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Theo Stamos (staff photo)

Former Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos is taking a top job in the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

Stamos lost her reelection bid in 2019, defeated in the Democratic primary by now-Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. Once Arlington’s top prosecutor, today Stamos was named the state’s Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

After her election defeat Stamos went on to work as a Law Enforcement Liaison in the U.S. Dept. of Justice during the Trump and Biden administrations, before starting to work with Jason Miyares, Virginia’s newly-elected Republican Attorney General, in January 2022. As Special Counsel to the Attorney General for Special Investigations, Stamos recently wrapped up the successful prosecution of former Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler.

Miyares has been a critic of the progressive justice reform movement, which helped to sweep Dehghani-Tafti into office and Stamos out of a job.

Also announced today: the current Deputy Attorney General of Criminal Justice and Public Safety, Nicole Wittmann, is becoming the Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney in Loudoun County, where Republican Bob Anderson defeated progressive prosecutor Buta Biberaj in the November election.

More, below, from a press release.

Attorney General Jason Miyares is pleased to announce that Deputy Attorney General of Criminal Justice and Public Safety Nicole Wittmann is joining the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office as Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. Theo Stamos will become Attorney General Miyares’ Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice and Public Safety. Theo Stamos currently serves as the Special Counsel to the Attorney General in charge of Special Investigations, Cold and Actual Innocence Cases.

“Nicole has been an invaluable team member and has served the Commonwealth diligently. Virginians are better off because of her commitment to the rule of law and public safety. I look forward to seeing the positive change she’ll bring to Loudoun County as the Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney, returning the office’s focus to prioritizing public safety and protecting victims, which has long been missing,” said Attorney General Jason Miyares.

Nicole Wittmann has spent the majority of her career serving the people of Loudoun County as the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney and Director of the Victim Witness Program. She specialized in the prosecution of sex crimes, crimes against children, human trafficking, internet solicitation of children, child pornography, child abuse, domestic abuse, homicide, and violent crimes. Wittmann received her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College and her law degree from Michigan State University College of Law.

“As the attorney responsible for our office’s special investigations, cold cases, and actual innocence petitions, Theo Stamos has tirelessly pursued the truth that Virginians deserve. Her unwavering dedication to public service makes her a core pillar of my administration. I am thrilled to have her serve as Virginia’s next Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice and Public Safety,” the Attorney General continued.

Theo Stamos began her career as a prosecutor in 1987 in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, capping off her career there as the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney from 2012 to 2019. She worked in the U.S. Department of Justice where she served as a state and local law enforcement liaison in the Office of Legislative Affairs. Most recently, Theo spearheaded the investigation into the Virginia Parole Board and the Loudoun County School Board, which resulted in the termination of the previous superintendent and a successful conviction for retaliatory firing.

Both Wittmann and Stamos joined the Office of Attorney General at the beginning of the Miyares’ administration in January 2022.

Arlington County courthouse on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Widespread speed cameras and more funding for prosecutors are two emerging priorities for Arlington County during the upcoming legislative session.

The Arlington County Board got a first look at its legislative priorities during a meeting last night (Tuesday). They cover a range of topics, from funding for improving public transportation to tackling the behavioral health crisis crippling Arlington and the state.

The new priorities come one week after elections for both chambers of the state legislature. Democrats retained control of the Virginia State Senate and obtained a slim majority in the House of Delegates, previously controlled by Republicans. Still, policymakers — who will meet with the Board on Tuesday, Nov. 28 to discuss their priorities — will have to contend with a divided government, as the GOP controls the executive branch.

Going into the session, which begins Jan. 10, 2024, Arlington County is looking to state legislators to introduce bills granting local authority for automated speed enforcement beyond work and school zones, per a county report.

More speed cameras are part of the county’s Vision Zero initiative to reduce serious injury and fatal crashes, as well as a recommended way to reduce potentially adverse interactions between officers and civilians during traffic stops. In January 2022, the County Board approved their installation in school and work areas to reduce speed-related crashes in these areas.

Since then, however, the process of installing these cameras in these zones has stalled. In March, Police Chief Andy Penn said a contract could be ready this spring but, nine months later, police and Vision Zero Coordinator Christine Baker told ARLnow this week that the contract is still in the “procurement” phase and tied up in negotiations.

