Arlington, VA

Tebebe Makonnen, charged with murder after a woman’s death at the Embassy Suites in Crystal City, avoided a lengthy jail sentence on a previous charge thanks to a plea deal earlier this year.

The victim, who fell from an upper floor of the hotel onto the interior lobby restaurant below around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, was identified as Makonnen’s mother, multiple news outlets reported. According to WUSA 9, Makonnen and his mother, 63-year-old Zelalem Abedje, were living in the hotel.

Makonnen was arraigned Wednesday morning before Judge George Varoutsos in the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court, prosecutors say. He’s due back in court for a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

In January, Makonnen struck a plea deal with prosecutors in connection to an incident last year, in which he was accused of inappropriately touching an employee at Virginia Hospital Center’s Behavioral Health Unit. The original charge of sexual battery was downgraded to disorderly conduct, and a Circuit Court judge agreed to a recommended 12-month jail sentence, with the entire sentence suspended — making Makonnen a free man, on the condition of treatment for mental health issues.

“The Commonwealth felt it was important that mental health treatment be a component of any disposition in the Circuit Court,” outgoing Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos told ARLnow.

Stamos continued:

Our office agreed to amend the sexual battery to disorderly conduct (also a Class 1 misdemeanor) with an agreed recommendation of 12 months in jail, all suspended for one year, with the added conditions that the defendant remain compliant with his mental health treatment under the supervision of [Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services] as well as refrain from any contact with the victim. Judge Louise DiMatteo ordered the defendant to return to court on January 10, 2020 to review his compliance. Defense counsel made a strong argument that the amendment to disorderly conduct would allow the defendant to avail himself of a broader range of treatment options as programs often don’t allow individuals with sex-related convictions in their programs.

However, in a video posted in March 2018 (below), two months before the Virginia Hospital Center incident, Makonnen talks into a camera and argues that antipsychotic medication has ruined his life.

Makonnen says in the video that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar, but asserts that he was not experiencing any symptoms. He says forced hospitalization is “ridiculous,” the medication he was given “would make me a zombie,” and forced medication is an “injustice.”

Arlington County Police are aware of the video, spokeswoman Ashley Savage told ARLnow yesterday.

Stamos and Savage declined to comment further on the pending murder charge. In addition to murder, Arlington Circuit Court records indicate Makonnen is also being charged with disobeying a court order.

Photo via Google Maps

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(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Courts in Arlington County will no longer legally declare people drunks and arrest them for drinking alcohol after a federal court ruled the old law unconstitutional.

A full panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law called “interdiction” which allows counties to label people “habitual drunkards” and prosecute them for having or drinking alcohol. The judges ruled 8-7 last week that the law left the meaning of habitual drunkards “unconstitutionally vague” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“We hope that this means that our clients can have the debilitating label ‘habitual drunkard’ lifted from them and they can move through their lives without constant fear of prosecution,” said Elaine Poon, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center which has helped lead a class-action fight in court to overturn the law for the last three years.

Prosecutors in Arlington this week dismissed seven active cases brought under the nullified law, and police have suspended enforcement — though laws against public drunkenness and other alcohol-related crimes remain on the books.

“In accordance with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Arlington County Police Department has suspended enforcement of the Virginia Code sections related to alcohol interdiction,” said ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “No arrests or charges will be sought in relation to those code sections.”

Brad Haywood, Arlington’s Chief Public Defender, said attorneys in his office were notified about the change Thursday morning when they showed up to court, and his office was “ecstatic” to hear the news last week.

“This has been an issue that defense attorneys and social workers have been fighting for decades,” he said. “Since the first day I’ve worked a public defender 15 years ago there were concerted efforts to overturn this law.”

Case Dismissed 

The case, Manning v. Caldwell, is named after Roanoke man Bryan Manning. A judge declared Manning a “drunkard” nine years ago under the interdiction statute without Manning present because the man, who is homeless and had struggled with alcohol addiction for several years, can be difficult to find. Over the next eight years, Manning racked up over 30 charges related to possessing alcohol or being suspected of drinking it, and the frequent arrests often cost him jobs and led to him losing his possessions.

