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Fairfax race for prosecutor puts focus on pace of criminal justice reform

Steve T. Descano, left, and Raymond F. Morrogh are preparing for the primary on June 11. (Campaigns of Steve T. Descano and Raymond F. Morrogh)

Political races are usually about striking contrasts, but in the first Democratic primary for prosecutor in Virginia’s largest county in 55 years, both candidates give themselves the same title: progressive.

Fairfax County voters won’t have broad ideological differ­ences to choose from when they consider incumbent Raymond F. Morrogh or challenger Steve T. Descano on June 11, but they will have to answer a question facing many left-leaning jurisdictions in the current era of criminal justice policy.

“In some ways, this race is about the pace of criminal justice reform,” said state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who has endorsed Morrogh.

Morrogh has underscored his 35 years as a prosecutor, saying his long experience has led him to a steady approach that embraces liberal reforms such as drug court and diversion programs while also advocating for victims.

Descano, a former federal prosecutor and Army helicopter pilot, is pushing for more sweeping changes such as dropping cash bail and discontinuing use of the death penalty, saying he better reflects the contemporary values of the county.

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The push-and-pull has produced a lively race that has generated national attention. A political action committee funded by Democratic megadonor George Soros has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Descano’s campaign, part of an effort to elect more liberal prosecutors in Fairfax, Arlington and other counties across the country.

Morrogh, who was first elected commonwealth’s attorney in 2007, has spent nearly all of his career in the prosecutor’s office, where he has won some high-profile cases and avoided major scandal. Morrogh helped secure the convictions of D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, serial killer Alfred Prieto and more recently the MS-13 gang members who killed a 15-year-old girl.

Morrogh said he’s most proud of the cases that didn’t necessarily generate media attention. He pointed to his work on child molestation cases, where he would visit the homes of victims or attend a soccer game to build rapport.

Morrogh also cited helping to establish a drug treatment court, a special docket for veterans and a program that diverts the mentally ill charged with minor crimes from jail as proof of his progressive credentials. Morrogh said his prosecutors don’t ask for cash bonds, but he does support the death penalty in particularly brutal crimes.

“I’m proud that we are the safest jurisdiction of our size in the nation,” Morrogh said. “I’m proud we’ve done it while reducing our jail population to the lowest size in decades. I’m most proud of the work we’ve done to break the school-to-prison pipeline. We have less than 25 kids in the juvenile detention center.”

But his tenure has not been without controversy. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ordered Virginia to hear a claim by a convicted killer who said the government, in a case prosecuted by Morrogh, coerced him into a plea deal by piling up charges against him. Morrogh denies wrongdoing.

Morrogh has also faced criticism in use-of-force cases involving law enforcement. The parents of John Geer, the unarmed Springfield man shot and killed by county police in 2013, blasted Morrogh in 2016 for reaching a deal with the officer to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and serve a 12-month sentence.

Morrogh said he wanted to pursue a murder charge in the case, but he was put in a difficult spot because Geer’s domestic partner and children did not want a trial that would reveal private family information.

Descano has faulted Morrogh on both cases.

Descano served two years in the Army, spending part of his time flying scouting helicopters, before attending law school at Temple University. He graduated in 2010 and joined the Justice Department, where he spent nearly six years serving as a prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, the tax division for criminal enforcement and the consumer protection branch.

Descano said he is particularly proud of the prosecution of a man who was convicted of setting up fake call centers to extort undocumented Spanish speakers. Descano said the victims were afraid he might report them to immigration officials, but he worked to earn their trust.

Descano joined a family business in 2016 that provides autism services to children. He has also served on the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel and as a board member of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

“The criminal justice system and the community are not siloed off,” Descano said. “They are intimately intertwined. . . . Our community values are not reflected in our criminal justice system right now.”

Descano pointed to lack of transparency in the prosecutor’s office, calling it a “black box.” He said he would create data on prosecutions and be more of a public presence, if elected.

He said he would make the local criminal justice system more equitable by dropping marijuana prosecutions, which fall heavily on minorities, and would end cash bail, which he said “penalizes the poor for being poor.” He said he would make diversion programs more robust and the prosecutor’s office more diverse.

Descano’s tenure at Justice included one major reversal. In 2014, he prosecuted a Peruvian immigrant for allegedly filing false tax returns for his contracting business in New York.

A jury found the man guilty, but a judge later granted a new trial saying the testimony of the prosecution’s main witness was not believable and Descano made “baseless” and “fallacious” arguments in his closing.

The government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which affirmed the ruling granting a new trial. The appeals court did not mention the critique of Descano’s closing remarks by the lower court in its written ruling.

Descano defended his handling of the case, saying the absence showed “they didn’t find the argument was improper.”

Morrogh has seized on the case, along with Descano’s lack of experience in state courts, saying it shows that Descano is not ready to be commonwealth’s attorney. He points out that Descano only passed the Virginia bar exam in 2017. “This isn’t a job for on-the-job training,” Morrogh said.

The final two months of the campaign have featured similar sniping. Descano has challenged Morrogh’s Democratic bona fides. He has also attacked Morrogh for signing a legal brief in 2016, opposing a move by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons. Morrogh said he opposed the move because it would allow felons to petition courts to regain firearms rights, but Descano said it showed a lack of sensitivity to bias in the criminal justice system.

“If my opponent can’t see systemic discrimination that’s hitting him in the face, that’s a huge difference between my opponent and I,” Descano said.

Morrogh has taken aim at Soros’s Descano campaign donations, which topped $50,000 at last report.

“I dare say [he] has never set foot in Fairfax County and doesn’t know anything about how well our criminal justice system is functioning,” Morrogh said of Soros.

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