Moving from the streets to the county courthouse, Arlington County says it would like legislation to “ensure there is adequate funding for the prosecution of misdemeanors, civil duties, and the creation of diversion services.”

This responds to several issues that have arisen within the local criminal-legal system and others across the state, with the introduction of body-worn cameras, contracted staffing levels and mounting pressure for programs diverting from jail people who commit nuisance crimes or have an addiction or serious mental illnesses.

“The work of prosecution has changed considerably over the past years, and arguably decades, and in some respects, our office has failed to keep pace or appropriately adjust expectations about the services our office could reasonably provide with limited resources,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti said in a 2020 memo to County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Reviewing body-worn camera footage, for instance, became a deciding factor for Dehghani-Tafti to pull prosecutors from jailable misdemeanor offenses such as driving without a valid operator’s license, driving on a suspended license, reckless speeding and numerous registration offenses.

In the memo to Schwartz, the top prosecutor said she did not come to this decision lightly. Rather, she first sought counsel from a state agency that trains prosecutors and the Virginia State Bar Ethics Counsel. Both said prosecutors would need to review thousands of hours of body-worn camera footage to meet their obligations to share all exculpating or incriminating evidence.

“Unfortunately, at present we have neither the staff nor resources to review, process and disclose camera footage and other evidence from 40,000 cases,” Dehghani-Tafti said in the memo.

To that end, Arlington County says it is also wants to see state funding for additional positions to review body-worn camera footage “to increase transparency and accountability with law enforcement.”

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The scene of the crash involving Heather Keppler’s daughter on a bicycle (courtesy Heather Keppler)

On Oct. 19, 2021, an elderly driver hit the daughter of Tara-Leeway Heights resident Heather Keppler while riding her bike.

The impact of her body cracked the windshield and she fell to the ground. She was whisked to the hospital in an ambulance where — not wanting to disturb any potential broken bones — doctors cut off a favorite running shirt and took a full-body X-ray.

Doctors said her tailbone was either broken or bruised and additional scans would confirm which injury it was. Keppler said they opted not to know, as the recovery process was the same: sitting on a donut pillow and missing her exercise routines. This pause took a toll on her daughter, then a freshman training for a regional running race.

Keppler decided to get a lawyer when one for the 86-year-old man involved called to see if she had one. The mother says in retrospect — after her experience ended in dropped charges — she is lucky she hired legal help.

“I don’t know how I would’ve found out [what] was going on,” she said.

Heather Keppler at her home in the Tara-Leeway Heights neighborhood (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Since June 2020, Arlington police officers have been shepherding through the legal system less-serious traffic misdemeanors: speeding, driving without a license, and so on. Before, the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney had a prosecutor outside Courtroom 3C — where those cases are adjudicated — to enter plea bargains.

This arrangement was imperfect, according to Arlington’s top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who just won the Democratic primary race for her seat against challenger Josh Katcher.

The assigned prosecutor often did not have “any prior knowledge of the case” and did not share pre-court-date discovery with defendants, she wrote in a 2020 memo to County Manager Mark Schwartz. This was one reason she removed prosecutors from “3C.”

After hearing from a state agency that trains prosecutors and the Virginia State Bar Ethics Counsel, it became clear her staff could not meet their obligations to share all exculpating or incriminating evidence in these cases, she argued.

Dehghani-Tafti attributed this largely to an uptick in available footage from cameras that police wear and have in their cars. Sharing all evidence would require prosecutors to review, process and disclose footage from some 40,000 cases — a tall order given current staffing levels.

“We did not come to this decision lightly, but rather after a thorough analysis of several factors,” she wrote to the Arlington County Police Department in a 2020 memo.

Three years later, she tells ARLnow that her office has kept the promises in that memo.

“We have gotten involved in every case in which our law enforcement partners have asked us to get involved, as was promised in the memo,” she said.

Keppler, however, suspects that the lack of prosecutorial presence in traffic court could explain how her daughter never got her day in court. She supported Dehghani-Tafti in her original, successful 2019 bid but this experience led her to flip for Katcher.

The bike that Keppler’s daughter rode when she was hit (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Dropped charges 

After not hearing anything about her daughter’s case for some time, Keppler began to get worried.

Her lawyer found that subpoenas ordering the Kepplers and their assigned police officer to court on Nov. 18, 2021 were written but never issued.

