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One year after an inmate died in the Arlington County jail, a man has been charged in connection with his death.

For the last year, the Arlington County Police Department has been investigating the death of Darryl Becton, 46, while in custody of the county jail on Oct. 1, 2020. One year later to the day, a man named Antoine Smith appeared in Arlington County General District Court on charges related to the investigation, according to a press release from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Smith was charged with the misdemeanor of falsifying a patient record, according to the release. Police obtained a warrant for his arrest on Sept. 24.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney did not return requests for more information about who Smith is, who he works for and what records he falsified.

“The Commonwealth may not discuss the details of an ongoing investigation and Professional Rule of Responsibility 3.6 prohibits public commentary regarding the details of a pending case,” the release said. “A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and a charge is not evidence.”

What we do know is that Arlington County’s jail contracts with correctional healthcare provider Corizon Health to provide medical care to inmates. Last year, the contract was extended to 2025.

A D.C. area man who goes by the name Antoine Smith lists his occupation as a licensed practical nurse and his employer as Corizon Health, according to a LinkedIn profile.

Corizon has been sued multiple times across the nation for inmate deaths allegedly connected to inadequate care.

Assuming Smith is indeed employed by Corizon, this is not the first time a correctional nurse from Corizon has been charged with a crime involving an inmate in Arlington.

In 2014, another nurse from Corizon was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery and found guilty in Arlington General District Court, in an incident that was not previously reported publicly. He appealed to the Circuit Court and a deal was reached between the inmate and the nurse that allowed him avoid a jail time, according to Maj. Susie Doyel, the then-spokeswoman for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail.

The news of the latest charges marks a step forward in the case, which police told ARLnow in August could soon be concluded.

Last fall, Becton, who is Black, was being held on an alleged probation violation after being convicted in 2019 of a felony, “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.” On Oct. 1, 2020, a sheriff’s deputy and an Arlington Department of Human Services caseworker found Becton unresponsive in his cell. Despite resuscitation efforts, Becton was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.

Within a week, the Arlington branch of the NAACP wrote to the sheriff’s office and the police department requesting an independent investigation. The same month, Sheriff Beth Arthur and then-Acting Chief of Police Andy Penn wrote a joint response.

“The death of Mr. Becton is tragic and we can assure you that a thorough and comprehensive criminal investigation into this matter will be conducted by the ACPD, followed by a comprehensive administrative investigation by ASCO to determine if all applicable policies and procedures were followed surrounding Mr. Becton’s incarceration,” Arthur and Penn wrote.

Between then and August, little information had surfaced in Becton’s case. ARLnow learned from the medical examiner’s office that his cause of death was ruled to be hypertensive cardiovascular disease — caused by sustained high blood pressure — complicated by opiate withdrawal, and the manner of his death was ruled to be natural.

This case has been a top priority for the NAACP, as Becton was the fifth person — and the fourth Black man — to die in the facility between 2015 and 2020, per the Sheriff’s and Police Chief’s letter.

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A man died Tuesday after being found unresponsive in the medical unit of the Arlington County jail, prompting a regional law enforcement investigation and statements from local leaders.

Clyde Spencer, 58, was rushed to Virginia Hospital Center, where he later died. He is the sixth inmate at the jail to die over the past six years.

The last reported inmate death, in October 2020, remains under investigation. A regional body called the Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team is now investigating Spencer’s death.

Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Sheriff Beth Arthur — whose office runs the jail — all issued expressions of sympathy for Spencer’s family and support for the CIRT investigation in statements released Friday morning.

From a county press release:

Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, along with the Sheriff and Commonwealth Attorney, issued the following statements today regarding the death investigation at the Arlington County Detention Facility earlier this week.

“Mr. Clyde Spencer passed away Tuesday at the Virginia Hospital Center after he was taken there when he was found unresponsive at the Arlington County Detention Facility. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Mr. Spencer’s family and friends in this time of loss,” said de Ferranti. “We support the decision to call for an independent investigation from the Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), a regional team that investigates deaths or serious injuries involving law enforcement officers in participating jurisdictions in Northern Virginia.”

“We offer our condolences to the Spencer family,” said Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur. “Incidents like these are taken very seriously by my office, and me personally. We will fully cooperate with the investigation.”

