(Updated at 11:40 a.m.) No defendant under 18 years old has been tried as an adult in Arlington County since Parisa Dehghani-Tafti became Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2020.
For Arlington’s top prosecutor, this is an important reform. It keeps children in a system designed for guiding them, and holding them accountable while providing rehabilitative services.
But Rose Kehoe, the mother of Braylon Meade, would have wanted to see the 17-year-old who killed her son while driving drunk last November tried as an adult. In a letter to state Sen. Barbara Favola (D) — shared with other elected officials and with ARLnow — she wrote the decision not to charge the teen as an adult in Arlington County Circuit Court is one reason they felt justice was not served and they were not heard.
“Meaningful reform requires nuanced thinking regarding the facts of each individual case and applying the law fairly and appropriately,” Kehoe wrote to Favola, who endorsed Dehghani-Tafti in her reelection campaign. “In the case of Braylon Meade, we have no doubt that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti’s political rigidity on the issue of refusing to charge juveniles as adults is what governed this case.”
“This was a campaign slogan that worked to drive voters to the polls in 2019 but when applied in the real world of running her office, it stripped our voice away from us and denied a meaningful discussion on how to seek justice for Braylon,” Kehoe continued.
She said Dehghani-Tafti categorically rejected trying the offending teen as an adult despite being two months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the offense, “despite the defendant’s history of alcohol and THC abuse, despite him driving 94 miles per hour down Old Dominion Drive, despite him only applying his brakes for one half of one second.”
The teen was sentenced to one year of detention and two years probation, though Dehghani-Tafti sought three years in detention.
In a statement to ARLnow, Dehghani-Tafti empathized with the family but said many conditions have to be met to try a child as an adult, and it is not certain the offending teen would have met those criteria.
“As a mother, I know that the death of a child is life shattering. Braylon’s death is a devastating loss for his family and friends, and I am heartbroken over it,” she said. “I understand why Ms. Kehoe feels the way she does. And I don’t want to say anything that adds to their pain. There is simply no good outcome because the only good outcome would be for Braylon to be home.”
The decision to certify
State code allows juveniles to be transferred to adult court in limited situations and after considering several factors, such as the severity of the crime and if the child has committed other crimes in the past.
Factors that could lead to transfer include if the offense was premeditated and a weapon was used, Dehghani-Tafti said. Factors that may argue against transfer include the mental health of the defendant and the availability of services.
“All this is because we know from both experience and science, kids are different from adults,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “My team and I met with Braylon’s family, listened to them, and carefully considered this case — with the guideposts of justice and the safety of the community — before determining it was not an appropriate case for transfer. We pursued this case with diligence, and asked for the maximum sentence available, three years. After hearing both sides, the court gave 12 months with a period of probation.”
But Kehoe says she walked away from the one meeting her family had with Dehghani-Tafti feeling less considered than the defendant.
“She highlighted that what that young man was going through was also traumatic, and that the mental health and substance abuse issues that he needed to work through were significant,” she said. “This callous focus on another young man’s future was, and remains, profoundly hurtful and insulting… Because of that defendant’s dangerous decisions that night, we have been cruelly robbed of the ability to plan any future with our son.”
When children are kept in the juvenile system, they can be held accountable and rehabilitated with supports and treatment options and given the opportunity to be reintroduced into society when it is appropriate, says Valerie Slater, the executive director of RISE for Youth, a nonprofit that promotes community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.
“At no point do I want to minimize the loss of life,” she said. “I am so very sorry for the loss of life and the family grieving the loss. I mourn with that family.”
“When we look at the young man who caused this horrible loss, what we cannot do is allow the pain of one family to dictate how we treat and hold the other child responsible,” she continued. “The moment we allow our justice system to simply become the arm of vengeance for hurting family we have lost sight of its intent and purpose.”
Her office launched a wrongful conviction review unit, helped establish a program to divert juveniles and young adults from prosecution and partnered with nonprofits to reduce racial disparities in sentencing.
She is up for re-election this fall and faces one challenger, Josh Katcher, for the nomination of the Arlington County Democratic Committee. Hired initially by former top prosecutor Theo Stamos, Dehghani-Tafti kept him on when she took over in 2020 and promoted him to Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. He quit along with several other attorneys who he says were fed up with working conditions within the office.
They have clashed over whether recent reforms give closure to victims of crimes, including last week during a candidate forum hosted by local nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration.
Katcher said he has heard “time and time again” from victims in the community that feel they received poor treatment from the prosecutor’s office.
“They aren’t being talked to before their day in court,” he said. “When they show up in court, the prosecutor doesn’t give them much time, they don’t feel they’re able to give any input on the outcome — as if it’s predetermined.”
Dehghani-Tafti disputed that.
“We make every effort to allow them to essentially guide us in what they want,” she said. “It’s not to co-opt the voices of victims for whatever ‘justice’ is, but it’s to allow their voices to be heard.”