“Because it was never issued, we never showed up to court,” she said. “Because no one was there, they dismissed the case.”

Like Keppler, local personal injury lawyer Jeff Jankovich says a prosecutor outside 3C could have helped the Kepplers. This person could have checked for the subpoenas and asked the judge to move the hearing date so everyone could make it.

Although Dehghani-Tafti’s memo says prosecutors were unfamiliar with the traffic cases on the docket that day, Jankovich recalls days when there were extremely experienced prosecutors who “did a pretty thorough job” of evaluating each case.

“If there were aggravating facts — an accident where someone was injured, or someone had significant prior record, even if it was minor speeding but the third, fourth or fifth offense — they were on top of that and it affected how they approached case,” he said.

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(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Arlington’s top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, bested challenger Josh Katcher in yesterday’s Democratic primary.

Now, she says it is time to get back to work, building on reforms she made the first time around and forging a better relationship with the Arlington County police rank and file.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington and Falls Church in 2019 on a criminal justice reform platform, besting her predecessor, Theo Stamos, in an expensive and contentious primary.

This time, she beat Katcher in a campaign that focused on her track record — and sometimes stooped to criticize Katcher for his prosecutorial judgement and question the motives of his supporters and donors.

Of her race in Arlington, Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow last night (Tuesday) that “the 2019 campaign was about ideals and promises and laying out a new vision. This is about showing our work.”

With the primary behind her, Dehghani-Tafti shared with ARLnow what is next for her office. One top priority is expanding the Restorative Arlington initiative so more victims can choose guided, out-of-court conferencing sessions with the people who harmed them — if they want it.

She would also like to schedule another clinic where people can learn about how to get their records expunged, which she aims to make a biannual event. Additionally, Dehghani-Tafti is working on standing up a gun buyback program with Moms Demand Action and has met with the organization since last fall to find a “safe and effective” way to pull it off.

Lastly, though this falls outside her purview, she plans to meet with court services to find ways to get more residents connected to substance use treatment programs.

ARLnow asked about her relationship with the Arlington County Police Department going forward. The police union endorsed Katcher as it endorsed Stamos in 2019.

“I will continue to be a bridge-builder as much as possible,” she said.

Police union president Randall Mason said the organization is disappointed in the outcome but hopes the relationship between the departments will grow.

“Maybe she didn’t know there was a poor relationship between officers and her office, and our endorsement was eye-opening for her,” he said. “Hopefully it becomes better over the next four years and we work collaboratively towards prosecutions.”

He says officers want to see the prosecutor’s office devote more time to pre-trial preparation. Mason has been asked to be a witness twice and both times, he says, he was not given opportunities to meet with prosecutors in advance though he requested it. Officers also want to get feedback when charges are dropped “so we can do our job better in the future.”

Judith Davis, an Arlington Public Schools parent, said she attended every forum and asked the two candidates about student health, safety and substance use. She supported Dehghani-Tafti because she acknowledged “there was work to do.”

Still, she was frustrated that this election “brought out the ugly in people.”

“It’s easy to point fingers,” she said. “We didn’t hear from the people who had things to say.”

Yordanos Woldai, a Green Valley resident concerned about safety in her community, said she supported Katcher for his judgment and trial attorney experience.

“I am proud of the campaign Josh ran,” she said. “He focused on issues that matter — even while enduring one baseless attack after another.”

Katcher critiqued his opponent for downplaying statistics indicating a rise in crime, as well as her office for mishandling cases and thus, compounding the hurt victims feel.

Both used anecdotes from people who went through the court system to paint each other as lacking competency or nuanced judgment.

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

In the race to pick the next Democratic candidate for Arlington and Falls Church’s top prosecutor, incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has topped her opponent, Josh Katcher, in fundraising.

A campaign financing report released yesterday (Monday) says she netted $356,220 in cash donations for her re-election bid from April 1-June 8. She raced ahead after falling behind Katcher in the last filing period. The Democratic primary is on June 20 and early voting started last month.

Most of the cash Dehghani-Tafti received — $295,000 — came from one progressive political action committee (PAC) founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. She also received nearly $75,000 in in-kind donations from a handful of other liberal groups, including $45,992 from New Virginia Majority and $23,435 from Justice and Public Safety PAC.

