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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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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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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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Morning Notes

Amazon Makes Local Donations — Amazon has made a some substantial recent donations to local charitable organizations. Arlington-based Doorways for Women and Families received $100,000 from Amazon “in COVID-19 relief to keep survivors safe in housing and hotels,” while newly-created Project Headphones received $75,000, which “allows us to get headphones with mics for all grade levels in @APSVirginia.” [Twitter, Twitter]

Clement Blasts ‘Missing Middle’ Housing — “‘Missing middle’ may be two words totaling 13 letters, but depending on which side of the Arlington political divide you are on, it may qualify as a single four-letter word. The proposed housing policy, which in theory aims to find ways to stop Arlington from becoming an enclave of the very wealthy with some low-cost housing thrown in as fig leaf, came under withering attack from a veteran campaigner during the recent Arlington Committee of 100 County Board debate.” [InsideNova]

Food Hall Coming to Rosslyn Development — “The first level of the new concept will include a bodega that carries everyday essentials and prepared food for dine-in or to-go. The second level will offer seven food stalls, including an oyster bar, coffee bar and diner concept. There will also be access to a main bar, full-service dining area and a communal work lounge.” [Washington Business Journal]

County Offering Free Online Job Training — “City of Alexandria and Arlington County residents can get free job skills training online as part of ‘Skill-Up City of Alexandria and Arlington County,’ an initiative of the Alexandria/Arlington Regional Workforce Council, Alexandria Workforce Development Center, and Arlington Employment Center. The online classes are funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.” [Arlington County]

Recollection of Racism in Arlington — “There was a time, Araya recalled, when Blacks couldn’t walk along the north side of Columbia Pike without getting frisked by police. So for an African American to walk from Green Valley to see friends in Halls Hill, ‘You had to know the route through white neighborhoods. It was like the Green Book for Arlington.'” [Falls Church News-Press]

Cemetery Likely to Get Historic Status — “The cemetery at Mount Salvation Baptist Church in Arlington is now virtually assured of becoming a local historic district. The county’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) has approved the nomination, setting the stage for public hearings before the Planning Commission and County Board.” [InsideNova]

Local Man Convicted of Embezzlement — “A well-connected Virginia financial advisor was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison for embezzling approximately $8 million from money that the U.S. government and a hospital had entrusted to him to set up annuities for 13 people who were the beneficiaries of medical malpractice settlements. Joseph Edward Gargan, owner of The Pension Co. in Arlington, Va… is a relative of the late President John F. Kennedy.” [Claims Journal]

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Morning Notes

Lopez’s Dream Act Passes House — “In a landmark session, the Virginia House of Delegates today voted for the first time to approve HB 1547, a bill which would expand in-state tuition eligibility to undocumented students at Virginia’s public colleges and universities. The bill, also known as the Virginia Dream Act, was introduced by Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) and passed after many years of advocacy and hard work.” [Press Release]

One-Time Arlington Startup Founder Convicted — “A jury convicted CommuniClique founder and former CEO Andy Powers of six out of eight counts Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The jury found Powers guilty on three counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud, according to court documents… Powers was based for years in Reston and Arlington before moving to Los Angeles in August 2018 as the head of what he billed as a communications and tech platform.” [Washington Business Journal]

New Funding for Local Startup — “The Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) today announced that CIT GAP Funds has invested in Arlington, VA-based HyperQube, a cyber range as a service offering that enables enterprises to quickly and easily build an exact copy of any IT infrastructure.” [Globe Newswire via Potomac Tech Wire]

FYI Tipsters: We Can’t Open Nextdoor Links — Here at ARLnow, we appreciate everyone who emails us or sends us anonymous tips about possible stories. Recently, tipsters have started frequently sending us anonymous tips that link to a post on Nextdoor. The problem is: Nextdoor is a private, neighborhood-based social network and we can’t open the links. Please send us screenshots of posts instead.

Nearby: Falls Church Fire Cause — “Yesterday’s house fire at 400 S. Oak Street was accidental. ‘It’s not confirmed, but the cause could be a space heater plugged into an electrical power strip,’ said [fire official Henry] Lane. ‘If so, this is part of a bad national trend. Power strips cannot handle the demands of a space heater. People should plug them directly into an outlet.’ The damage to the property is valued at $150,000.” [City of Falls Church]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Morning Notes

Cemetery Flyover Planned Today — Expect to see a military flyover today around 1:45 p.m., in support of a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. [Twitter]

Grant to Pay for Reforestation — “Arlington County government officials will accept about $9,700 in federal funds to restore nearly four acres of riparian buffer along Four Mile Run. The grant will fund purchase of more than 1,000 tree and shrub seedlings to be planted in areas that have been treated for removal of invasive plants.” [InsideNova]

Arlington Man Convicted of Murder — “On Friday, April 13, 2018, a Charles County jury, after a 5 day trial, convicted Bryan Javier Aquice, 25, of Arlington, VA. of the First Degree Murder of Michael Beers.” [Southern Maryland News Net]

