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Gavel (Flickr photo by Joe Gratz)

This Saturday, Arlington County’s top prosecutor, its Circuit Court clerk and some attorneys will help people who want their criminal record expunged for free.

The clinic will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday (Dec. 3) at Arlington Presbyterian Church, located off Columbia Pike at 918 S. Lincoln Street. It will provide everything attendees need in one place to request arrests that did not result in convictions be removed from their record.

“Even if you’ve been arrested and not convicted, that arrest can follow you every time you apply for a job, school, or an apartment,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “That harms people, their families, and the community. This clinic is one way we can mitigate that harm and give people a chance to live productive lives.”

She says this is the first time Arlington has offered an opportunity like this, but she hopes it isn’t the last.

“We wanted to do this for a long time but had to delay because of Covid,” she said. “Prince William has done it recently but I am not aware of any other jurisdictions in Virginia, though it is possible.”

Courts do not identify who is eligible to have their record expunged, so the aim of the clinic is to let people know what is available and what is possible, she says.

“The biggest difficulty is twofold: people don’t know they’re eligible and don’t apply, or others who are not eligible and apply are surprised to discover they are not,” she says. “So, one of our main goals is public education.”

Ahead of the clinic, her office partnered with the public defender’s office, the defense bar, local churches, and other community organizations to reach people who may be eligible.

Attorneys will provide pro-bono assistance and clinic sponsors are covering the $86 filing fee on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Attendees need to bring the arrest warrant or final letter of disposition for each charge they would like to be expunged.

Currently, Virginia law limits expungement to narrow circumstances, Dehghani-Tafti says. The Virginia General Assembly passed a new law that would expand eligibility for record sealing, but the changes won’t take effect until July 1, 2025. Even so, there is still room for improvements, Dehghani-Tafti adds.

Clinic sponsors include the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, the Arlington Coalition of Black Clergy and Black Parents of Arlington, as well as local nonprofits Bridges to Independence, Offender Aid and Restoration, Arlington Thrive, Arlington for Justice and the D.C.-based Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, where Dehghani-Tafti used to serve as legal director.

OAR Associate Deputy Director Mustafa Saboor said in a statement that this clinic is an important first step in helping people overcome unjust barriers.

“Our criminal legal system is overly punitive, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the way arrest records destroy people’s ability to work and live,” Saboor said. “Because Black and Brown communities are overpoliced throughout this country, barriers to work because of arrest records fall disproportionately on those communities, further entrenching deeply racist lines in this country.”

Dehghani-Tafti’s former deputy prosecutor announced on Tuesday that he will be challenging her in the 2023 Democratic primary.

Flickr photo by Joe Gratz

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Josh Katcher (via Josh for Arlington/Facebook)

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti now has a challenger — someone who once worked for her.

Former Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Katcher will go up against the incumbent in the Democratic primary in June. Katcher was hired as Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney by Theo Stamos in 2012 and he was promoted to deputy in 2021 near the outset of Dehghani-Tafti’s tenure.

“I am running because my opponent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has not only broken her promises on reform prosecution, she also has broken the office in the process,” he said in an email to supporters, reprinted on Blue Virginia.

In a separate statement, tweeted out by Washington Post reporter Teo Armus, Katcher says he brings “unique insight” to the “multiple failings under the current administration’s leadership.”

“Crime is rising in Arlington,” Katcher said in the announcement. “There is no doubt about it and we have the data from the Arlington County Police Department to prove it. People are concerned about their safety and their property. Denying this or falsely alleging it is part of some media-driven narrative doesn’t solve the problem.”

Katcher said his first two promises are to acknowledge what he says is rising crime in Arlington and to increase transparency by releasing data housed in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney within a year of taking office.

“The stakes could not be higher for our community,” Katcher said. “This election is not about whether we should be engaged in reform prosecution. The question is really whether we are going to miss this generational window of opportunity to get it right. Every victim, witness and defendant who comes through the doors of the courthouse deserves a Commonwealth’s Attorney that delivers real reform and real justice.”

Reported property crimes offenses increased 7.4% over 2020, according to the 2021 ACPD crime report, mostly driven by fraud and theft, but also increases in vandalism, robbery and burglary. In 2021, ACPD says it arrested several suspects who were “frequently responsible for multiple cases within Arlington or regionally.”