Manning isn’t the only one: in Arlington, one interdicted man has been charged 37 times, per data the prosecutor’s office shared with ARLnow.

The same data shows 12 people have been interdicted in Arlington since 2015, and in total there are 50 interdicted in the county — with each person averaging 19 prosecutions. Between 1996 and 2015, there were 1,220 people legally declared drunks across Virginia, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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The following op-ed was written by Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Democratic nominee for Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney. As the presumed victor in the unchallenged November election, which followed a heated primary campaign, Dehghani-Tafti will be the area’s chief prosecutor amid questions about how the prosecutor’s office will change under her leadership.

Moments after 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 11, while standing on a sidewalk on Clarendon Boulevard near Courthouse, I received a phone call from my friend and deputy campaign manager excitedly telling me that the voters of Arlington County and the City of Falls Church had selected me as the Democratic nominee for Commonwealth’s Attorney. In that moment, with the sounds of supporters cheering in the near distance and the sight of young people milling about on a warm spring evening, I was reminded, as I knew from the very start of the campaign, that it would soon be my charge, together with other branches of law enforcement, to help maintain the safety, welfare, and wellbeing of nearly 250,000 people.

The campaign had been long and hard-fought, but in our very first debate, I was asked to name one thing I admired about Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos. I honestly answered that I found it admirable Ms. Stamos had chosen public service when she could have long ago leveraged her skills into more lucrative private sector work. Had I had another moment for thought, I would have added what I also believe to be true: she persevered in a field that had long been dominated by men and, in doing so, opened a path for other women, myself included.

The campaign, of course, is not over. As I prepare for the November general election, I will be guided by three principles. First, I want to keep faith with members of the community who supported, volunteered, and voted for me, and earn the trust of those who did not. Elections come and go, but what endures is community. Second, I want to approach the work ahead with both an open mind and moral courage. I fundamentally believe that the choice between safety and justice has always been a false one; at the same time, I have the utmost respect for the institutional knowledge and professional expertise that resides in the current office. Last but not least, I want to keep foremost in my mind that what’s needed for the office is both integrity and humility. Our delegates, senators, county board, and school board members have deep and intimate knowledge of the needs in our community; I see as one of my main tasks to be an honest partner with them, to listen to their expertise, and take heed of their priorities — because I know the criminal justice system cannot and should not be the tool to solve every problem.

Late Tuesday evening, after all the well-wishers had gone and I’d returned home to my family, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning, making two lists: one, of the people I needed to personally thank for making this moment possible; the other, of the immediate tasks I needed to accomplish to plan for the office. Both lists grew incredibly long but each list, in different ways, made it clear to me that at this moment we have a chance in Arlington and the City of Falls Church to show the Commonwealth and the country what it means to have a criminal justice system that is safe and transparent, truly cares for victims, treats everyone fairly and humanely, and honestly addresses systemic disparities in race and class. “The world stands before you,” James Baldwin once wrote, “and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” I’m eager for the work ahead.

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(Updated at 4 p.m.) Last night, commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti defeated incumbent prosecutor Theo Stamos in a surprise victory that shocked many in the the county, and left some wondering about the future.

One person who wasn’t shocked was political strategist Ben Tribbett — also known as @notlarrysabato — of the Fairfax-based campaign consulting firm TRR Group.

“I think Parisa basically brought two very large groups together,” he told ARLnow today. “One are people newer to the county who really care about criminal justice reforms. The second was a coalition of people mad about internal Arlington politics.”

Tribbett said the first group is important because, “transient voters tend to get their info from national outlets.” He said the Washington Post’s endorsement of Tafti and the The Appeal’s critical look at Stamos’ handling of some juvenile cases could have helped sway those voters. The campaign even attracted an endorsement from multi-talented star John Legend.