Katcher’s largest donation this round, $15,000, comes from the Arlington Coalition of Police. He still bests his opponent when it comes to number of donors above and below $100. He also has loaned himself $30,000, whereas Dehghani-Tafti reported no loans during this period.

Fundraising has yet to reach the nearly $1 million seen ahead of the June 2019 primary, when Dehghani-Tafti bested incumbent Theo Stamos and in one filing period received $515,492 in cash and in-kind donations from a Soros-funded group.

In a statement this morning, the campaign to elect Dehghani-Tafti celebrated these donations and went after Katcher for trying to discredit them.

There are those, like our opponent, who will seek to sow distrust in these upstanding organizations, who have already aimed to diminish their right to bring together the voices of those who are normally disenfranchised, and support both democracy and Democratic values; those who utilize Republican scare tactics, demonizing the hard work of members of these American institutions.

We do not agree with our opponent. We embrace not only the right these groups have to support our campaign, but we celebrate this support, accepting these contributions of time, money, and labor by hard-working Americans who are invested that ALL people in Arlington be treated equally under the law, that ALL people can expect justice under the law, and that ALL people here can expect a safe community for their families to grow, love, and prosper.

Katcher’s campaign lambasted his opponent today for omitting the $295,000 in what it says is “dark PAC money.” His campaign manager, Ben Jones, said the following:

Over the past month, our campaign has pointed to a clear pattern of behavior by Parisa Dehghani-Tafti where she refuses to tell the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth to our community, even on the most elementary matters. Whether it is relating to information on crime statistics, how many vacancies are open in her office, how her office operates or even just an hour ago when talking about her campaign contributions, she has shown over and over again that she is incapable of transparency or even fidelity to the truth.

Jones argued that Katcher has more broad support from Democrats than his opponent, with 1,151 individual contributions in the past six months compared to the 822 contributions to Dehghani-Tafti over the last two years.

Echoes of the fundraising rhetoric can be heard in the ads for the two candidates. Some highlight their experience and high-profile endorsements while others demonstrate their Democrat bona fides and undermine those of their opponent.

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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)

Last week, we invited the candidates running in competitive races in the June 20 Democratic primary to write a post about why Arlington residents should vote for them. Find information on how and where to vote here.

Below is the unedited response from Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, incumbent for the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

Four years ago, I ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney on the simple idea that we could build a more just legal system while still keeping our community safe. I am proud to say that since I took office, we have made that idea a reality. I have kept the promises I made to implement criminal justice reform here in Arlington, helping to make our community one of the safest in the country.

As promised, I have expanded opportunities for diversion for lower level crimes and non-violent crimes. I helped create a mental health docket and expanded our drug court, quadrupling the number of people served by it. These diversion programs get people the treatment they need rather than simply incarcerating them and ignoring the underlying issue. This both makes our community safer, and is the right thing to do.

I have also worked to make the legal process easier on victims and survivors. I reorganized the office to implement a victim-centered prosecution model. This means that only one prosecutor or team is assigned to each case so that victims aren’t being shuffled around between different prosecutors at every stage. Further, I have helped empower victims by creating a restorative justice program for appropriate cases. And, unlike my opponent, I don’t prosecute victims of domestic violence for fighting back against their abusers.

I have used my lobbying power as a prosecutor to advocate for safer gun laws and criminal justice reforms and am a Moms Demand Action Gun Sense Candidate. I supported Red Flag laws, ending the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana, and many other legislative efforts. More than once, I have convinced VACA (the statewide Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ lobbying group) to see the other side of an issue and refrain from opposing reforms. That’s why I’ve earned the endorsement of local progressive legislators like Delegates Patrick Hope and Alfonso Lopez, and Senator Barbara Favola.

Of course, my office aggressively prosecutes serious crimes like rape, murder, and gun violence. Under my supervision, the office’s trial conviction rates on violent felonies have nearly doubled over those of my predecessor. The overall trial conviction rate is also significantly higher. And we have achieved these increases even as we take a higher percentage of cases to trial.

As you may know, before becoming the Commonwealth’s Attorney, I spent many years working at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. In doing so, I saw the harm that results—both to the accused and to crime victims—when the system gets it wrong. That’s why I created a conviction review unit to review old convictions for mistakes. That unit has already helped overturn a conviction and keep a woman from being wrongfully deported away from her family and the only country she knows.