Crimes against people increased 24%, driven by increases in simple and aggravated assaults, an upward trend since 2018, according to ACPD stats. The police department, meanwhile, has cut some services, such as follow-up investigations on “unsolvable” property crimes, in the face of staffing shortages.

In interviews with ARLnow and statements on Twitter, Dehghani-Tafti says that crime is not, in fact, trending upward. She points to low murder rates and to the fact that Arlington’s overall crime rate remains well below state and national averages.

In response to concerns about property crime sprees and repeat offenders, she has said the approach for the last 40 years is to blame, as is a lack of investment in diversion programs.

Dehghani-Tafti beat incumbent Theo Stamos in the 2019 Democratic primary, with a platform focused on criminal justice reform. She pledged to fix systemic flaws in the criminal justice system such as cash bail and punishment for marijuana possession.

Since taking over, her office has launched a wrongful conviction unit and a restorative justice program for young adults. Her critics, however, say she offers criminals lenient plea deals and lets them go free as a result of bond reforms.

Ahead of the primary, Katcher says he faces “an uphill road” to victory because Dehghani-Tafti will “receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from PACs outside of our community.”

She has received a substantial donations from the Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. By contrast, Katcher promises a “people-powered” campaign.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary in June will face off, in November, with any independent or Republican challengers who may emerge over the next year.

Katcher was born and raised in Fairfax County, according to his website. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia and briefly worked in litigation in New York City before becoming a local prosecutor.

He currently lives in Arlington with his wife Jill, their children Juliet and Jamie, and their dog Louie and has served in a variety of roles within the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at Arlington Democrats election watch party in November 2019, when she was elected to office (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti announced today (Tuesday) that she is running for reelection as Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, won her first term in 2019, after beating incumbent Theo Stamos (D) in a contentious and expensive primary that saw more than half a million dollars in donations to the challenger from a justice reform group.

She pledged to fix systemic flaws in the criminal justice system to which, Dehghani-Tafti asserted, Stamos was blind. This included cash bail, a requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal case and punishment for marijuana possession.

“Three years ago, when I first sought our community’s support, I promised that our community would become a model for how to run a criminal justice system that provides safety and justice for all,” Dehghani-Tafti said in a statement. “In just three years, in the midst of a global pandemic, in the face of constant resistance from the forces of the status quo, and fighting against a right-wing recall campaign against me, we’ve achieved that and more.”

The recall effort, which never amounted to a serious threat to her seat, was led by a political group named Virginians for Safe Communities that also targeted as her counterparts Buta Biberaj and Steve Descano in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, respectively.

Today, in a press release announcing her reelection bid and on Twitter, Dehghani-Tafti says she has made good on many of her campaign promises.

Her office launched Virginia’s first Conviction Review Unit to investigate wrongful conviction claims, after the General Assembly passed a law expanding the pool of defendants who can challenge convictions.

It started a program, dubbed “the Heart of Safety” program, to find alternatives to prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases committed by juveniles and young adults. It also partnered with local and national nonprofits to create diversion programs that reduce racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to run restorative justice program.

In her Twitter thread, she added that her office never asked for cash bail and stopped prosecuting simple marijuana possession before the General Assembly decriminalized it. She says her office assigns one prosecutor to preside over a case from start to finish and allowed defenders to access court records electronically. Over the last three years, the jail population has dropped by 30%, as have certain types of crimes.

Additionally, she says, her office did not certify a single child as an adult in 2021 and Arlington’s behavioral health docket now allows individuals experiencing mental health crises to obtain treatment without incurring a criminal record.

“We did all of this while making sure our community remains safe,” she said in today’s statement. “While homicides rose 30% nationwide, in our community they dropped by 50%. In 2021 and for about 16 months, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church recorded zero homicides. This year, to date, one.”

Critics, however, have asserted that crime is up under her tenure. They accused Dehghani-Tafti offering criminals lenient plea deals and letting them go free as a result of bond reforms. In one case, an Arlington County Circuit Court judge rejected her plea deal — a local example of a broader judicial tug-of-war between judges and reform-minded prosecutors — and Dehghani-Tafti fought for prosecutorial discretion, with support from a criminal-justice organization. Read More

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The family of Darryl Becton with Arlington NAACP President Julius “JD” Spain, Sr. (staff photo)

A man who was charged in connection to the death of Darryl Becton in Arlington County jail in 2020 has been found not guilty.