A map of yesterday’s voting shows the densest support for Tafti was located along the county’s more dense and Metro-accessible areas — places where young transient voters often live. Tribbett pointed out state Senate candidate Nicole Merlene, who lost her race against incumbent Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), performed well in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor but struggled in the leafier, single-family-home neighborhoods to the north.

Tribbett said Tafti’s other supporters, long-time residents fed up with Arlington politics, are part of the fallout from the election of John Vihstadt, who won the race for County Board in 2014 as an independent. Progressives are continuing a “decade-long war” against Democratic candidates like Stamos who supported Vihstadt over a fellow Democrat, Tribbett said, and could target County Board member Libby Garvey in the future.

But he said infighting costs the party influence at the state level, which comes at a time when Democrats across Virginia are striving to flip Richmond blue.

“What should have been a temporary rift has become a permanent rift,” Tribbett said. “It’s not good for the Democratic Party.”

Another perspective on the race comes from Paul Ferguson, current Clerk of the Circuit Court and former Arlington County Board member, who spoke to ARLnow in his personal capacity on Tuesday afternoon before polls closed.

Ferguson said Tafti has six months to settle in and choose which (if any) of Stamos’ assistant prosecutors she plans to keep on staff. (Stamos said last night she hopes her challenger will retain at least some of them.) Tafti will then be able to roll out policy changes, like her pledge to not prosecute low-level pot convictions, but Ferguson said it’s difficult to anticipate the impact because her victory is unprecedented.

“It’s reasonable to say in modern history, the last 40-50 years, the new prosecutor has always come from within the office, leaving very little policy transition,” he said. Nonetheless, he thinks it’s likely that there could be fewer misdemeanor cases cases in District Court, and perhaps fewer cases in Circuit Court, as a result of her changes.

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Throughout her Democratic primary campaign for commonwealth’s attorney, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti pledged to stop the prosecution of simple marijuana possession cases.

Now that she has defeated incumbent Theo Stamos, Tafti is likely to have the opportunity to keep her campaign promise while in the prosecutor’s office.

More from the candidate’s website:

Between 2013 and 2018, the current Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office prosecuted over 3200 cases of simple marijuana possession. African-Americans are at least 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that studies show that different racial groups use marijuana at about the same rates. Marijuana should be the subject of civil regulation, but we should put our limited prosecutorial resources to better use focusing on serious crimes. Parisa will not prosecute simple possession of marijuana and support decriminalization and legalization, with appropriate government regulation.

The Arlington Green Party supports that stance, penning an open letter just before primary day calling for Stamos to “stop prosecuting people caught with small amounts of marijuana in Arlington.”

“Arlington police and prosecutors should concentrate on crimes of violence and significant felonies, and not waste our public dollars jailing and prosecuting mostly youth caught with a marijuana cigarette,” the party said in an email.

What do you think?

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(Updated at 10:25 p.m.) The top prosecutor in Arlington and Falls Church has lost her bid for re-election.

In the most closely watched local race in today’s Democratic primary, incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos has been defeated by challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who ran a campaign centered on criminal justice reform. Tafti has 52% of the vote compared to 48% for Stamos, with all 59 precincts in Arlington and Falls Church reporting, though the results are unofficial until certified.

The total unofficial margin of victory was 1,128 votes.

“I knew it could happen!” one supporter shouted at Tafti’s victory party at Fire Works Pizza in Courthouse as the final votes were tallied.

“Change can come here to Arlington,” said a campaign volunteer, Arlington resident Symone Walker, who said she’s mailed postcards and held meet and greets for Tafti because of her belief the challenger could reform the county’s justice system.

Tafti herself was breathless and wide-eyed as she passed through the group and gave hugs to her supporters. When Stamos called to concede around 8:15 p.m., Tafti thanked her and offered to meet with the incumbent later this week.

In a speech a few minutes before 9 p.m., Tafti thanked a crowd of her supporters, saying “it would have been easy for you to be silent.”