To prevent errors going forward, I have also made strides to even the playing field with the defense and make sure trials are a fair fight. Immediately upon taking office, I ended my predecessor’s outdated policy requiring defense attorneys to hand-copy documents and began providing open-file electronic discovery. And, my office was one of the first in the country to stop using peremptory strikes in jury trials except in limited circumstances. This is a commonsense way to prevent discrimination in jury selection.

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Arlington County courthouse and police headquarters in Courthouse (file photo)

(Updated at 5:45 p.m.) When Braylon Meade died in a car crash, a juvenile court judge handed down a sentence of one year of incarceration and two years of probation to the 17-year-old who crashed into him.

Prosecutors asked for a longer confinement term.

Had the crash happened just two months later, however, the driver would have been 18, would have been tried as an adult in circuit court, and likely would have received a stronger sentence.

Meade’s mother, Rose Kehoe, argued last month that this case should have been transferred to Arlington County Circuit Court, which handles felonies, given the age of the young man who killed her son and the severity of the crime. The then-17-year-old was driving 95 mph, had a blood-alcohol content of under 0.08%, according to Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood, who spoke with multiple people familiar with the case.

Last month, Kehoe backed Josh Katcher, who is running against incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, citing the judgment call and how she was treated as by Dehghani-Tafti’s office.

“Meaningful reform requires nuanced thinking regarding the facts of each individual case and applying the law fairly and appropriately,” Kehoe wrote in a letter to State Sen. Barbara Favola, who endorsed the sitting Commonwealth’s Attorney. “In the case of Braylon Meade, we have no doubt that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti’s political rigidity on the issue of refusing to charge juveniles as adults is what governed this case.”

Kehoe also recorded a campaign video ad for Katcher.

One of Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign promises was to not try children as adults where it was in her power to decide. In this case, she said the rehabilitative services provided by the juvenile system would be better for holding the defendant accountable than potentially incarcerating him in an adult prison.

The politicization over whether to try this one juvenile as an adult posed questions about whether it ever makes sense to try a juvenile as an adult and whether Arlingtonians want a top prosecutor to take a discretionary approach to trying juveniles as adults, or to never do it all.

Arguments for and against the practice

Dehghani-Tafti’s resolve reflects a trend in prosecutorial reform to advocate against trying children as adults. Proponents argue children are not mini-adults and their brains work differently and that keeping juveniles plugged into developmentally appropriate services improves their outcomes later in life.

Fair and Just Prosecution nonprofit executive director Miriam Krinsky takes this view. Her organization advocates for a evidence-based, rehabilitative approaches to juvenile justice and, in a statement to ARLnow, she said cases like this one are hard but prosecutors should follow the science.

“Science shows that young people under the age of 25 are developmentally different from adults and should be treated differently by the system,” she said. “The science also shows that young people have a greater capacity for rehabilitation, are more responsive to treatment than adults because their brains are still developing, and are more likely to age out of criminal behavior.”

ARLnow also heard from lawyers who agree with the starting point that children should not be in adult prison — but who have a different view about trying a case in circuit court, which operates differently than a juvenile court.

“The Commonwealth’s Attorney has tons of discretion on every bit of it and can pursue plea deals, deferred dispositions, all kinds of things that could have been done and it would have given everybody involved the superior resources of the circuit court,” says Greg Hunter, a local defense attorney.

In short, if, after a hearing, a juvenile is transferred to circuit court for trial, adult prison is not a guarantee and a sentence can come with more oversight and a broader range of services.

They say this makes sense for older juveniles, who age out of the supervision of juvenile court after they turn 21 and thus have a shorter probation period in which reoffending has greater consequences. Judges can blend juvenile and adult sentences, which one study says did not impact recidivism outcomes.

The discussion unfolds, however, in a county where children are rarely tried in circuit court to begin with. One notable recent exception is when Maxwell Adams was tried as an adult for murdering his father, for which he received a 32-year prison sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

The Cambodian-American woman who got bad legal advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A slighted mother grieving the death of her son 

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

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

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

(Updated at 12:10 p.m.) Arlington’s police union is endorsing challenger Josh Katcher in the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Katcher is running against incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the Democratic primary to determine who has the local party’s nomination to run this fall.