As for charging children as adults, Dehghani-Tafti reiterated her stance against the practice. Katcher seemed to agree with the caveat that some circumstances may warrant it.
“Candidly, I can think of a few examples in which a kid could potentially be certified as an adult,” he said. “By and large, when a kid shows up in the justice system, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court has specifically told us the focus needs to be on rehabilitation and getting them on a trajectory out of the system and I agree with that.”
“One wonders how how he was able to work for a prosecutor for nine years who was extremely supportive of charging children as adults,” Dehghani-Tafti retorted.
In her letter to Favola, Kehoe urged Favola to rescind her endorsement of Dehghani-Tafti. She said the her support contrasts with the joint memorial resolution she helped pass in February honoring Meade’s life.
“I am hopeful that this information will now persuade you to rescind your endorsement of a candidate who only pays lip service to caring for victims with family members who have paid the ultimate price,” she said.
Kehoe’s full letter is below.
Dear Senator Favola:
I’d like to thank you for honoring our late son Braylon Meade via the Virginia Commonwealth Joint Memorial Resolution that was passed in February 2023. That was an incredibly kind and meaningful gesture, and was warmly received by our family and the incredible community that has been supporting us since November 11, 2022. We continue to work through our grief and honor our dear son’s memory every day, and very much appreciate the Joint Memorial Resolution.
That kindness stands in stark contrast to the treatment our family received from the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. She participated in one and only one meeting with us about the killing of our son. During that lone encounter, her focus was entirely on the well-being and future of the defendant. She emphasized how the defendant’s brain was not yet fully formed, making accountability elusive. She highlighted that what that young man was going through was also traumatic, and that the mental health and substance abuse issues that he needed to work through were significant. This callous focus on another young man’s future was, and remains, profoundly hurtful and insulting.
The line attorneys prosecuting the case informed us that the evidence supported charging the defendant with aggravated involuntary manslaughter, an elevated felony from involuntary manslaughter. During the only meeting with Ms. Dehghani-Tafti, we expressed our view that the defendant’s egregious conduct, combined with his age at the time of the crime, warranted trying him as an adult on that elevated felony. It was immediately clear that this was never going to be an option. Our requests and perspectives were immediately dismissed without any consideration, let alone thoughtful conversation. Out of hand, she rejected the proposition of ever trying a juvenile as an adult, regardless of the nature of the offense and regardless of how close to adulthood – in this case, two months shy of his 18th birthday – the juvenile was at the time of the offense. Her position was categorical, not based on the individual facts of our case.
As the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has repeatedly claimed that focusing on victims is a governing priority. Our experience with her could not have been further from the truth. The manner in which she conducted herself when meeting with our family combined with her directives to her line prosecutors handling the case infused the certainty of our belief that, from the very beginning, her only concern was not about justice for Braylon, but about ensuring a positive and productive future for the defendant.
Because of that defendant’s dangerous decisions that night, we have been cruelly robbed of the ability to plan any future with our son. The final insult adding to the accumulated injury was that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti did not even attend the final sentencing hearing. She did not sit in the courtroom to hear Judge Michael Chick sentence the defendant to only one year in the detention facility, despite the defendant’s history of alcohol and THC abuse, despite him driving 94 miles per hour down Old Dominion Drive, despite him only applying his brakes for one half of one second, and who lied to the police after the devastating crash. She did not have to hear our family give our victim impact statements about our grief that continues to come in waves and will for the rest of our lives. That she could not be moved to appear in the courtroom to oversee the resolution of the criminal case involving the death of a child in her community speaks volumes.
Today, I ask you to withdraw your support for Ms. Dehghani-Tafti in the upcoming election for Commonwealth’s Attorney. I am a dedicated, liberal Democrat in Arlington who believes in the need for reform in our criminal justice system. Meaningful reform requires nuanced thinking regarding the facts of each individual case and applying the law fairly and appropriately. In the case of Braylon Meade, we have no doubt that Ms. Dehganti-Tafti’s political rigidity on the issue of refusing to charge juveniles as adults is what governed this case. This was a campaign slogan that worked to drive voters to the polls in 2019 but when applied in the real world of running her office, it stripped our voice away from us and denied a meaningful discussion on how to seek justice for Braylon.
During this process, the Arlington County Police Department and Investigation team treated us with empathy and the utmost respect. The line attorneys who handled the case and the victim advocates were kind, well-meaning, and giving of their time. These amazing public servants need appropriate leadership from the Commonwealth’s Attorney to carry out the legal obligations of the office. As we went through this process, it was abundantly clear to our family that such leadership is solely lacking.
I understand that endorsements are made based on the information available. I am hopeful that this information will now persuade you to rescind your endorsement of a candidate who only pays lip service to caring for victims with family members who have paid the ultimate price. I appreciate having the opportunity to write to you and share my experience.
Rose M. Kehoe
Mother of Braylon Meade
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