“I feel humbled and grateful and excited but with no illusions about the work ahead,” she told ARLnow afterward.

“I always thought she could win and should win, but it’s never an easy battle against an incumbent,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin, who supported Tafti’s campaign and stood next to her as she addressed the crowd.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe cheered during the event, later telling ARLnow that he supported Tafti’s campaign because he was “looking for new leadership” after Stamos opposed his legislation to restore voting rights to felons in 2017.

“I think a lot of people wondered why I did it,” he said of wading into a local prosecutor race. “But it was the right thing to do.”

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Voting is still underway in Arlington and a competitive commonwealth’s attorney race may drive higher-than-normal turnout.

As of 1 p.m. the Arlington elections office reported an estimated 10 percent turnout. That points to what may be upwards of 15 percent turnout by the time polls close at 7 p.m., according to Arlington County Registrar Linda Lindberg.

“It’s been a slow day” in Crystal City, Columbia Pike, Fairlington and other south Arlington neighborhoods, Lindberg said, “but we’re doing some pretty brisk business up in the northwest,” where commonwealth’s attorney candidates Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Theo Stamos live.

Fifteen percent turnout may be low compared to a presidential election year, but it would be 50 percent higher than the last equivalent election cycle. In 2011, with multiple candidates running in the Democratic primary for commonwealth’s attorney, the 31st state Senate district and the 49th House of Delegates district — just like this year — 10 percent of voters cast ballots, Lindberg recounted.

Following a broader trend of higher absentee voting, in the 2011 primary some 1,500 voters cast absentee ballots, while this year more than 2,000 have cast in-person absentee ballots alone; mailed absentee ballots have not yet been counted for today’s primary.

No problems have been reported at the polls so far, and Lindberg noted that one thing is going particularly well this year: new electronic poll books — tablet computers with ID scanners, used to check voters in at polling stations — are in use in Arlington for the first time and so far have been working flawlessly.

“We’re very pleased,” said Lindberg, Arlington’s long-time election chief who is retiring this summer.

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Morning Notes

Polls Open for Democratic Primary — All Arlington voters can vote in today’s Democratic primary. Polls are open from 6 a.m.-7 p.m. You can find your polling place and other information on the state elections website. [Twitter]

Politico Profiles Prosecutor Primary — “One sign that this era of agitated civic life is not merely a reflection of Donald Trump or Twitter is that the agitation has penetrated, of all places, into Arlington County, Virginia. In normal times, Arlington politics are polite and consensus-driven, almost proudly dull.” [Politico]

Clarendon Street Closed for Construction — “Through mid-August: North Edgewood Street closed between Clarendon and Wilson boulevards due to construction. Absolutely no impact on Whole Foods organic produce or imported cheese selection.” [Twitter]

Trade Group Moving to Ballston — “The Infectious Diseases Society of America announced today that it will be relocating its headquarters to 4040 Wilson Boulevard in the Ballston Quarter area of Arlington, Va., a hub of advanced research learning, technology and science in the Washington, D.C. metro area.  The Society has been at its current location at 1300 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington since 2006.” [PR Newswire]

How Glass Is Being Recycled — “Ever wonder where your glass goes? If you properly recycle it in Northern Virginia these days, it gets crushed into sand and turned into construction material… ABC7 recently took a trip to Fairfax County’s I-95 landfill in Lorton, where we found a glass graveyard and a big blue machine.” [WJLA]

Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick

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Last week, we asked the two Democratic candidates in the Commonwealth’s Attorney race to write a sub-750 word essay on why the county’s residents should vote for them in the June 11 primary.

Here is the unedited response from Theo Stamos:

By now, you know the issues in this election. Rather than rehash them, it is important for you to know who I am, my leadership in the legal community, why Arlington is so important to me, and why I deserve your vote for Commonwealth’s Attorney.

I am from the South Side of Chicago. After graduating from Northern Illinois University, I moved here to work in the Senate for a Democrat from Illinois, then worked full-time as a reporter while attending night school at American University Law School. In 1987, I started as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and have been proud to work for this community for over 30 years.