Dehghani-Tafti campaigned on criminal justice reform and won her first term in 2019, after beating Theo Stamos, for whom Katcher previously worked (he also worked for Dehghani-Tafti before leaving the office).

The incumbent has focused her re-election campaign on the reforms she has made, such as ending cash bail, a requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal case, and prosecution for marijuana possession. She has endorsements of several current and former state legislators and members of the Arlington County Board and School Board and the Washington Post.

Katcher has focused on allegations of rising crime, staffing issues within the top prosecutor’s office and crime victims who say they were not respected. He picked up the endorsement from Arlington Coalition of Police (ACOP) because, the organization says, the current relationship between local police and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney is crumbling.

“ACOP has spent the last 7 months attempting to stay out of the Commonwealth Attorney’s race,” it said in a press release. “We understood that whoever won, officers would still need to have a working relationship with the winner. Although that current working relationship is extremely poor, we worried that any statement would make the relationship even worse.”

The organization says it was reluctant to speak up until now — with less than a month before the primary on June 20 — but wants to correct the record about statements Dehghani-Tafti has made on the campaign trail.

In a recent Arlington County Civic Federation debate, the current Commonwealth’s Attorney said her office has a “healthy” relationship with officers and that prosecution rates are down because police are apprehending fewer people.

ACOP says this “could not be any further from the truth” and it “cannot sit by idly while she intentionally misleads the public.”

It listed some of the issues officers say they have with how the top prosecutor’s office currently runs:

On almost a daily basis, members of ACOP email their union representatives with complaints about Ms. Tafti’s office. The most common recurring complaints are about a lack of preparation from the prosecutors, subpoenas not being issued in a timely manner (sometimes never being issued at all), a case getting dismissed without ever contacting the arresting officer, DUIs being plead down to reckless driving with no explanation, subsequent DUIs being plead down to first offenses, and a general lack of communication about cases and outcomes.

Citing felony arrest and indictment data, it countered a claim she made in the debate that police are apprehending fewer people. ACOP says the number of arrests is “the highest it has been for at least six years,” if marijuana possession arrests are removed.

“Felony arrests in Arlington County have remained relatively consistent with the exception of 2020 during Covid,” the release said. “What has not remained consistent is the percentage of felonies that were indicted by the Commonwealth Attorney.”

Arrests by Arlington County Police Department (via Arlington Coalition of Police)

In the 2019 fiscal year — the year before Dehghani-Tafti took office — approximately 41% of felony arrests were indicted to Arlington County Circuit Court, compared to 15% in 2022, ACOP says, citing recent budget materials.

Dehghani-Tafti provided data the state collected from Arlington indicating a steady decline in arrests made since 2012. while a sharp uptick in simple assaults — from 721 in 2018 to 1,146 in 2021 — may explain an uptick in offenses.

Arrests versus offenses in Arlington through 2021 (courtesy Parisa Dehghani-Tafti)

Meanwhile, a sharp uptick in simple assaults — from 721 in 2018 to 1,146 in 2021 — may explain an uptick in offenses.

Simple assaults appear to be on the rise (courtesy Parisa Dehghani-Tafti)

As for indictments, Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow these are lower because her office is not hitting defendants with several charges related to one criminal incident, a tactic she says prosecutors can employ to force defendants to plead guilty and not go to trial.

“It’s our policy to not stack charges and over charge,” she recently told ARLnow. “We’re not afraid to go to trial and check our evidence with fair and reasonable charges. When we go to trial, we win more than the prior administration.”

Between 2020 and 2022, prosecutors in her office obtained guilty verdicts on cases with one or more charges 75% of the time compared to 64% under Stamos, she said. Guilty verdict for the most serious charges brought forward, across all misdemeanors and felonies tried, was 72% between 2020-22, up from 57% from 2015 to 2019.

The ratio of felony cases that are indicted (via Arlington Coalition of Police)

(The chart, also provided by ACOP, does not include data for 2017 or 2018. ACOP said it could not find publicly available data for those years. ARLnow also could not immediately find data from those years in budget documents.)

ACOP said it has worked with Katcher for the last decade and see him as “experienced and competent.”

“Josh will be able to lead the office through his experience and mold the attorneys in the office into skilled litigators,” the organization said. “Most importantly, we know Josh will get the relationship between ACPD and the CWA office back on track to where prosecutions are a collaborative effort between the two departments.”