“My heart goes out to the families suffering from the loss of their loved ones,” said Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We are diligently working with the CIRT and the ACPD on these cases and hope the community and the families involved understand that we cannot reveal the content of the investigations, and the Virginia rule of professional conduct 3.6 prohibits me from commenting on a pending case.”

At the completion of a comprehensive, thorough, and impartial investigation, the CIRT will present the facts and evidence to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.

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Arlington’s top prosecutor is seeking an attorney to lead a new unit that reviews potentially wrongful convictions.

The unit — the first unit of its kind in Northern Virginia, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti — launched a little more than seven months ago.

At the time, Dehghani-Tafti said that no full-time staff would be assigned to only this unit because there wouldn’t be enough work. In her initial announcement, she said it would be led by Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cari Steele and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Wiley.

That has changed in the last half-year, with the position evolving into a full-time job “in its own right,” she tells ARLnow.

“It’s to the County Board and County Manager’s credit that they recognize the importance of the Conviction Review Unit,” Dehghani-Tafti said, adding that “the money is coming from the County Manager’s budget.”

Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected on her pledge to reform the local criminal justice system, made setting up such a unit a campaign promise when she ran for office in 2019.

She said her office regularly receives requests to review cases from a variety of sources, including convicted individuals, their legal counsel and various advocacy organizations.

“We take time to review these requests in a thorough manner,” she said. “This involves a lot of work and requires us not only to go through our own files, but also to seek files and records from as many sources as possible, reviewing forensic testing, and sometimes seeking out additional forensic testing.”

Initially, she said she thought this could be done in house, and the approved 2021-22 budget for her department only requested four new positions, all assigned to reviewing footage from body-worn cameras. (The Arlington County Police Department began wearing cameras in December 2020.)

“I try to be conservative with the budget, so I was hesitant to ask for additional [employees] until and unless I had the workload to support it,” she said. “I’m particularly sensitive to the reality that in this era of Covid, the County is facing immense funding demands from multiple fronts, but in this case, the work of the Conviction Review Unit has truly become a full time job in its own right.”

As for the positions related to body-worn cameras, those are already filled and the attorneys strained, she said.

“We also are finding that the BWC requires more of a workload than four attorneys can handle,” she said. “As I anticipated in March, based on the hours of BWC we were seeing, we definitely need more than the four additional attorneys.”

Dehghani-Tafti initially told the County Board that prosecutors will review about 15,000 hours of body worn camera video evidence this year — roughly equivalent to all the working hours of more than seven attorneys. The Office of the Magistrate, which reviews criminal conduct complaints, said it has the resources needed to review footage, however.

The conviction review position Dehghani-Tafti is seeking to fill, officially titled Commonwealth Attorney II, would pay between $91,500 and $140,000 annually. Whoever fills the role would spend his or her time engaged in a “specialized, time-consuming legal process” involving the following responsibilities, according to the job listing:

  • Identifying and defining the involvement of the former police officers in the casework and the conviction of defendants prosecuted by the Office of the CWA;
  • Conducting a thorough review of files, records, evidence and testimony in those cases;
  • Testing the validity of evidence (e.g., analyzing chains of custody);
  • Determining acts and sources of any intentional or unintentional wrongdoing in the development and prosecution of these cases;
  • Recommending courses of action based on review of these cases (e.g., exoneration);
  • Determining if and when a victim should be contacted regarding the conviction review process; and
  • Performing other tasks that may be assigned as needed to complete the post-conviction review process.
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A recall effort targeting Arlington’s top prosecutor is reportedly gaining some traction.

In August, a political group named Virginians for Safe Communities (VSC) launched a recall effort against Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, as well as her counterparts Buta Biberaj and Steve Descano in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, respectively.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system. Her tenure has included efforts to reduce racial disparities in prosecution, investigate wrongful convictions and decriminalize marijuana possession. But VSC says her approach has made Arlington less safe.

And now, the group is expanding its outreach with mailers — sent to homes in Arlington this week — as well as a new website dedicated to Dehghani-Tafti and an electronic recall petition. The website is reportedly attracting visitors and signatories, recall organizers say.

“VSC has begun to send out mailers to voters educating them on Parisa’s radical and dangerous agenda and dereliction of her duty to uphold justice, protect victims, and enforce the laws of the Commonwealth,” VSC leader Sean Kennedy says.