Antoine Smith was charged in September 2021 with the misdemeanor of falsifying a patient record.

Smith worked for Corizon Correctional Health, the jail-based medical provider at the time of Becton’s death, which has been sued multiple times across the nation for inmate deaths allegedly connected to inadequate care.

When reached by phone, Smith’s attorney declined to comment on the outcome of the case.

The charge was levied against Smith as part of a year-long investigation into the circumstances surrounding Becton’s death at the Arlington County Detention Facility.

In the wake of his death, the Arlington branch of the NAACP called for an independent investigation. The jail, meanwhile, cut ties with Corizon and updated its protocols.

One month later, Becton’s family filed a $10-million wrongful death lawsuit against Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur, the elected official who oversees the jail and the Sheriff’s Office, as well as Corizon and four medical staffers, including Smith.

The suit alleges that medical staff did not treat and properly monitor Becton’s drug withdrawal symptoms or high blood pressure, despite being aware of his condition and the risks associated with it.

The lawyer for the case did not return a request for comment on how the not-guilty verdict for Smith impacts the lawsuit.

Becton was the fifth person — and the fourth Black man — to die in the facility while in custody in five years, according to the Arlington branch of the NAACP. Since then, the number of people who have died in the detention facility has risen to seven, prompting the Arlington County Board to pledge greater oversight over how the jail is managed.

For the NAACP, the charges against Smith were never its focus.

“Even had Mr. Smith been found guilty of that charge, it would not have answered the central question: why did Mr. Becton die?” Arlington NAACP President Julius “JD” Spain told ARLnow. “The NAACP remains committed to helping our entire community understand how this avoidable tragedy happened, so we can work together to ensure it never happens again.

“We will continue to advocate for a better public safety system that reduces the reliance on prisons as means of solving social problems, and advances effective law enforcement,” Spain continued.

The verdict does raise a host of questions about who supervises jail-based healthcare providers and their employees, and where was that supervisor when Becton died, Spain said.

“So, finally, why did it take this unnecessary and tragic death, seven in seven years, to ultimately cause the Sheriff’s office to find a new contractor?” Spain said. “To date, no one has been held accountable. Is it a toxic work environment, fear of retaliation, or improper management of personnel? Every day that passes without an answer, trust and confidence in leaders and the justice system erode.”

The jail has taken some corrective steps to improve its treatment of inmates, including hiring a quality assurance manager, planning to buy a new medical tracking device and updating health check protocols.

These actions led Virginia’s Jail Review Committee, part of the Board of Local and Regional Jails, to conclude that “no further measures are necessary” and close its investigation into the Arlington jail last month. Its investigation found evidence suggesting the jail had broken state regulations in Becton’s death, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Morning Notes

New signage on Crystal Drive warning drivers to not block vehicle or bike lanes (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Flyover This MorningUpdated at 9:15 a.m. — “The US Air Force reports 2 flyovers in the NCR consisting of 4 military aircrafts (in both flyovers) at Arlington National Cemetery today, July 14… at 9:55AM and 11:43AM.” [PoPville]

Arlington Again No. 1 ‘Digital County’ — “Arlington County continues to be a national leader in technology, once again being recognized as the No. 1 Digital County by the Center for Digital Government and the National Association of Counties. The 2022 award marks the fifth time that Arlington has received the top honor in the 150,000-249,999-population category.” [Arlington County]

County Seeking Funding for Crash-Prone Ramp — “Arlington County officials are slated to apply for $10 million in federal funding to improve an interchange at Arlington Boulevard and Washington Boulevard, while seeking a similar amount from the state government as a backstop in case the federal cash never materializes. The proposal aims to reconfigure two existing interchange ramps and create a straighter, two-directional ramp with signalization.” [Sun Gazette]

Another Group Backs ‘Missing Middle’ — “Count Habitat for Humanity on board with the Arlington government’s Missing Middle housing proposal. The proposed zoning change ‘is not the answer to the affordability crisis, but it is one answer, that the county [government] could and should implement,’ John Smoot, co-president and CEO of the organization’s D.C./Northern Virginia chapter, said in a recent letter to County Board members.” [Sun Gazette]

