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Democrats reject Miyares’ bid to intervene in local sex crime cases

Person speaks at microphone
Virginia Republican attorney general candidate Jason Miyares addresses the Virginia FREE Leadership Luncheon in McLean, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

Democrats in Virginia’s Senate have dealt a blow to a major campaign promise from Attorney General Jason Miyares that would have allowed him to intervene in some local prosecutions.

In a 8-7 vote, all but one Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected legislation backed by Miyares that would allow the attorney general to prosecute local sex crime cases involving minors.

The bill accomplished an unusual legislative feat of uniting groups representing Virginia prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, both of whom argued it was unnecessary and gave too much power to the attorney general’s office. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed the attorney general to intervene in any case involving violent crime at the request of the local sheriff or police chief. The substitute version removed the request requirement and limited the authority to crimes involving the sexual assault of children.

Miyares’ proposal stems from a case in Fairfax County involving a man accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a girl that drew widespread coverage from right-leaning media outlets. Prosecutors struck a plea deal that a judge – and later Miyares – rebuked as too lenient. Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said his office was hamstrung by a slapdash investigation by law enforcement.

Republicans have repeatedly attacked Descano and a handful of prosecutors elected in 2019 on platforms centered on criminal justice reforms like stopping prosecutions for small marijuana possession and ending cash bail.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Chuck Slump said the legislation, which was carried by Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), was “narrowly crafted” to focus on the Fairfax County case. But he argued it would also help overworked local prosecutors who wanted expertise from the attorney general.

“Whether it's a lack of resources or lack of willingness, we want to make sure that doesn't happen again,” Slump said.

The Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys weren’t swayed. Dereck Davis, the top prosecutor in Surry County who spoke on behalf of VACA, said the bill would “centralize local criminal justice.” Critics like Ramin Fatehi, the commonwealth’s attorney in Norfolk, argued it was “a vendetta that is being prosecuted through legislation.”

“We do not need this bill,” Davis said. “We have our local voters to answer to.”

Democrats on the committee largely supported that notion, questioning Slump and McDougle on why the change was necessary. The exception was Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who joined Republicans in voting for the bill.

Miyares’ original proposal is still alive in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, but it will eventually face the same Senate committee if it survives votes there.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said public defenders lobbied against the bill.  The updated version reflects the fact that it was the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who spoke out against it.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.