Disgusting Discovery Prompts Call to Police — A woman called police after she reportedly found a used condom on the hood of her car in Arlington’s Douglas Park neighborhood. [Twitter]

Nearby: New Company HQ in Falls Church — Investment firm Kiddar Capital will be relocating its headquarters to a new office building in the City of Falls Church. [Washington Business Journal]

Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman

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Morning Notes

Vigil for Parkland — Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) was among those to speak at a candlelight vigil last night in Falls Church for the victims of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting. Beyer spoke in favor of stricter gun control measures. [Blue Virginia]

Police Investigate Sound of Gunshots — Arlington County Police investigated a report of shots fired near the intersection of Lee Highway and Glebe Road Friday night. No injuries were reported. [Twitter]

Fmr. Arlington Resident Convicted of Murder — “A jury found a man guilty of multiple counts related to an execution-style shooting that killed three people in a D.C. park in 1991. Benito Valdez, 47, formerly of Arlington, Virginia, was found guilty of first-degree murder while armed.” [WTOP]

Theater’s Pre-Oscar Deal — With the Academy Awards now less than two weeks away, the Regal cinema in Ballston is offering a special deal: a $35 pass to see all nine films nominated for Best Picture. [Patch]

Flyover This Morning — A military flyover is scheduled just after 11 a.m. this morning for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Morning Notes

ARLnow’s Eighth Birthday — Today is the eighth anniversary of the founding of ARLnow.com. Here is our first post ever.

Sexual Harassment FOIA Folo — In a follow-up to our FOIA request seeking any records of sexual harassment or assault allegations against senior Arlington officials since 2000 — no such records were found — we asked about any such cases, against any county employee, that were handled by the County Attorney’s office over the past decade. The response from the county’s FOIA officer: “There are no records responsive to your request because no such cases exist.” The last publicly reported case was that against an Arlington police officer in 2007.

Vihstadt Launches Re-election Bid — Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt made it official last night: he is running for re-election. Vihstadt, who is running as an independent, has picked up at least one Democratic challenger so far. However, he again has the backing of a number of prominent Democrats, including fellow Board member Libby Garvey, Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and Treasurer Carla de la Pava. [InsideNova]

County Accepts Millions in Grant Funds — “The Arlington County Board today accepted $17.85 million in grant funding from three transportation entities that will be used for transit, bridge renovation and transportation capital projects in the County.” Among the projects is a new west entrance for the Ballston Metro station. [Arlington County]

County Board Accepts Immigration Donation — “The Arlington County Board today accepted a resident’s anonymous donation for a Citizenship Scholarship to help Arlingtonians pay the $725 federal application fee charged to those seeking to become U.S. citizens.” [Arlington County]

Man Convicted of 7-Eleven Robberies — A man arrested last year for a string of robberies has been convicted by a federal jury of three armed robberies and an armed carjacking. Among the crimes were two armed robberies of 7-Eleven stores in Arlington. [Alexandria News]

Arlington Lauded for Solar Program — The U.S. Department of Energy has named Arlington County a “SolSmart” community “for making it faster, easier and more affordable for Arlington homes and businesses to go solar.” [Twitter, Arlington County]

Flickr photo by John Sonderman

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List of charges against MS-13 members (image via U.S. Attorney's Office)One Arlington resident, one Alexandria resident and six Falls Church residents were among the dozen suspects convicted of multiple gang-related murders, federal prosecutors said today.

Prosecutors say all 12 were members of the notorious MS-13 street gang, which has a presence in Northern Virginia.

The U.S. Attorney’s office issued the following press release Monday afternoon.

Six members of the street gang La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, were convicted today by a federal jury for their roles in three murders and one attempted murder in Northern Virginia, among other charges.

“These violent gang members brutally murdered three men and attempted to murder a fourth,” said Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Extreme violence is the hallmark of MS-13, and these horrific crimes represent exactly what the gang stands for. This was a highly complicated, death penalty eligible case with 13 defendants and more than two dozen defense attorneys. To say I am proud of our trial team and investigative partners is an understatement. I want to thank them for their terrific work on this case and for bringing these criminals to justice.”

“The defendants terrorized our local communities with senseless, depraved acts of threats, intimidation and violence,” said Paul M. Abbate, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “They murdered in the name of MS-13, but as this jury’s verdict makes clear, no gang can protect them from facing justice for their crimes. This verdict sends a clear message that the FBI will hold violent gangs and murderers fully accountable for their actions.  I would like to thank the agents, analysts and prosecutors for their tireless efforts to eradicate gang violence in our communities.”

A total of 13 defendants were charged in this case. Of those, six defendants went to trial and were convicted of all charges. Six defendants pleaded guilty prior to trial, and one defendant was severed from the case and will have a separate trial at a later date. Please see the table at the end of this press release for additional information on each defendant.