Jewelry Robbery on the Pike — “Columbia Pike at S. Four Mile Run Drive. At approximately 1:50 a.m. on July 13, police were dispatched to the report of a robbery by force. Upon arrival, officers made contact with the victim who stated he and the witness were in a parking lot when the unknown male suspect approached them. The suspect became confrontational and a verbal dispute occurred during which the suspect implied he had a weapon. The suspect then forcibly removed the victim’s necklace and fled the scene of foot. The witness recovered the chain of the necklace from the suspect as he fled.” [ACPD]

Prosecutor: Long Sentences Not Always the Answer — From Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti: “I understand the easy answer is to simply say: keep people locked up for as long as possible because if they’re locked up they can’t commit any crime. But, what about if doing so increases the chance they will reoffend once released, thereby decreasing public safety?” [Twitter]

Local Neighborhood Profiled — “Madison Manor is composed primarily of brick ramblers and ranchers, some with recent additions, interspersed with larger contemporary homes. Most of the original homes maintain the red brick facade; a few have been painted white or partially covered with siding.” [Washington Post]

Two Charged in Rare Liquor Scheme — “In the search for hard-to-find bottles of bourbon at Virginia ABC stores, some liquor enthusiasts have been worried about leaks of a more serious kind… The conspiracy theories apparently weren’t wrong. An ABC investigation led to four felony indictments against two men who were arrested last month and charged with computer trespass and embezzling ABC’s inventory list.” [Virginia Mercury]

It’s Thursday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 87 and low of 72. Sunrise at 5:56 am and sunset at 8:35 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares visited Arlington yesterday (Thursday) to launch a political fund aimed at unseating progressive prosecutors.

The reform-minded approach of “left-wing liberal prosecutors” has “directly resulted in higher crime in our communities and they must be stopped,” Miyares said in a statement that specifically called out Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

The goal of the Protecting Americans Action Fund, he said, is to “elect District Attorneys who will enforce the law and prosecute criminals, instead of this warped version of criminal justice, which is endangering Americans.”

Miyares did not name-drop Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Descano’s Arlington counterpart, but coming to Arlington was enough to prompt her to mount a defense of her prosecutorial approach.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church fired back on Twitter with a volley of tweets.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by reducing racial disparities in prosecution as well as recidivism and incarceration, while investigating wrongful convictions. Last year, there was an effort to recall her that accused Dehghani-Tafti of offering criminals lenient plea deals.

Miyares contends crime is up in places like Northern Virginia, under the leadership of Descano, Dehghani-Tafti and Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj. But Arlington’s top prosecutor says these jurisdictions “have the lowest crime rates of any large jurisdictions in Virginia and country.”

She reiterated the crime trends she touted earlier this year, including that her jurisdiction recorded no homicides in 2021 — down from three homicides in 2020 and two in 2019.

(Two reported deaths last year were in federal jurisdiction, including the police officer who was stabbed, shot and killed outside the Pentagon and the security contractor who died at the U.S. State Department’s National Foreign Affairs Training Center.)

“I’ve long resisted the claim that the drop in homicide is due solely to my policies. Instead, I’ve credited the work of our County Board, local delegation, police department, school board, defense bar, public defender, and community and faith groups in teaming up to prevent crime,” she said.

“And yet, the AG and other anti-reformers have no hesitation in cherry picking any individual incident or any uptick in any crime, however slight, to mislead the public and paint a false picture of our reform achievements,” she continued.

Some crimes were trending up during her election year, 2019, and continued upward during her first year of office. This includes an uptick in property crimes, driven largely by carjackings, according to 2020 crime data — the most recent available from Arlington County Police Department.

This uptick prompted more police patrols and coordinated regional response in 2021, which may explain why, according to preliminary ACPD data for last year, carjackings dropped from 16 in 2020 to eight, while car thefts dropped from 323 in 2020 to 306.

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Efren Cruz (courtesy of ACPD)

A man accused of raping a teenager in Arlington 13 years ago will be going to trial later this month.

The two-year-long process to bring him to trial in what was once considered a cold case may be facing delays, however, after a mistrial was declared last week.

Efren Cruz, 43, is accused of rape and sodomy. He fled Arlington sometime after the rape in 2009, authorities say, and the investigation went cold until the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers found and arrested him in 2016.

