Herald 2022 Candidate Q and A — Cumberland Commonwealth’s Attorney Race

Published 4:56 pm Friday, October 21, 2022

As we move into mid-October, early voting has already started and for those who want to wait, it’s less than a month until Election Day. With that in mind, we’re reaching out to candidates in all contested races across our coverage area, asking them to answer several questions. Each candidate in a race receives the same questions and the same amount of time to send answers in.

In this edition, we’re focusing on the race to be the next Commonwealth’s Attorney for Cumberland County.

Wendy Hannah is the incumbent, appointed to serve as the interim Commonwealth’s Attorney this past April, when Patricia Scales retired. After graduating from Radford University and the Appalachian School of Law, Hannah landed in Chesterfield and married her husband, Stuart “Stu” Hannah. The couple later purchased a home in the Cartersville area of Cumberland County, where she’s worked for more than a decade as a prosecutor. She is running as an independent.

Jason Moore is the challenger. After graduating from Powhatan High School, he obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, worked for Delegate Lee Ware (R) in the General Assembly, then obtained his law degree from the University of Richmond. He, his wife and children moved to Cumberland six years ago. The Republican nominee has 23 years of criminal trial experience.

1. Each community has their own singular issue or area they want the Commonwealth’s Attorney to address. What needs to be the focus for Cumberland?

Wendy Hannah: One of the biggest issues facing Cumberland County that is within the scope of what the Commonwealth’s Attorney can influence is substance abuse and the distribution of narcotics. Although drug possession is a crime itself, the use and abuse of drugs leads to additional crimes being committed in the community.

For example, there may be an increase in thefts due to drug use, or increased violent crimes. Since being appointed as Commonwealth’s Attorney on April 1, 2022, I have focused on working with community leaders, law enforcement, drug treatment facilities, and local and state probation offices to tackle these issues head on. We recognize that resolving the issue of drug abuse and distribution is not something that can be accomplished overnight. However, the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for distributing drugs in our community is one of my top priorities.

Likewise, providing viable resources to those experiencing drug addiction is of the utmost importance. If we can tackle the root of the issue, we will see a healthier, safer community. One of my long-term goals as Commonwealth’s Attorney is to establish a drug treatment court. I have already laid the foundation through working with other area Commonwealth’s Attorneys to explore this option.

Jason Moore: There are three areas on which I would focus. First, the office needs to actively prevent undue continuances. Once in Cumberland Circuit Court, I witnessed the entire docket being continued. I never have seen an entire docket continued, barring sickness. The delaying of justice is the denial of justice. There is a public service element to what prosecutors do. Although the Commonwealth’s Attorney is always in criminal court, witnesses and victims miss time from work to appear and their time is important. We need to ensure when cases are called for trial, they are tried and resolved.

Substance abuse and mental health are also major issues facing the criminal justice system. The root of many crimes is alcohol/drug abuse or mental illness. With regard to substance abuse, we need to focus on finding, convicting and giving lengthy sentences to drug pushers. Those that sell and distribute poison in our community deserve lengthy jail sentences.

Simultaneously, we need to provide services to users wanting to quit drugs or alcohol. My family history is littered with those fighting substance abuse. Some were/are able to control their addiction and lead/led productive lives. Others were unable to control their addiction and either went to jail or died from complications related to substance abuse. Those successfully controlling their addiction made a decision that their love of family and life was greater than their want of drugs or alcohol. This revelation is personal. It can not be forced or hoped on someone. Once a person receives that revelation, then they are ready for help.

Furthermore, people should not be sent to a program just to do something. Too often, I see people being sent to programs without regard to the program’s effectiveness. In one court, I witnessed two defendants aged 50 and 60 with 20 and 30 years of addictions being sent to their 3rd or 4th drug rehab program instead of jail for drug possession. At that age and with that history of addiction, it is doubtful a rehab program will do much good for either man.

Finally, a mental health docket should be established to help those committing crimes due to mental illness. Mental health dockets require a defendant to perform a clinical risk assessment to determine if they are eligible for services. If eligible, then they receive case management services that focus on connecting participants to mental health, stability, and support services to reduce their risk for recidivism. These dockets have been effective in reducing recidivism by treating the mental health behaviors that cause the criminal activities. I discuss this more in answer to Question 5, and will not repeat myself here.