“Our effort in Arlington County and the City of Falls Church is ramping up substantially in the near future and will include direct communication with voters on various platforms as well as public forums,” Kennedy continued. “FireParisa.com is generating a great deal of traffic already in [this] first week and we are well on our way to collecting the requisite 5,500 signatures to protect Arlington by removing her at trial.”

The mailer accuses Dehghani-Tafti of lenient treatment of criminals, referencing plea deals with a man allegedly caught with 50 lbs of marijuana at National Airport and a man charged with throwing two dogs off a balcony to their deaths.

In a response, Dehghani-Tafti denied VSC’s claims that she is neglecting her prosecutorial duties and linked the group to other recall efforts in the region.

“These are lies being pushed by the same Trump, dark-money supported political operatives and right-wing groups that have sought to intimidate elected school boards all over Northern Virginia for simply doing their jobs. It’s part of a broader scheme nationwide where they abuse outdated recall laws because they can’t win at the ballot box,” she said.

VSC’s activity has been covered by the New York Times, which described Kennedy as a Republican political operative and noted that another backer, former Trump administration appointee Ian Prior, is “leading a petition drive to recall school board members in Loudoun County over critical race theory.”

The recall effort comes for Descano as he’s facing blowback from judges for what they characterize as overly lenient plea deals in child sex abuse cases.

What’s happening between Descano and the judge’s bench is another example of the judicial tug-of-war between progressive, reform-minded prosecutors and judges.

VSC has to gather enough signatures to have a court review its case against the three prosecutors. A special election would be held if the group both gets those signatures and a judge rules in its favor.

In addition to paid and volunteer canvassers, the group has launched electronic petitions. Kennedy said it’s a common misconception that signatures for Virginia candidates or official recalls must be pen-and-paper. During the pandemic, six candidates for elected office successfully sued the Virginia Department of Elections and State Board of Elections allowing for the electronic collection of signatures.

“Recent Virginia Supreme Court rulings, statutory changes in Richmond, and Virginia Board of Election settlements and rule changes have substantially altered those requirements,” he said. “Our very experienced counsel have concluded confidently that digital signatures (which are signed until penalty of perjury and using a signature tool, not text alone) are valid.”

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Earlier this month the Arlington and Falls Church prosecutor’s office obtained convictions in two cases involving sex crimes and children.

And the county’s top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, took to Twitter last week to do something she said she has “never previously done: comment on the outcome of cases in our office.”

As Commonwealth’s Attorney, Dehghani-Tafti has held back her thoughts on previous plea deals reported on by ARLnow: one involving a man who threw dogs over a balcony to their death, a second regarding a man who brought a bag stuffed with marijuana and hashish oil through Reagan National Airport, and most recently, the Uber driver who struck the owner of Advanced Towing with his car.

She broke her customary silence to highlight her office’s work on the sex crimes cases, although she said she could not discuss specifics given the sensitive nature of the two cases.

“Pride in the team is the short answer,” she said. “These cases are really challenging, and the team did a fantastic job under the hardest of circumstances.”

Cases involving sex crimes and minors are difficult for a number of reasons, she said, including the victims’ age, the trauma inflicted on them and their family, family dynamics and the quality and quantity of evidence.

As for the timing, she said the office has only recently been able to have jury trials regularly since the pandemic shut down jury proceedings.

“We were only two months into the administration when COVID-19 happened, and we had no chance to have a jury trial,” she said. “We did what we could to keep the system functioning, but there were no trials for a long time. Lately, we’ve had a number of trials, and we’ve won most of them.”

On Twitter, she explained that one reason convictions in these cases are difficult to attain is due to a lack of physical evidence. Anecdotally, Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow prosecutors are more reluctant to take on such cases, as a victory isn’t as clear, and the office’s conviction rate impacts funding.

“Right now, the funding formula for Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia is felony sentencing events and charges, so the incentive is to make sure that you file the most serious charges and you get as many convictions as you can, because that’s what keeps you funded,” she said.

Dehghani-Tafti said she’s motivated to take on challenging cases because of the stories she’s heard of prosecutors avoiding harder cases and picking “easier wins.”