Cruz is a Honduran citizen who came to the U.S. in 1998, according to ICE. He was extradited back to Virginia and arrested in March 2020. A grand jury indicted him on rape and sodomy charges in August of that year.

His initial trial, which began last Monday (Feb. 28), ended a day later when the presiding judge declared a mistrial. The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Arlington Public Defender Office both declined to comment on why this happened, citing professional obligations given that the case is still pending

We are told, however, that the court proceedings somehow lacked transparency and the judge declared the case a mistrial in an abundance of caution, allowing a new trial to be scheduled.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors met today (Wednesday) with Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise M. DiMatteo and rescheduled the trial for Monday, March 21. An attorney speaking on behalf of Senior Assistant Public Defender Lauren Brice, who is representing Cruz, told the judge this would be enough time for Brice to file new motions in the case based on forthcoming transcripts documenting “whatever happened” in the courtroom last week.

Addressing the prosecution, DiMatteo said she imagines “the remedies that need to take place” after last week are “happening right now.”

The Cruz case dates back to Aug. 28, 2009, when a teen girl told the Arlington County Police Department that a man had sexually assaulted her in her in the 3500 block of S. Ball Street, near Crystal City. Different documents say the alleged victim, named K.C. in court documents, was 13 or 14 years old at the time.

Court records indicate the teenager underwent a physical exam so DNA could be collected. Eventually, a forensic analysis from 2017 determined Cruz “cannot be eliminated as a contributor” of the DNA evidence that was found on her.

The day after K.C. went to ACPD, a felony warrant was issued for Cruz, a then-30-year-old Woodbridge resident and construction worker. Cruz fled to the Houston area sometime between the rape and December 2010, when he was convicted in Texas on charges of criminal mischief and evading arrest and detention charges under a different name, according to court records. At the time, local law enforcement apparently did not know he was a wanted man in Virginia.

Struggling to find Cruz in the months after the rape, detectives in Arlington requested the public’s assistance in a press release dated Nov. 6, 2009.

Without any leads as to his whereabouts, the case in Arlington eventually went cold. It was reassigned in late 2015 to the U.S. Marshals Service, which worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to locate him, according to a press release from ICE.

The two law enforcement agencies found Cruz — who was on Virginia’s Most Wanted List, according to the article — living in Houston under the alias of Anthony Sanchez. He was arrested without incident in March 2016.

Court records note that Cruz was a serial offender, with a 2009 larceny conviction and an arrest for soliciting a prostitute. ICE officers also connected him to a sex offense against a minor in 2012 in Houston, under his alias of Anthony Sanchez. He was convicted of indecent sexual contact with a child in Texas in 2017, according to court records.

After an Arlington grand jury indicted Cruz in 2020, multiple trial dates were set and then withdrawn, including one instance said to be due to staffing changes within the defender’s office that his attorneys argued would hurt his case.

Wondwossen Kassu in 2019 (courtesy of ACPD)

(Updated at 11 a.m.) An Arlington County jury found a 43-year-old man guilty of stabbing three people in Rosslyn three years ago.

Wondwossen Kassu stabbed two men sitting at a table inside Gateway Park in May 2019 and a third man walking by. The jury convicted him on three counts of malicious wounding.

Kassu is scheduled to be sentenced on May 6 in the Arlington County Circuit Court. Malicious wounding is a felony that carries a minimum prison sentence of five years and a maximum of 20 years.

“This was a tough case, but my office will never shy away from prosecuting such acts of violence,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, in a statement. “We are grateful for the jury’s verdict, and we were happy to provide some measure of closure to the victims.”

On May 21, 2019, Kassu approached two men sitting at a table inside the park and began talking to them, according to the 2019 police report. Then, he stabbed them and a third man who happened to be nearby.

Two of the victims were able to flee and get help. All three required hospitalization, but survived the attacks.

More on the crime from an Arlington County Police Department press release at the time:

At approximately 9:27 p.m. on May 21, police responded to the report of multiple stabbings in Gateway Park located at 1300 Lee Highway. Upon arrival, officers located the suspect and took him into custody without incident. During the course of the investigation, officers located three male victims suffering from lacerations. The victims were transported to area hospitals and all are reported in stable condition.