2. When controversial issues like the Green Ridge landfill arise, what role, if any, does the Commonwealth’s Attorney play in addressing the situation?

Jason Moore: The Commonwealth’s Attorney prosecutes crimes and ensures a fair criminal justice system. If controversial issues regarding the criminal justice system arise, then the Commonwealth’s Attorney must lead in rectifying wrongs and making improvement. The Commonwealth’s Attorney leads in a number of ways. If it is a state issue, then the Commonwealth’s Attorney can personally lobby state Delegates and Senators for changes in the law. The Commonwealth’s Attorney can also utilize the Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, which is the lobbying organization for Commonwealth’s Attorneys, to demand change. The association drafts legislation regarding the criminal justice system and finds legislators to sponsor the legislation in the General Assembly.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney can ask legislators to have the Joint Legislative and Review Commission (JLARC) or the Virginia State Crime Commission (the Commission) investigate an issue. The Commission was established to study, report and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection. It is composed of nine legislators, three citizens selected by the Governor and lastly the Attorney General. JLARC conducts program evaluation, policy analysis, and oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly.

Both state agencies have been utilized over the years to investigate, study and make recommendations for changes in the criminal justice system. Locally, the Commonwealth’s Attorney can work with the Board of Supervisors, sheriff, clerks, attorneys and judges to address any deficiencies in the local judicial system. It should be the shared goal of all members of the judicial system to improve, modernize and ensure an impartial and just judicial system.

A Commonwealth’s Attorney can also work with local organizations like churches and hospitals to engender change. The GRACY program, which is something that I want started in this area, works to educate those 14 to 25 on the adverse consequences of their risky behavior.

GRACY is a collaboration of VCU Health, Drive Smart Virginia, MADD, Chesterfield, Richmond and Henrico. Government is not the answer to every question. Utilizing non-governmental organizations for pubic-private partnerships to solve problems benefits the entire community.

Finally, a Commonwealth’s Attorney can refuse to enforce an unconstitutional law. For example, Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, has reintroduced legislation making it a crime if a parent refuses to affirm a child’s gender orientation or sexual identity. This means if a son tells his parents he identifies as female and the parent objects, then the parents can be criminally prosecuted. This is a deeply personal and private matter that should not be regulated by the state with criminal sanctions. Such a law would violate the Ninth Amendment and be unconstitutional. As a Commonwealth’s Attorney, I would take an oath to uphold the constitution and prosecuting such a law would violate my oath.

Wendy Hannah: The Commonwealth’s Attorney is primarily responsible for prosecuting jailable offenses within a given jurisdiction. As such, unless the issue centers around a crime committed within Cumberland County, I am not involved in my capacity as Commonwealth’s Attorney.

3. Every Commonwealth’s Attorney says they want to make victims’ voices heard. How do you accomplish that in a tangible way?

Wendy Hannah: I have been a prosecutor for over 10 years. Having the voice of a victim heard is not limited to the courtroom environment. As Commonwealth’s Attorney, it is imperative that I communicate with victims before their cases go to court. Victims need to feel supported throughout the entire process – regardless of the case outcome. The Victim Witness Coordinator assists victims with questions about court dates and times and what they should be prepared for in the courtroom.

The county’s Victim Witness Coordinator and I work very closely together to ensure that our witness and our victims are adequately prepared for court, have their concerns and experiences heard. After the trial of a case, if there is a conviction, the victim has the right to be present at sentencing and speak at sentencing hearings. Finally, victims are often impacted financially because of crimes committed against them. Since taking office, I have implemented restitution dockets to ensure that victims are receiving their court ordered payments related to tangible losses and injuries sustained as the result of a crime.

Jason Moore:  To ensure a victim is heard, the Commonwealth’s Attorney must talk to the victim prior to trial. Far too often, Commonwealth’s Attorneys fail to talk to victims before the trial date. A Commonwealth’s Attorney must prioritize talking with a victim at least a week before trial to understand a criminal case.

It is important to talk with the victim for several reasons. An advance interview allows the CA to see how they can best examine the victim as a witness, to learn if there are any issues with the victim like a hearing problem, dementia or speech impediment which would cause problems in advancing the case.

