A hand-lettered sign nailed to a tree on a highway lined with cider and apple stands reads: "David L. Konick for Commonwealth's Attorney--A Man You Can Talk To."
In the country stores and one-room post offices of hilly Rappahannock County, about 75 miles west of the District, Konick suddenly has become a man you can talk about, too.
Court records unsealed last weekend at the close of the murder trial of Diane E. Kidwell, who was acquitted in the shooting death of her neighbor's farm foreman, contained a startling revelation: Konick, Kidwell's 30-year-old former lawyer, wiped fingerprints from the shotgun used by Kidwell before he gave it to Virginia state police two hours after the incident.
"I just freaked out, to put it bluntly," Konick said in a telephone interview today. "I made one pass up the barrel with a dish rag. That's what Paul Drake and Perry Mason always did."
Kidwell acknowledged she pulled the trigger but claimed she shot Rance L. Spellman in self-defense and her case has been laid to rest.
Konick, with 10 days left in his campaign to become Rappahannock's chief law enforcement officer, may be less successful. His self-described wiping of the gun barrel, plus allegations--hotly denied by Konick--that he lied about his actions to then-prosecutor Douglas Baumgardner, have many in this Blue Ridge farm community wondering if Konick's candidacy can survive such a crippling blow.
The controversy has been fueled, too, by a Baumgardner memo in the now-unsealed records quoting Konick as telling the prosecutor he would "go down swinging" and "spill his guts out" if he were prosecuted for his deeds--statements Konick said today were taken out of context.
Nevertheless, the incident has helped put Rappahannock, proud of its reputation as a private, secluded hideaway from the crime and pressures of big-city Washington, on the Northern Virginia political map for races to watch this fall.
Konick, who was out today in brilliant fall sunshine shaking voters' hands at a Rappahannock Hunt reception, was not charged in the fingerprint episode--in part, it appears, because Kidwell admitted firing the fatal blast. The results of a Virginia Bar investigation of Konick's conduct are confidential.
"There's no question that I made a mistake . . .," said Konick in a lengthy statement last week to The Rappahannock News, which filled the top half of its front page with accounts of the Kidwell trial and its Konick fallout.
"In some people's minds this incident raises questions about my honesty and integrity. Honesty and integrity do not prevent a person from ever making mistakes. The question is what you do after you make a mistake."
Konick's opponent for the $20,000-a-year prosecutor's job, lawyer Peter H. Luke, 36, agrees. "Most people show more sympathy if you make a mistake and say 'I'm sorry,'" said Luke. "It's another thing to stonewall, to keep quiet about it, to lie about it."
Konick strongly denies allegations by Kidwell's two trial attorneys that he failed to tell prosecutor Baumgardner about wiping down the shotgun and later admitted doing so only at the insistence of the two defense lawyers. "Not true," Konick said today. "Absolutely not true."
The shooting occurred early last Nov. 9, after Spellman began bulldozing a disputed right-of-way across the Kidwells' property in a scenic Rappahannock valley. Konick, the Kidwells' lawyer, rushed to the scene and, apparently before state police thought of it, picked up the shotgun that had fired the fatal blast.
"I picked it up to see if it was loaded," Konick said today. "Mr. Kidwell Diane Kidwell's husband, Roger had loaded the gun. It was his gun. Mr. Kidwell's fingerprints were on the gun. He handled it last after the shooting."
Konick said he feared that his own handling of the weapon might have obliterated Diane Kidwell's fingerprints, but not her husband's--that police might "charge an innocent man."
Konick said he "freaked out" and impulsively wiped the barrel--although not the trigger or stock--with the dish rag. He said a state trooper also handled the weapon using a cloth.
Since last week's disclosures, Konick has pleaded for sympathy and understanding from local voters. "The Bible says, 'Be not righteous overmuch . . . There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not,' " Konick was quoted as telling the Rappahannock News.
"I'm just a human being, man," he added in an interview today. "People out here are human beings."