Based on the preliminary investigation, it appears two of the victims were sitting at a table inside Gateway Park when the suspect approached them and initiated a conversation before producing a knife and stabbing the victims. The third victim was walking in the area when he came upon the initial assault. The suspect then turned his attention towards the third victim and stabbed him as well. Two victims were able to leave the scene to seek assistance. They were located by responding officers in the 1900 block of Fort Myer Drive and the 1800 block of N. Nash Street.

Dehghani-Tafti, elected as the top prosecutor for Arlington and Falls Church on a criminal justice reform platform, has faced some local skepticism — culminating in a recall campaign organized by a Northern Virginia political group last year — about whether she is sufficiently tough on crime. Dehghani-Tafti’s office started sending press releases about major convictions earlier this year.

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Gavel (Flickr photo by Joe Gratz)

An Arlington County jury found a 66-year-old man guilty on Monday of killing his son in Green Valley in 2020.

Marshall Stephens Jr., 45, was found alone in his vehicle in the 1900 block of S. Lowell Street with a single gunshot wound to the back of his head on April 23, 2020. His father — Marshall Stephens — was found guilty of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Stephens, who is scheduled to be sentenced April 1, faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and maximum of life behind bars for the murder charge and a minimum of three years for the firearm charge, prosecutors say.

“While there is nothing we can do to bring back Marshall Stephens, Jr., we are grateful for the jury’s verdict and attention to this case,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We hope this helps bring some level of closure to the surviving victims as they continue their difficult healing process.”

The full press release from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney is below.

On Monday January 24, 2022, an Arlington County jury unanimously found Marshall Stephens, 66, guilty of first degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Stephens was found guilty in connection with the April 23, 2020, shooting of his 45-year-old son, Marshall Stephens, Jr. in the Green Valley neighborhood of Arlington. The victim was found alone in his vehicle, with a single gunshot wound to the back of his head.

Successful prosecution was possible because of a careful investigation on the part of the Arlington County Police Department and collaboration between ACPD and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

“While there is nothing we can do to bring back Marshall Stephens, Jr., we are grateful for the jury’s verdict and attention to this case,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We hope this helps bring some level of closure to the surviving victims as they continue their difficult healing process.”

First degree murder carries a statutory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison; use of a firearm in the commission of a felony carries a statutory minimum sentence of 3 years.

Stephens is scheduled to be sentenced on April 1, 2022, in the Arlington County Circuit Court.

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Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is welcoming a drop in car-related crimes, which have trended upwards during the pandemic years.

Preliminary data from the Arlington County Police Department indicates carjackings dropped from 16 in 2020 to eight in 2021, while car thefts dropped from 323 in 2020 to 306 in 2021. Finalized numbers will be published later this year in ACPD’s annual crime report.

“After a temporary rise in car thefts in the first half of the year, our office helped to spearhead the formation of a regional task force, resulting in a marked decrease in car-related crimes in the second half of the year,” Dehghani-Tafti, the top prosecutor for Arlington and the City of Falls Church, said in her most recent newsletter. “Most of the recent car thefts are a result of cars left unlocked, unoccupied and idling.”

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, carjackings soared in Arlington — from one case in 2019 to 16 in 2020 — and the rest of the D.C. area. This uptick prompted more police patrols in the first half of 2021 and, by the summer, a coordinated regional response.

Preliminary data on carjackings and car thefts in 2021 (via ACPD)

From January through June, ACPD recorded 160 motor vehicle thefts and from July to December, ACPD recorded 146 similar crimes, which is “a good percentage drop,” Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow.

Per the 2020 annual report, motor vehicle thefts have a ways to go if they’re to fall back to levels last seen in 2018 and 2019, when there were 171 and 227, respectively.

Property crimes from 2016 to 2020 (via ACPD)

Dehghani-Tafti said she called attention to the drops in car-related crimes — as well as the zero recorded homicides last year and the lower rates of gun violence compared to other U.S. cities — in her newsletter to provide a counterpoint those who are saying crime is up under her tenure.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by reducing racial disparities in prosecution as well as recidivism and incarceration, and investigating wrongful convictions. Last year, there was an effort to recall her that accused her of offering criminals lenient plea deals.