“The one elemental core of my philosophy of criminal prosecution is that our first and last duty is to focus on serious crimes, particularly crimes against the most vulnerable among us,” she wrote on Twitter.

That said, Dehghani-Tafti said she is relying on her background in innocence cases to make sure that goal doesn’t result in wrongful convictions.

“I feel like I’m in a particularly good position to weigh that in the balance,” she said. “If I say we have the evidence and everything is fair, that means making sure we’re using good forensics, making sure we don’t have tunnel vision, getting corroborating statements — really doing the follow-through on the investigative work to support whatever theories there are.”

While proud of her team of attorneys and paralegals, she said convictions are only one part of how a victim or family heals.

“Not all victims want the same thing,” she said. “Not all are waiting for a trial, prosecution or plea. Sometimes, the victims themselves are not the ones pushing the hardest for prosecution and retribution. There’s a whole spectrum of what victims want and need: Some have been waiting for this, and others have either wanted to work out their cases… through diversion.”

As for whether Arlingtonians can expect more openness in the future, Dehghani-Tafti said what she can say about cases is limited to publicly-accessible court documents.

Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia, she wrote, “are governed by a strict ethical code, requiring us not to make public comments about pending cases if they could go to a jury trial. This code applies even if the case is one of public concern, and even when others cherry pick facts and make misleading statements.”

“As prosecutors, our silence is the way we respect the privacy of victims, protect the rights of defendants, and safeguard the integrity of the system,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote. “It allows trials to take place in courtrooms and not in the media.”

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(Updated 11:40 a.m.) Last October, 46-year-old D.C. resident Darryl Becton died in his cell at the Arlington County Detention Facility in Courthouse.

The county is still looking into the circumstances around his death, but the Arlington County Police Department tells ARLnow the investigation could soon be concluded.

“Detectives are reviewing last items and anticipate concluding the investigation in the near future,” ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. “While we appreciate the need for closure and transparency, ACPD has a duty to conduct a professional, methodical, and thorough investigation to ensure all relevant facts are gathered, documented, and considered.”

ACPD will then forward the entire investigative file to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for independent review. Meantime, the Sheriff’s Office will investigate whether applicable policies and procedures were being followed in this incident.

Meanwhile, the Arlington branch of the NAACP — which called for an independent investigation of the death of Becton, an African American man — is wondering why the investigation is taking so long.

“The Arlington NAACP’s most crucial question is who is not cooperating with whom because nothing else makes sense,” branch president Julius “J.D.” Spain, Sr. said. “It’s been ten plus months, and all the family and community get is the hot potato treatment.”

By that, he says, when the NAACP talks to County Board members, they point to the Commonwealth’s Attorney, who says to talk with the Arlington County Police Department, who says talk to the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office.

“With the exception of one letter dated October 26, 2020, the Sheriff has been silent,” he said. “Her silence is the only part of this that makes any sense because Mr. Becton somehow died in a locked cell in the jail she runs. Their collective treatment of the family is highly disrespectful and compounds their grief and the concerns of citizens.”

What we know of the case

Last fall, Becton was being held on an alleged probation violation after being convicted in 2019 of a felony, “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.”

On Oct. 1, 2020, at 4:15 p.m., a sheriff’s deputy and a Department of Human Services caseworker had found Becton unresponsive in his cell. ACPD officers were dispatched at 4:19 p.m. to investigate. Despite resuscitation efforts, Becton was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.

Within a week, the NAACP wrote to the sheriff’s office and the police department requesting an independent investigation. The same month, Sheriff Beth Arthur and then-Acting Chief of Police Andy Penn wrote a joint response.

“The death of Mr. Becton is tragic and we can assure you that a thorough and comprehensive criminal investigation into this matter will be conducted by the ACPD, followed by a comprehensive administrative investigation by ASCO to determine if all applicable policies and procedures were followed surrounding Mr. Becton’s incarceration,” Arthur and Penn wrote.

Amid the investigation, the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy, which was completed after a death certificate was issued to Becton’s family. On that document, the autopsy was listed as “pending” and no cause of death was listed.

“Mr. Becton’s loved ones deserve to know what the medical examiner determined was his cause of death, and they still can’t even get that simple answer,” Spain said.