The most important reason for talking to the victim in advance is that it allows the CA to better understand the case and determine the veracity of the victim. I have witnessed numerous cases in which the Commonwealth’s Attorney first spoke to the victim on the day of court, and therefore, did not understand the complexity of the case. The resolution to the case, therefore, failed to address underlying issues which when addressed would prevent further problems. For example, a 70-year-old man was charged with assaulting his wife. The man had no criminal history and no history of violence. The man was convicted of assault and a protective order was issued preventing contact between the husband and wife. Turns out, the man was suffering from early dementia and could not control himself. The wife, in violation of the protective order, took her husband to various doctors appointments and got him help.

Three months later, the wife returned to court asking to lift the protective order, because her husband was being treated. Discussion between the Commonwealth, defense attorney and victim may have prevented an unnecessary conviction and issuance of an unneeded protective order.

I have witnessed cases where a victim lied to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s Attorney, having failed to talk to the victim and check the evidence before trial, was embarrassed at trial. In one case, the victim lied and claimed he was attacked by three people at the same time. The Commonwealth’s Attorney did not talk to the victim or witness until the date of court and never watched the video. The video showed and the Commonwealth’s impartial witness, who happened to be a retired Richmond homicide detective, both corroborated the defendants’ story that the victim was not attacked by the three defendants.

Finally, a Commonwealth’s Attorney must remember that a victim’s wishes represent one of many factors considered when fashioning a remedy in a criminal case. For example, in domestic cases, victims often don’t want their abusers, even abusers with multiple convictions, going to jail. The main reason victims don’t want their abuser in jail is money. Abusers use money as a control mechanism. Victims are afraid that without their spouse, significant other or ex paying  child or spousal support or living together that they and/or their kids will be too adversely affected by the monetary loss to stomach their abuser going to jail. So, a jail sentence is not what the victim wants, but a jail sentence is needed. It is the Commonwealth’s job to look at the larger picture and consider society as a whole when advocating for a sentence in criminal cases.

4. Are you satisfied with current conviction rates in Cumberland? If not, how would you improve them?

Jason Moore: I reject the premise that a conviction rate in any way relates to justice, which is the goal of the criminal justice system. Only a carnival barker style attorney would extol their conviction rate instead of focusing on the justness of the outcome. If I have nine jaywalking cases and one murder case, and obtain nine convictions for jaywalking but the murderer goes free, then having a 90% conviction rate is meaningless. Like Mark Twain said: “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

The question should be do the outcomes of cases represent fair and just resolutions based on the events that occurred. For example, I support reinstatement of the death penalty for those killing law enforcement officers in the line of duty. The death penalty is a just and fair resolution in such cases. Furthermore, in serious criminal matters like murder, rape or child molestation, the community expects the Commonwealth’s Attorney to be certain the person charged is the crime’s perpetrator, a conviction occurs and that a lengthy jail term be imposed. In serious, violent criminal matters these types of results represent a fair and just outcome.

In other cases, is it just to convict someone of the most serious offense possible? For example, I had a case where a pre-teen’s mother died, and he acted out by going into three neighbors’ unlocked houses, taking alcohol, drinking it, getting sick and vomiting in the woods.

The father took the situation seriously. The child was put into counseling, the child was no longer allowed to stay at home alone and restitution was made. The Commonwealth’s Attorney did not convict the child of three counts each of breaking and entering and petty larceny.

Instead, he allowed the kid to continue counseling with reports to the court and perform community service. The child was convicted of one count of trespassing. So, is convicting the child of 16% of the charges indicative of success or failure in this case?

In certain cases, the legislature allows the Commonwealth to utilize first time offender rograms to give people an opportunity to avoid a conviction. People accused of petty larceny, trespassing, drug possession charges are allowed to do programs and community service in lieu of being criminally convicted. These programs allow non-violent offenders to avoid a conviction while addressing the underlying issues with the hope of rehabilitation. These programs can only be used once and the charges can not be expunged to ensure that prosecutors know of the previous offense. So in these cases, society made the decision that a second chance is warranted for a person.