“[T]he more general point I was making in the digest is twofold: the first is that, contrary to some of the overheated rhetoric in certain quarters, crime remained low and we’ve kept our word in devoting resources to serious crimes, hence our record in the last year, including tackling a number of cold homicide and rape cases; second, I wanted to be intellectually honest that a lot of people deserve credit for crime being low, and to give them thanks for it,” she tells ARLnow.

Specifically, she thanked the Department of Human Services and the county government for funding social services, the Arlington School Board for diverting kids from the criminal justice system — it removed police officers from schools in 2021 — as well as ACPD for its deescalation work and community policing and the Sheriff’s Office for helping to reduce the jail population.

She says the jail population “consistently remains at its lowest levels in Arlington history,” although it has increased from a record low of 209 in June 2020 to 265 in December 2021.

As additional evidence of crime remaining low, she pointed to the zero homicides recorded in 2021 and relatively low rates of gun violence compared to other jurisdictions.

ACPD confirmed that no 2021 deaths have been ruled a homicide, which would be down from three in 2020 and two in 2019. There is, however, an open investigation into the deaths of two people in a Ballston apartment in December.

Two reported deaths in Arlington in 2021 fall outside ACPD’s jurisdiction and reporting: the man who stabbed, shot and killed a police officer outside the Pentagon this summer and the death of a security contractor at the U.S. State Department’s National Foreign Affairs Training Center.

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Arlington’s top prosecutor just got a boost from the U.S. Department of Justice to continue pursuing criminal justice reforms.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded $340,000 to the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, led by Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. This is the maximum grant allowed through the bureau’s Innovative Prosecution Solutions program, according to a press release.

The $340,000 will fund two new positions, including one for someone trained in social work, the release said. It will support work to train facilitators in restorative practices — intended to reduce the length of incarcerations, at least in some cases, while also providing justice to the victim — and identify which D.C.-area restorative services and diversion programs produce the best public safety outcomes.

“It’s a game changer because it allows us to develop partnerships with diversion programs across the Metro area, for the first time, both in service of developing opportunities and reducing recidivism, incarceration, and racial disparities,” Dehghani-Tafti said.

The office will also hire a data expert and purchase software needed to analyze data about prosecutions, including how cases are resolved. Dehghani-Tafti campaigned on using data and evidence to drive criminal justice reform.

“It also gives us the capacity for evidence-based prosecution and evidence-based diversion decisions,” she said.

This grant will fund these positions and activities through June 2023, according to the release.

“This grant acknowledges and supports the work of local prosecutors trying to transform the criminal legal system,” said Dehghani-Tafti, who successfully ran on a criminal justice reform platform in 2019, in a statement.

Additional statements from the press release are below.

“I applaud the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s efforts and office for applying and obtaining funding under the DOJ’s FY 2021 Smart Prosecution–Innovative Prosecution Solutions Program,” stated Julius D. “J.D.” Spain, Sr., President Arlington Branch NAACP. “In efforts to focus on mediation and agreement rather than punishment, our community needs alternatives to traditional discipline. This additional funding will assist in developing effective strategies, enhancing our Restorative Arlington Program, and combating and prosecuting violent crime in Arlington.”

“Black Parents of Arlington commends the Commonwealth’s Attorney and her office for taking this important step to develop effective, economical, and innovative responses to crime within our jurisdiction,” said Whytni Kernodle, Co-Founder and President, Black Parents of Arlington. “These funds should help reduce rather than exacerbate racial disparities that are particularly harmful to young Black males, while helping to reduce crime and increase public safety for everyone in our community.”

“This funding will allow us to leverage the innovative and data driven work that Parisa’s office has been focused on since day one to increase efficiency, security and safety for our community,” said Kimiko Lighty, Coordinator, Restorative Arlington. “This grant award is an endorsement of the collaborative spirit that system partners here in Arlington have prioritized and we will all benefit from the investment in updated data systems and coordinative personnel.”

This year has also seen Dehghani-Tafti launch a wrongful convictions unit and partner with a national criminal justice organization to reduce race-based differences in prosecution by 20%.

At the same time, her tenure has seen some controversies. She has been the target of a recall effort, which cites increases in certain crimes such as carjackings — though the same data also shows a decrease in violent sex offenses and a relatively low homicide rate.

Additionally, there have been conflicts with judges over plea deals and dropping charges without an explanation for the record.

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