Soon after I started, I saw firsthand how Offender Aid and Restoration works closely with the courts, the jail, defense attorneys, prosecutors and the community to help offenders lead productive, responsible lives. I joined the Board to be a part of this important, collaborative work. Through OAR, I got involved with Encore Learning, becoming a member of its Advisory Council and a lecturer on criminal justice issues. Even back then, I was talking about criminal justice reform, educating our citizens on what our system looks like and how it can be improved. I am also a proud graduate of Leadership Arlington, cementing my firm belief that true leadership includes learning from those around you. My roots in this work are deep because I started so many years ago, forging relationships both within our legal system and the wider community.

The strength of these relationships is what fosters meaningful improvements of the criminal justice system.  Lasting change is done deliberatively, thoughtfully and most importantly, collaboratively. That’s why I am a member of the Steering Committee of Virginia’s Criminal Justice Conference, a statewide organization that brings together prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, legislators, and academics. We bring everyone to the table to work towards our common goal – a system that is fair and equitable for everyone. I helped create the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys Committee on Justice and Professionalism. Finally, I was honored to be inducted into the Virginia Law Foundation. That award only goes to attorneys who are leaders in both the legal profession and their communities who are “committed to the highest ideals of the law.”

My work is not only at both the local and state levels, but also on the national level. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, focusing on improving criminal justice and on developing best practices in prosecution.

Legal ethics and professionalism are the cornerstone of our work. As a member of the Virginia State Bar’s professionalism faculty, I have taught young lawyers–and reminded old ones–that our most important assets are our credibility and our integrity. Two principles that should always guide us, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, are do the right thing, and always tell the truth.

While I worked in the office, I was raising my two boys with my husband, Craig. I had a bird’s eye view of the myriad ways lives can go off track with one poor decision. That motivated me to work with parents and young people to help them try to avoid dangers like substance abuse, and drunk driving. I became the Chair of the Family Network at both Swanson Middle School and Yorktown High School, providing a forum for these conversations. I convened a Town Hall to foster a dialogue between parents and our schools about the opioid crisis.

I am a proud Democrat and have been active in Democratic politics here for decades, knocking doors for other candidates, stuffing envelopes for Dollars for Democrats, and delivering the Messenger. I have always voted in general elections, Democratic primaries, and Democratic School Board caucuses.

My campaign is a grass roots campaign, run and funded here. I have spent many years earning the trust of our citizens through old fashioned hard work and heart. I love this community. I have worked to improve the criminal justice system so that it works for everyone – victims and defendants. I’ve lived my personal and professional life guided by principles of service to others, integrity, fairness, and equity.

This election is about Arlington, not any other community. No doubt that we have challenges and can do better. We are a criminal justice success story with much to be proud of, but with more work to do. I have the experience, the relationships and the integrity to continue that work. I ask for your vote on Election Day.

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Last week, we asked the two Democratic candidates in the Commonwealth’s Attorney race to write a sub-750 word essay on why the county’s residents should vote for them in the June 11 primary.

Here is the unedited response from Parisa Dehghani-Tafti:

My family and I are blessed to be part of this community. We are rightly proud of our schools, our local government, and the leadership role Arlington and the City of Falls Church have taken in the Commonwealth across a number of issues. The glaring exception remains our criminal justice system. But together we can change that and bring much needed reform to our Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office while keeping our families safe.

Many of you have told me your stories of the need for reform, and these stories have fueled this campaign:

Victims and people within the system told me the Commonwealth’s Attorney does not prioritize prosecuting acquaintance rape; wage earners said the office refuses to prosecute wage theft cases; our elected officials told me the Commonwealth’s Attorney routinely opposes their reform bills; parents of young teens report they have been pressured into pleas that leave their children with criminal records for youthful mistakes; families of loved ones with disabilities, mental illness, or addiction live in fear of the lack of real diversion programs; and community members are shocked to learn of the racial disparities in prosecutions and the jail population.