In conclusion, I believe we should examine the type and quality of a prosecutor’s convictions rather than the raw numbers. It is more important for a prosecutor to devise a just and fair resolution than to simply get a conviction. When I started practicing law, prosecutors cared about just outcomes. It was not uncommon for a prosecutor to hear all the evidence in a case, get a conviction and then feel a judge had over sentenced someone or the charge was wrong. When a Commonwealth’s Attorney felt that way, they had the courage to say, within ear shot of the judge, appeal the case and we will fix it in Circuit Court. These prosecutors cared more about justice than their conviction rates, and that is what I promise.

Wendy Hannah: You cannot look at conviction rates in a vacuum. You must look at the circumstances surrounding each case. As such, I cannot and will not judge conviction rates of the prior Commonwealth’s Attorney. I do not know the facts and circumstances that led to a particular case outcome. However, since taking office, I have successfully increased the number of charging documents being presented to the grand jury each term. In addition, I have strengthened my office’s relationship with law enforcement to ensure our investigations are thorough such that we have the highest potential for successful prosecution.

5. What needs does the Cumberland Commonwealth’s Attorney office have? More staff? More resources? And how do you make those changes happen?

Wendy Hannah: Currently, the Commonwealth’s Attorney office consists of myself and one legal assistant. In addition to completing our traditional tasks, we are also both certified by the Virginia State Police to run criminal histories. Previously, the Commonwealth’s Attorney had to rely on the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department for all of the criminal and traffic histories for the office.

We also have a great working relationship with the county’s Victim Witness Coordinator.

Although my legal assistant and I are capable and qualified to handle this office in an efficient and productive manner, as our caseload grows, additional resources will be needed. Increased, new resources will also be helpful to better serve our constituents. For example, resources for combating domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction and crime reduction are always something worth pursuing. I intend to examine what resources and services may provide the most impact to our community by reaching out and working with community leaders and organizations, and state partners to see what opportunities are available to bring to all of Cumberland County.

Jason Moore: There are several programs that can make the Cumberland Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office more effective and improve outcomes for Cumberland residences. First, starting a mental health docket for the court. Mental health dockets require defendants perform a clinical risk assessment to determine if they are eligible for services. If eligible, then they receive case management services that focus on connecting participants to mental health, stability, and support services to reduce their risk for recidivism.

These dockets have been effective in reducing recidivism by treating the mental health behaviors that cause the criminal activities. The program helps defendants obtain treatment, get housing and maintain a job. Without treatment, housing and work, no person with a mental health issue can maintain themselves. Treatment, housing and work are the foundation upon which future success is built. If mentally ill people are provided with a proper foundation, then we are less likely to see them in court for criminal activity.

The program also monitors defendants to ensure they maintain their medical appointments, take their medication as prescribed and helps with transportation to and from appointments. The program continues this monitoring even after the criminal case has concluded which adds another layer of protection for society.

Implementing such a docket would require coordinating services with the court, Commonwealth, the local department of social services and the mental health board. It may also require providing transportation to and from mental health visits and an examination and expansion of the mental health services available in the area.

Second, starting a restitution docket. Defendants often do not repay their victims the restitution owed in a timely manner. There should be a weekly docket for restitution cases to ensure repayment of the monies owed. Implementing docket changes would take an agreement of the court and Commonwealth.

Third, getting the Commonwealth’s Attorney more involved in the schools. As president of the local bar association, I attended government and civics classes with the Commonwealth’s Attorney to discuss legal issues and process with students. Every year we went to the senior government classes and did a presentation from the state bar called SO YOU ARE 18, which detailed how a juvenile’s life changes legally when they turn eighteen. This type of interaction helped educate children about the criminal justice system and dispel myths about the system.

Fourth, working with Centra Hospital to implement a GRACY type program for the area courts. The GRACY program or Get Real About Choices and Consequences for Yourself is designed to teach those 14-25 years of age about the consequences of their reckless actions. Forty percent of all deaths for people 14 to 25 are preventable and are linked to substance abuse and/or reckless driving.

The GRACY program is taught at VCU. Students are required to visit the ER, participate in rehabilitation classes for those who were involved in car crashes, to write their obituary and have the last rites administered to them. People who have taken this class have learned a great deal and modified their behavior after graduating. GRACY would be a useful program for drug users, drunk drivers and speeders.

Implementing these ideas will improve the criminal justice system and provide greater benefits to victims and society as a whole.