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Arlington County Courthouse (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

(Updated at 12:30 p.m.) A year ago, Arlington County launched a diversion program for youth and young adults who commit certain misdemeanor and felony crimes.

Heart of Safety is a voluntary program facilitated by Restorative Arlington, a nonprofit that facilitates meetings between victims who choose this approach and the people who committed crimes against them.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney or the local court services unit — which provides services to juvenile court-involved youth and their families — refers victims of crimes who want to stay out of court proceedings to the program.

There, victims and the people who harmed them meet with facilitators and each other to discuss what happened and why, the results of that crime and how the perpetrator can make amends — typically by adhering to a restoration plan to which both parties agree. This approach borrows from longstanding indigenous traditions that have been implemented and studied in some U.S. communities.

The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney has referred eight cases to the program as of November. That figure comes from a Freedom of Information Act request filed last fall by the campaign to elect Josh Katcher, challenger to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the Democratic primary on June 20. His campaign released its findings on Friday.

Program Executive Director Kimiko Lighty says that the number of cases that have gone through the program is higher. It does not include cases referred from court services unit, those completed in 2022, ongoing cases, or those on who are on a six-month waitlist that she would take if the program had more capacity.

“Heart of Safety is working at capacity right now and has a waitlist,” Lighty says. “There are people who are saying, ‘We would rather wait to have a restorative option than go to court.'”

Participants include people from middle school through 26 years old who committed a fairly broad range of crimes, though Lighty did not elaborate on what kind, citing privacy.

“What they have in common, every single one, is that the person harmed asked for a restorative process,” Lighty said.

Dehghani-Tafti, elected in 2019 on a platform of prosecutorial reform, has said on the campaign trail that Heart of Safety is an avenue for victims to heal and for people who committed crimes to reckon with their actions, demonstrate remorse and commit to making amends.

She tells ARLnow the cases that went through the program “have gone really well” and been consistent with a memorandum of understanding and referral policies governing the program, both of which were provided to ARLnow.

Katcher and his team take issue with how the program has been promoted and how much credit Dehghani-Tafti can take for it, maintaining that people should be skeptical about why Dehghani-Tafti is not more forthright about program outcomes.

His team requested the number and types of cases that have gone through Heart of Safety, the number referred back to the courts, the memorandum of understanding and referral criteria governing the program, and a definition of recidivism.

In response, his campaign says it received the number of cases, eight, and the same documents Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign provided to ARLnow.

“Parisa Dehghani-Tafti wants the community to think of her as a reformer. However, when pressed for information to prove that she’s living up to our community’s expectations for what that means, her office refuses to answer basic questions around the efficacy of her highly-touted commitment to restorative justice,” the campaign manager for Katcher, Ben Jones, said in a statement.

“Her refusal to answer simple questions about a program that she has touted as being one of her signature promises is another sign that she’s not the right person to be trusted with ensuring our community’s safety and security,” he continued.

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

Arlington residents may soon hear the dulcet sounds of John Legend on the phone, asking them to vote for Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.

The singer, songwriter, actor and media personality is again weighing in on the local race for Commonwealth’s Attorney. An advocate for justice reform, Legend endorsed Dehghani-Tafti in 2019 and has recorded an endorsement for the prosecutor’s reelection this year.

“Hi, this is John Legend,” the singer’s voice will say to those who pick up the phone. “Why am I calling is because Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, your Commonwealth’s Attorney who needs your vote in the June 20 Democratic primary.”

“Parisa has delivered on her promises,” Legend continues. “She stopped prosecuting low level marijuana possession and ended cash bail. Under Parisa’s leadership, Arlington is one of the safest cities in America. Parisa’s work to establish treatment programs and reduce racial disparities has made her a leader on safety and justice reform both locally and nationwide.”

Dehghani-Tafti posted a copy of the recording on social media this morning.

Dehghani-Tafti is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary from her one-time deputy, Josh Katcher.

The challenger has outraised his former boss $105,562 to $66,613, though Dehghani-Tafti has criticized him for accepting money from GOP donors. Katcher, who also describes himself as a justice reformer, has linked a local rise in crime — albeit one in line with national trends — with the alleged “multiple failings” of Dehghani-Tafti’s leadership.

While lacking the star power of John Legend, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey is among those who have endorsed Katcher.

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