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These people say they’ve been helped, or hurt, by candidates for Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and her challenger, Josh Katcher (photo illustration by ARLnow)

A Cambodian-American college student partied too hard one night and lived in fear of deportation for decades.

A man whose right to a fair trial was trampled on because, an Arlington County Circuit Court judge said, prosecutors withheld evidence that would have helped his case.

The race to determine the next Democrat-backed Commonwealth’s Attorney has unearthed stories of people whose lives have been impacted by the candidates. They are incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who recently picked up an endorsement from the Arlington teachers union, and challenger Josh Katcher, who nabbed the support of the Arlington police union.

These stories, identified and amplified by the respective political campaigns, reveal the power of the office to determine the course of someone’s life based on the judgment calls they make.

The Cambodian-American woman who got bad legal advice

Rebelling against her sheltered childhood, Cambodian refugee Lundy Khoy went out partying one night in Ballston in 2000 and was arrested for drug possession.

She agreed to plead guilty because her lawyer said she had no defense and no alternative, and he said doing so would not impact her goal of becoming a U.S. citizen. She got off with probation but the plea led to her arrest in 2003 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Until two years ago, Khoy — who was born in a Thai refugee camp — lived in fear of deportation to Cambodia, a country in which she had never lived. The 42-year-old woman became a citizen last year after her case was resolved, for which she thanks Dehghani-Tafti.

“She literally saved my life and my family’s life,” she said. “For the longest time, we were living in this constant fear of me being separated from my child and husband. It wasn’t something that I ever wanted to have happen.”

Her lawyers asked the court to withdraw the guilty plea because Khoy relied on incorrect information. They argued the court should be consistent, pointing to when the court revoked a guilty plea made after the same lawyer provided the same advice to another immigrant defendant.

“I’d like to think we still could’ve won but having us present a united front to the court made it that much easier for the court to say, ‘We’re going to grant this,'” said Sterling Marchand, Khoy’s new lawyer.

But it was Dehghani-Tafti’s judgment call in a different case that created fuel for Katcher’s campaign.

A slighted mother grieving the death of her son 

Braylon Meade was killed by a young man who was driving 95 mph, with weed and some alcohol in his system.

Just shy of his 18th birthday, the defendant was tried as a juvenile. Meade’s mother, Rose Kehoe, denounced this move two months ago and, more recently, in a new ad supporting Katcher. In it, she says Dehghani-Tafti dwelt longer on the future of the young man who killed her son than on justice for the family.

“It was probably the most traumatic time in our lives. We were exceedingly vulnerable. The current incumbent in the Commonwealth’s Attorney office, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, did not focus on victims at all. She didn’t offer the support, the attention, the respect that we deserve. She didn’t even listen to us.”

At the time, Dehghani-Tafti said she understood Kehoe’s feelings but did not want to weigh in and cause more hurt.

“There is simply no good outcome because the only good outcome would be for Braylon to be home,” she said.

An abuse victim charged with abuse

Khoy is not the only woman to feel the weight of her immigration status when she landed in court.

Anna — ARLnow is using a pseudonym because of the sensitive nature of her situation — was arrested for assault and battery of a family member after police were dispatched on a March evening in 2019 to “a dispute between known individuals,” Arlington County Police Department confirmed to ARLnow.

More information about what happened was withheld due to state law.

Former Arlington public defense attorney Lauren Brice says she expected the case to be dropped because Anna had photos of injuries she said came from her husband. These photos were shared with Katcher, the prosecutor assigned to this case.

“In my experience, when a prosecutor is presented with evidence like this showing that the person charged is actually the victim, they will drop the case, so I figured that would happen here,” said Brice. “But Josh Katcher refused. When we showed him all of the evidence, he simply shrugged and said, ‘I can prove my case’ and then continued to prosecute her.”

In a rebuttal, Katcher gave the following statement to ARLnow, after we provided him with a court record that redacted the woman’s name, case number and the exact offense date.

As a prosecutor, I take my responsibility to victims of domestic violence seriously, and to thoroughly evaluate and assess claims of self-defense. These cases are some of the most potentially dangerous situations and ensuring the safety and security of any party involved is my first priority. Without being provided access to the police report or even the names of either party to refresh my memory, I can’t speak to these specific facts. But I can tell you that the very first thing that I would have done in this matter is carefully review all of the evidence.

Anna pled “no contest” to a lower charge of disorderly conduct and the charge was dismissed after she completed probation, per court records. When immigration is a concern, local attorneys confirmed prosecutors may amend a charge to disorderly conduct to protect the defendant from deportation.

She says the arrest and the charge, which remain on her record, “can be used whenever my husband wants to take my children away.”

“If I would have known what I know now, that this can influence my custody case, I might have decided to go to trial,” she said. “When you’re in the middle of it, it’s difficult to decide for yourself.”

Anna has yet to seek expungement for the arrest and Brice says it is unclear whether Anna is eligible but that Dehghani-Tafti’s office has not objected to expungements in cases like this one.

A judge decries case mismanagement

Another defendant, Darnelius Dawayne Johnson, faced gun charges that were later blasted by Hon. Daniel Fiore.

The judge wrote that Dehghani-Tafti’s office did not comply with “clear, unequivocal mandate to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence” by providing some of this evidence on the eve of a trial, rather than earlier.

“The government’s failures have resulted in numerous delays to Johnson having his day in court,” Fiore wrote.

In a statement to ARLnow, Dehghani-Tafti said an attorney made a mistake and failed to obtain a document from the police.

“As a result, it was not turned over to the defense as early as it should have been. As soon as this was discovered, we immediately turned it over and admitted our mistake,” she said, adding that this information was still provided before the trial.

“That is why the judge did not dismiss the case, and we were ultimately able to obtain multiple felony convictions,” she said.

“As a former Innocence Project attorney, I take this sort of problem very seriously,” she continued. “After I learned of this incident, I put in place additional trainings, including one that I conduct myself. We have also put in place additional processes to prevent this from happening again.”

The Democratic primary for Commonwealth’s Attorney and other elected offices in Arlington will take place June 20.

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