Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr., 62, who presided over some of the jurisdiction's most headline-grabbing trials in his 31 years on the bench, is retiring this summer. Although he announced his retirement in November, his replacement, General District Court Judge Lon E. Farris, 54, was named only recently.
Farris will join four other judges on the Circuit Court bench: Chief Judge William D. Hamblen, Richard B. Potter, LeRoy F. Millette and Rossie D. Alston Jr.
Since the early 1990s, Whisenant has overseen trials involving grisly, often jolting crimes, including the notorious case of Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who sliced off her husband's penis and was found not guilty by reason of insanity, as well as the capital murder trial of Justin Michael Wolfe, a 21-year-old drug kingpin whom Whisenant sentenced to death in 2002 for hiring a friend to assassinate his marijuana supplier.
The latter case was controversial because it is rare in Virginia for a defendant who hires someone to commit a murder to receive the death penalty. Whisenant said he followed the jurors' recommendation because "I feel you're just imposing your own personal feelings when you go contrary to a jury recommendation."
Some trials attracted worldwide attention, but the native Alabaman and son of a schoolteacher and steel pipe inspector said he did not feel the need to boost his profile outside the Manassas courthouse.
"I'm not that type of person. I feel like I am paid to do the job as a judge, and that's where I should stay," he said.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard A. Conway, who successfully prosecuted a "cold case" murderer before Whisenant a few years ago, said the veteran judge is well known for his strait-laced demeanor and diligent preparation.
"He's a no-nonsense judge. He expects attorneys to be present and be prepared, and if there's evidence to convict, he does not coddle criminals," Conway said.
Whisenant, who will serve as a substitute judge about eight days a month, said he wanted to have more free time and to move to Fauquier County, where two of his children live.
Farris, who has served as a General District Court judge since 1991, said he wants to serve as a Circuit Court judge because he wants the chance to preside over complex felony trials involving juries.
"It'll be more intellectually stimulating," he said. Working with juries, he said, means "you get a good sense of what the community feels about an issue."
Farris, who graduated from a Christian college in Illinois called Olivet Nazarene University and Capital University Law School in Ohio, ended up in Manassas in the early 1980s to be close to his parents who had moved here. He became a partner in Smith, Farris, & Hudson (now called Smith, Hudson, & Carluzzo) before becoming General District Court Judge in 1991.
"I loved practicing and could have been very happy" doing that forever, he said. "I saw [being a judge] as a new challenge. It's just different. I don't know if I like one better than the other."
Farris will be replaced on the General District Court bench by lawyer Craig Johnston, who received the endorsement by the county bar association. Johnston will join three other judges in General District Court: Peter Steketee, Wenda Travers and Charles Sievers.