According to court records and evidence presented at trial, on Oct. 1, 2013, Jose Lopez Torres, Jaime Rosales Villegas and others drove to Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge to murder a fellow gang member.  However, one of the gang members in the car had not only alerted police to the murder plot, he also made recorded phone calls and wore a body wire to a meeting where the gang members, including Pedro Anthony Romero Cruz, who participated from prison on a contraband cell phone, planned the murder. The gang members’ vehicle was under surveillance that night, the victim had been warned to not be at school, and the informant was wearing a body wire.

According to court records and evidence presented at trial, on Oct. 7, 2013, Torres, Omar DeJesus Castillo, Juan Carlos Marquez Ayala, Araely Santiago Villanueva, Jose Del Cid, and three others murdered fellow gang member Nelson Omar Quintanilla Trujillo. The gang believed Trujillo was a snitch, and so the gang members lured him to Holmes Run Park in Falls Church, and brutally killed him by stabbing him with knives and slashing him with a machete. When they were done they buried Trujillo in a shallow grave.  Several gang members returned a short time later and, with the assistance of Alvin Gaitan Benitez, reburied the body of Trujillo.

According to court records and evidence presented at trial, on March 29, 2014, Castillo, Benitez, Christian Lemus Cerna, Manuel Ernesto Paiz Guevara, Villanueva, Del Cid, and one other murdered Gerson Adoni Martinez Aguilar, a gang recruit, for breaking gang rules.  Like Trujillo, the gang members lured him to Holmes Run Park and killed him. They stabbed him repeatedly, cut off his head, and then buried him in a shallow grave.

According to court records and evidence presented at trial, on June 19, 2014, Jesus Alejandro Chavez, Del Cid, and Genaro Sen Garcia murdered Julio Urrutia. Several gang members including Chavez, who had been released from prison eight days earlier, were out looking for rival gang members when they approached a group of young men, flashed their gang signs, and challenged them about their gang affiliation. During the exchange Chavez pulled out a gun and shot Urrutia in the neck at point blank range.

Each defendant convicted at trial faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison when sentenced.  Villegas and Cruz face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on the conspiracy to commit murder charge, in addition to a consecutive minimum sentence of 10 years in prison for possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.  Villegas also faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on the attempted murder charge. The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes, as the sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the court based on the advisory Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

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Morning Notes

Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally at the Pentagon (Flickr pool photo by Brian Irwin)

Memorial Day Closures — Arlington County government offices, courts, schools, and community centers will be closed on Monday for the Memorial Day holiday. Arlington’s public indoor pools will be open, trash and recycling will be collected and ART buses will operate on a holiday schedule. [Arlington County]

Flags In at Arlington National Cemetery — More than 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard, placed small American flags in front some 275,000 headstones at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday. The annual ceremony, known as “Flags In,” has been taking place before Memorial Day for more than 60 years. [U.S. Army]

Arlington Man Convicted of Sexual Abuse — Arlington resident Gary Hankins, a 45-year-old former licensed clinical social worker, has been convicted of sexually abusing a 17-year-old patient. The boy’s parents first contacted authorities after they discovered sexually suggestive texts from Hankins on his phone. [NBC Washington]

Candidates Bash Board’s Reevesland Vote — The Democratic candidates for County Board are criticizing the County Board’s vote this week to sell the historic Reeves farmhouse. At a debate lacking one candidate — School Board Chair James Lander, who had a School Board meeting — candidates took turns bashing the decision, calling it “shameful,” “bad business” and “beneath Arlington.” [InsideNova, Washington Post]

APS to Discuss Swanson, Williamsburg Plans — Next month Arlington Public Schools will hold public forums to discuss “interim options” for addressing capacity issues at Swanson and Williamsburg Middle Schools. “These interim solution options include the use of both on-site or off-site locations to house some portion of the school populations, the possibility of some interior redesign, the use of relocatables as part of the solution, and changes in scheduling,” APS said in a press release. [Arlington Public Schools]

Flickr pool photo by Brian Irwin

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Arlington County police logoThe Arlington County detectives have solved and obtained a conviction in a decades-old rape case thanks to new DNA technology, according to a report by TV station WUSA9.

The crime happened in January 1992, when a 25-year-old grad student answered a knock at her door, in an Arlington apartment building. The man at the door, dressed as a maintenance worker, drew a gun and proceeded to rape her.

Veteran detectives Rosa Ortiz and Bob Icolari, who have been working to solve long-cold rape cases, resubmitted a small amount DNA evidence from the case to the state crime lab, which was able to find a match thanks to new technology. The suspect — Stevie Brinson, 55 — confessed and was sentenced to life in prison, WUSA reported.

Ortiz and Icolari obtained a conviction in a 25-year-old rape cold case earlier this year. Ortiz is also known for being the lead detective in the Carl Diener murder case.

WUSA9’s report (note: video automatically plays), after the jump.

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