A store security guard in Winchester watched Loudoun County Public Defender Lorie O'Donnell try to steal a can of Red Bull last March. She pleaded guilty to trespassing and was fined $500. (Red Bull)

Lorie O’Donnell, the chief public defender in Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties, has pleaded guilty to trespassing after her March arrest in Winchester for allegedly trying to steal a can of Red Bull energy drink. She will remain the public defender, and her supervisor with the Indigent Defense Commission said she was “doing a good job and the office is happy to have her there.”

This means a convicted criminal will now be representing accused criminals in three counties in Northern Virginia, at taxpayer expense.

O’Donnell, 46, did not return a call seeking comment, and she has not made any public explanation for why she allegedly tried to shoplift a can of Red Bull which retailed for $2.59. Virginia taxpayers paid O’Donnell a salary of $126,237 in 2011, state records show.

A Frederick County sheriff’s report in March stated that O’Donnell had been caught stealing from the same store once before, the Martin’s on Gateway Drive, but had not been charged. A store security officer told the sheriff’s office that on March 2 she watched O’Donnell place the can in her cart, then beside her purse, then inside her purse and did not attempt to pay for it as she went through the checkout.

O’Donnell was arrested and charged with shoplifting. The deputy’s report revealed her driver’s license had also been suspended, apparently for multiple traffic tickets. On Dec. 18, with the help of Winchester defense lawyer N. Randolph Bryant, O’Donnell was permitted to plead guilty to an amended charge of trespassing, rather than shoplifting. She was ordered to pay a $500 fine and $84 in court costs. Bryant declined to comment.

The amending of the charge is important, because trespassing is not a crime of “moral turpitude,” as stealing is, and is less likely to cause her any trouble with the state bar or her ability to practice law. Ross P. Spicer, the acting Frederick County commonwealth’s attorney, said, “We negotiate pleas all the time for what we regard as reasonable and justifiable cause.” The plea was actually negotiated by Spicer’s predecessor, Glenn R. Williamson, who retired on Jan. 2.

“There was no reduction in sentencing, just changing the nature of the charge,” Spicer said. “This is not terribly unusual.”

But it could be terribly helpful to O’Donnell. The Virginia State Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct require lawyers to report themselves if they are convicted of any crime involving theft, among other things. Now O’Donnell is not convicted of theft. Another rule says it is “professional misconduct for a lawyer to...commit a criminal or deliberately wrongful act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law.”

Lawyers familiar with the state bar disciplinary process said the bar is not limited to merely the formal conviction, but can look more closely at the actual conduct. If someone reports her.

David Johnson, the executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which oversees public defender offices and the training of appointed defense lawyers, said that “all the circumstances were taken into account” when the case was resolved. “She’s continuing as the public defender and by all accounts she’s doing a good job.”

Johnson declined to say whether any discipline would be taken against O’Donnell, saying it was a personnel matter which could not be discussed publicly. He said she had been a public defender for 20 years. He did not want to discuss why the crime occurred, or the fact that a convicted criminal will now be representing accused criminals.

Spicer, the acting Frederick prosecutor, said that “when people engage in this kind of conduct, there may well be other issues involved in their personal life. If that is the case, I hope she is able to get ahold of these matters and put them behind her.”

Spicer added, “She probably could have paid for the Red Bull.”

The original police report said O’Donnell told the arresting deputy that “she knows what she did is wrong and said that she has a problem and is going to seek professional help.”