The data confirm your stories:

Since 2011, reports of rape and sexual assault have gone up 63% while the number of convictions has gone down 73%. Last year, the most frequent charge brought by the office was for simple marijuana possession.   In the last 6 years, over 3,200 such cases were prosecuted, 57% of which in the last 2 years were of Black people. Between 2013 and 2018, the average daily jail population increased 17% and is still higher per capita than it was at the height of the 1980s War on Drugs. Only in this election cycle has it suddenly gone down.

I will bring real reform by using restorative justice to decrease recidivism and help survivors; expanding diversion programs for youth; eliminating cash bail; establishing a mental health docket so that mental illness is treated and not prosecuted; stop prosecuting simple marijuana possession; being mindful that minor charges not lead to deportation; providing fair electronic discovery; working to establish an independent review mechanism for use of force; focusing on violent and serious crimes such as sexual assault, elder abuse, financial fraud, and wage theft; and collecting and sharing data to make the office transparent.

These reforms are well within the discretion of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. Charlottesville eliminated cash bail almost 20 years ago; Prince William and Norfolk have mental health courts; Washington County, with a fifth of our population, has a drug court that serves 37, while ours serves only 9; Fairfax and Alexandria have long provided electronic discovery; Loudoun and Fairfax have restorative justice programs.

I know the community is eager for these reforms because of the breadth of support our campaign has received. The Washington Post endorsed me because I have the right experience for the job.  Governor McAuliffe, former State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple, former County Board Members Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada, and Chris Zimmerman, and former Arlington Deputy Police Chief James Younger endorsed me because they trust me to keep us safe. Delegates Marcus Simon and Mark Levine, as well as Senator Adam Ebbin endorsed me because I will be an honest reform partner with them.  School Board Members Nancy Van Doren and Monique O’Grady, and the Arlington Education Association endorsed me because I will treat kids like kids. The carpenters, electrical workers, pipe trades, and service workers unions all endorsed me because I will protect workers’ rightsGreater Greater Washington, Indivisible Arlington, BlueNova, Arlington Action Group, Our Revolution Arlington, CASA in Action, New Virginia Majority endorsed me because it’s time to put justice back in the criminal justice system.

I humbly ask for your vote on June 11 as Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington and the City of Falls Church so that we can build a criminal justice system that keeps us safe and that reflects our values.

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Morning Notes

Arlington Tech Company Acquired — Silicon Valley cybersecurity firm Imperva has acquired Arlington-based bot mitigation startup Distil Networks. [TechCrunch, Imperva]

Permits Filed for B&E’s on Lee — Bob and Edith’s Diner finally applied for construction permits last month for its planned but delayed Lee Highway location. [Arlington Economic Development]

Jail Holds Family Event for Inmates — “Some Arlington County children got a rare opportunity Tuesday night: a chance to visit with their fathers and mothers — who are in jail — without any barriers between them.” [WJLA]

Local Girl Scouts Help Seniors — “They came in need of help, smartphones in hand… Girl Scout Troop 60013 was on it. This week, the Arlington, Virginia-based scouts hosted ‘TechBridge,’ their first walk-in clinic to help local senior citizens learn how to use their cellphones.” [CNN]

County Fair Seeking Judges — “Organizers of the Arlington County Fair are seeking volunteers both to register and judge entries for the competitive-exhibit competition. Volunteers with expertise will serve as superintendents and judges in a host of categories, with judging taking place Thursday, Aug. 15 at 10 a.m. at Thomas Jefferson Community Center.” [InsideNova]

Campaign Ad Questioned — A TV ad placed by a political action committee on behalf of commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is being questioned. The ad brings up recent anti-abortion laws in other states says incumbent Theo Stamos “would enforce anti-choice laws” in Virginia. The video cited in the ad shows Stamos saying she “takes an oath to uphold the law” but would not enforce an unconstitutional law. [Blue Virginia]

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