The medical examiner’s office told ARLnow on Wednesday that the cause was hypertensive cardiovascular disease — which is caused by sustained high blood pressure — complicated by opiate withdrawal. The manner of his death was ruled to be natural.

Ten months of waiting

Meanwhile, frustrated with the investigation’s pace, the NAACP reached out to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti last week to see if she had made any progress on her independent review. In response, she affirmed that her office owe’s Becton’s family and the community “an accurate and transparent account of our work,” but pointed to the process laid out by ACPD and ACSO.

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Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally and march in Arlington last year (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A new political group has announced plans to force a recall of Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

Virginians for Safe Communities (VSC) is aiming to remove her and her counterparts in Fairfax County and Loudoun County — Steve Descano and Buta Biberaj, respectively — by gathering enough signatures to have a court review its case against the three prosecutors. Should the group get those signatures and should a judge rule in its favor, a special election would be held.

The trio were elected in 2019 on their pledges to reform the criminal justice system, and Arlington’s top prosecutor has emphasized initiatives such as decriminalizing marijuana possession, ending cash bail and increasing data transparency. But not everyone sees her changes, or those of her counterparts in neighboring counties, as reforms.

“Their radical policies have proven not only unlawful but dangerous, including eliminating cash bail by fiat, unilaterally nullifying narcotics laws, and failing to prosecute serious crimes. The people of our community would be shocked that these prosecutors aren’t pursuing crimes like animal cruelty, domestic assault, reckless driving, and indecent exposure,” VSC President Sean Kennedy tells ARLnow.

Dehghani-Tafti rejected his claims and said she is fulfilling her campaign promises well.

“I’m doing exactly what I promised my community I would do — what I was elected to do — and doing it well: making the system more fair, more responsive, and more rehabilitative, while keeping us safe,” she said. “This is a far-right attempt to overturn a valid election through a non-democratic recall.”

The effort has already received coverage by national outlets such as the New York Times, which described Kennedy as a Republican political operative and noted that another backer, former Trump administration appointee Ian Prior, is “leading a petition drive to recall school board members in Loudoun County over critical race theory.

The group has not disclosed who its donors are.

Kennedy cited Arlington County Police Department’s annual report, which notes an increase in felony aggravated assaults and carjackings, as evidence against Dehghani-Tafti — though the report also shows a decrease in violent sex offenses and a relatively low homicide rate. He also cited rising homicide rates in Fairfax County in 2021 and an alleged failure to prosecute domestic abusers in Loudoun.

Meanwhile, Dehghani-Tafti’s tenure has seen some conflicts with judges over plea deals and dropping charges without stating a reason why for the record.

Public Defender Brad Haywood defended Dehghani-Tafti and said the group does not have a pulse on Arlington’s community or courthouse.

“I don’t know all of the problems they’re having in other jurisdictions, but the consensus among defense attorneys and her prosecutor colleagues from places like Alexandria and Portsmouth is that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has done the best job of any of the reform-oriented prosecutors elected in Virginia over the past few years,” he tells ARLnow. “She’s been thoughtful about staff retention and recruitment, she’s moved at a measured pace with her policy changes, and she’s been deliberate about engaging and showing respect to stakeholder groups that were skeptical of her, such as the police department.”

Haywood added that there have been no homicides yet in 2021, and his office has observed that sexual assault appears to be prosecuted more aggressively now than under her predecessor, Theo Stamos.

Matthew Hurtt, a spokesman for the Arlington County Republican Committee and former ARLnow opinion columnist, said Arlington Republicans are concerned about the stats and “look forward to working alongside Virginians for Safe Communities wherever we can.”

“We are encouraged by a broad, bipartisan coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents who support prosecutors who will faithfully execute their oath of office and uphold the law,” he said. “Picking and choosing which laws to enforce or re-writing laws wholesale is not the job of a prosecutor — it’s the job of the general assembly.”

