined $500 for impersonating an officer, a misdemeanor under Virginia law, and given a six-month suspended jail sentence. He said he would appeal.
Judge Robert T. Vaughan of the Mecklenburg County General District Court also dimissed document forgery charges against Roman.
Vaughan said all three people had committed "deplorable" acts but state prosecutors had made a strong case against only Roman. "I think it's a shame that we don't have some law we could prosecute the other two people on" he said.
The charges grew out of Roman's Jan. 4 visit to the Mecklenberg Detention Center to interview death row prisoner John LeVasseur, convicted of the 1982 slaying of a Woodbridge woman.
Roman testified that Britton had invited him to go along on a trip he was making to Mecklenburg, but that on the morning they were supposed to set out, Britton had said he could not go, gave him a badge and told him he was sworn in for one day as a sergeant.
Roman drove to Mecklenburg with Audry. At the gate, he said, he displayed a sergeant's badge and signed in under his own name.
All three people were later arrested. Britton resigned as superintendent of the Prince William-Manassas jail and Audry was suspended from her post as acting chief of inmate services. Roman continued as a reporter at the Potomac News, which declined to finance his defense.
Commonwealth's Attorney Frank Harris argued that the three had conspired to forge a public document--the prison's log. He also argued that Roman had deliberately impersonated a law enforcement officer to improperly gain entrance to the maximum security prison.
During the five-hour court proceedings yesterday, defense attorneys argued that the log did not constitute a public document in the legal sense and that there was no proof the three knew Roman would have to sign in, so could not have conspired to do so.
Vaughan dismissed the forgery charges. Harris, however, said that he would continue his investigation to see if other charges could be developed on which a grand jury could issue an indictment, as Virginia law allows.
Britton and Audry both said they were "relieved" at the judge's decision. Britton said he wanted to continue in prison work but had no plans to seek reinstatement to his old job. Audry said she would try to regain her job.
After two character witnesses, including Prince William County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney William Hamblen, praised Roman, the reporter testified that during the trip he had believed he was doing nothing illegal.
"Britton swore me in as a sergeant for the day and that's what I believed I was," he told the court. After he returned, however, he began to have misgivings and sought legal advice as to whether he had done anything improper.
Judge Vaughan imposed the fine and suspended jail sentence, saying he could not believe Roman did not know that he was improperly impersonating an officer.