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Morning Notes

Mystery Disease Still Killing Songbirds — “Jennifer Toussaint, chief of animal control in Arlington, Virginia, can’t forget the four baby blue jays. In late May, worried residents had delivered the fledglings to her clinic just outside of Washington, D.C., within just a few hours. Each was plump, indicating ‘their parents had done a great job caring for them,’ Toussaint says. But the birds were lethargic, unable to keep their balance, and blinded by crusty, oozing patches that had grown over their eyes…. Since May, when the illness was first recognized in and around Washington, D.C., researchers have documented hundreds of cases in at least a dozen species of birds in nine eastern and midwestern states. ” [Science Magazine, InsideNova, Fox News]

Plaque to Honor Breast Health Fund’s Namesake — “The Arlington Free Clinic (AFC) on July 7 held a plaque unveiling to celebrate the life of Sharon McGowan, an Arlington mother of seven who died at age 45 after battling breast cancer, and to mark the transfer of a fund in her name supporting breast health… The fund supports mammograms and biopsies for uninsured patients (including those AFC serves) fighting breast cancer in Northern Virginia.” [Sun Gazette]

Pentagon City Bus Stop Relocations — “Starting on Sunday, July 11, bus stops A, B and C along S. Hayes Street at the Pentagon City Metro station will be closed while in road concrete pads are installed at the bus bays. Buses that serve the closed stops will be temporarily relocated to bus stops E, T1 and T2 (see map below). The bus stop relocations will mainly impact Metrobus and Metroway service. The bus stop relocations will not impact ART bus service.” [Arlington Transit]

Prosecutor Pushes Back on ‘Myths’ — From Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington and Falls Church: “Myth: Restorative justice is a ‘get out of jail free card.’ Reality: Restorative justice is not synonymous with diversion.” [Twitter]

Event for New Chamber Music Quartet — “The newly formed 9th Street Chamber Music LLC will host a launch party on Friday, July 16 at 5 p.m. on the lawn at St. George’s Episcopal Church, 915 North Oakland St. The event will include music, food and drink for purchase, a raffle and more.” [Sun Gazette]

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Arlington’s top prosecutor said she is working with Arlington County Police Department to establish a multi-agency cooperative effort to tackle the carjackings and vehicle tamperings here and in the D.C. area.

“My philosophy has always been to focus on crimes that are a public safety risk,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “Car tamperings and car thefts, I don’t look at those as simple ‘property crimes’ because those are things that make people feel vulnerable and set people up for dangerous situations.”

Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected in 2019 on a platform of criminal justice reform, said she has been following the theft and tampering trend and looking for patterns. She said she has also been encouraging early and constant communication between her office and ACPD, while the two are working with other Northern Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions and some federal agencies.

This coordination may turn into something like a task force. Talks about one began in February, and she said officials will soon be able to announce some kind of organized intra-jurisdiction response.

“ACPD has been working on the task force, and I’ve been promoting the task force,” the prosecutor said.

Property crimes from 2016 to 2020 (via ACPD)

Motor vehicle thefts have risen steadily since 2018, according to ACPD’s newly released 2020 crime report.

Dehghani-Tafti said that is playing out across the river in D.C., which saw five times more carjackings in the first quarter of 2021 than the same period in 2020. Similar sprees are occurring in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Howard County, she said.

“We’re seeing this across the country, whether or not a reformer is in office or the county government is progressive or not,” she said.

And Dehghani-Tafti said she has reason to believe the car thefts are organized. A few weeks ago, she drove around with ACPD detectives to see what they see and maintain the collaboration she said is needed to tackle more organized crime sprees.

“The carjackings started to look [organized] when a few people were arrested in February and March and the instances went down dramatically in all the jurisdictions in the D.C. area,” she said.

Her office has one person whose job is to provide early assistance to ACPD and other agencies as they build carjacking and tampering cases. The sooner law enforcement agencies reach out, the sooner her office can support officers as they ask for search warrants, gather evidence and build cases.

Such a collaboration “adds value and context of a case” to investigations “so that we don’t take things that are serious insufficiently seriously and we don’t overreact to cases that are not within the organized pattern we are seeing,” she said.

“The criminal-legal system is a blunt tool, and what we’re trying to do is make it more surgical,” she said.

That approach does not mean she is “soft on crime,” she argued, but that she is going after the right people.

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Arlington’s top prosecutor is partnering with a national criminal justice organization to reduce racial disparities in prosecution.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner are the first two prosecutors to participate in a new partnership program from the Vera Institute for Justice, an organization working to reform the justice system, per its website.

“The Vera Institute for Justice has done an incredible amount of work on public safety, incarceration rates, and also whether incarceration is an effective tool for public safety,” Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “They were an organization that I was always hopeful to work with.”

As part of the new partnership, Dehghani-Tafti and Gardner will be working to reduce race-based differentials in prosecution rates by 20% in their jurisdictions. The work is part of Vera’s Motion for Justice initiative, in which prosecutors are given support and opportunities to bridge the gap between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, according to a press release.

Dehghani-Tafti and Gardner’s offices will receive policy recommendations and staff training, as well as resources to analyze data on the ways marginalized people are disproportionately impacted by prosecution practices, the release said.

This partnership, which will last 18 months, singles out Arlington as a leader in this work, Dehghani-Tafti said. The Arlington and St. Louis prosecutors’ offices are the first of up to 10 prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions across the country that Vera plans to invite on as partners. (Dehghani-Tafti’s office also prosecutes cases for the City of Falls Church.)

“This is the conversation that I started when I started running,” she said. “We need to look at the results of our system and figure out how and why we’re there.”

This partnership is one way Dehghani-Tafti said she is keeping her promise to use data and evidence to drive lasting criminal justice reform.

“We’re going to need some help with our data, making our case management system be able to analyze data and run reports that are actually meaningful,” the prosecutor said.

The system Dehghani-Tafti said she inherited was designed to store information, not answer larger questions such as who is disproportionately represented in certain case outcomes.

“You can go case by case but you’re still operating in a system that we know cements racial and economic divides, continues cycles of traumas, affects families and communities and treats people who are incarcerated and their families — who haven’t done anything wrong — as expendable,” she said.

Here in Northern Virginia, Vera will also provide financial assistance to the Courthouse-based nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration.

“OAR is an ideal partner for this,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “They’ve been looking at policies and practices, such as community service, through an anti-racism lens: Your economic means, your race, your zip code, your ability to speak English — that all can make it harder or easier to do community service.”

Dehghani-Tafti said she plans to get started with the Vera partnership “forthwith,” as soon as she can schedule 10 training sessions.

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Arlington’s top prosecutor has launched a Conviction Review Unit to investigate “claims of innocence and wrongful convictions.”

The unit will look into claims of wrongful convictions, including those who were convicted at trial of murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and other felonies.

Just last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that actually expands the pool of defendants who are eligible to challenge convictions.

Established within the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office for Arlington County and Falls Church, the unit will also be responsible for litigating motions for post-conviction DNA testing and responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s similar to the Conviction Integrity Unit that the Virginia Attorney General’s office launched in January.

Currently, no other local jurisdiction in the Commonwealth has officially launched a unit of this nature.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow that they’ve already been doing related work for the past year, since she first entered office.

It’s about setting up a system for responding to inquiries, she says, “in an intelligent manner and to be able to provide advice and recommendations… it’s really about putting a permanent name to it.”

No full-time staff will be assigned only to this unit, but rather will be made up of people at the CA’s office who are subject matter experts, have a variety of experiences, and report directly to the CA.

Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected after promising to reform the local criminal justice system, says that while she would have liked to have full-time staff members, there isn’t enough work.

“We do have to take time away from other work. But I think it’s time well spent because there is a huge public safety element to making sure that the convictions that you have are accurate and fair,” she says.

Currently, the unit is investigating three cases that have been brought to the office’s attention by attorneys. They are also reviewing 31 cases that involve “testimony about DNA mixtures… and problems with the forensic science.”

Dehghani-Tafti declined to provide more details about these cases only saying they are currently in the review stage.

Additionally, over the past year, they’ve also reviewed about 70 requests for early release from Virginia’s Department of Corrections due to COVID-19.

“That was part of the initial push to release early people who had about a year or so left on their sentences,” says Dehghani-Tafti.

The CA’s office says, in the end, only “a small number of those folks were released,” though has yet to provide an exact number.

Setting up a unit of this nature was a campaign promise of Dehghani-Tafti’s back when she ran for office in 2019. She says a Conviction Review Unit helps ensure integrity for both the court system and police.

“It serves a law enforcement function for both victims and for the community,” says Dehghani-Tafti. “If the wrong person is convicted, the actual perpetrator hasn’t been caught.”

It also aids the traditional appellate process.

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