POLITICS

Judge Rejects Cops' Bid To Usurp Prosecutor's Power In Confederate Monument Cases

Portsmouth, Virginia, police can't subpoena city prosecutor Stephanie Morales in questionable felony cases and thereby remove her from the matter.
Portsmouth police appeared to be trying to stop Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Morales from handling felony cases they bro
Portsmouth police appeared to be trying to stop Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Morales from handling felony cases they brought against local politicians and civil rights leaders.

A Virginia state judge rejected an attempt by the Portsmouth Police Department to have the city’s elected prosecutor removed from felony cases that police have brought against state Sen. Louise Lucas (D), local NAACP leaders, and a number of the city’s public defenders in connection with what police allege was a criminal conspiracy to destroy the city’s Confederate monument.

The decision by Judge Claire Cardwell would allow Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales to handle the cases, as she was generally elected to do. The Portsmouth police, in what seemed like an effort to conflict her out of the cases, tried to subpoena Morales even though she wasn’t on the scene of the destruction back in June. 

“The judge’s ruling was that there was no basis for a request for the subpoena, and therefore she said the subpoena couldn’t issue,” Edward Ungvarsky, an attorney representing Morales, told HuffPost. “I think the judge made her decision based upon the facts and the relevant law.”

It is unclear precisely how Morales will handle the cases now that she’s poised to take over the prosecutions, but she has aligned herself with the progressive prosecutors’ movement and successfully prosecuted a former Portsmouth police officer for killing an unarmed Black teenager. 

“The upshot of today is that Ms. Morales is the prosecutor in all of the cases and she will address the cases in the normal fashion,” Ungvarsky said. The next step, he said, would be for the police department to provide Morales with police reports and other investigative files, which may then be shown to the defendants where legally required. 

The unusual and questionable felony charges against Lucas and other prominent figures have thrown the Portsmouth government into a state of chaos. Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene ― who has now aligned herself with Lucas’ political opponents ― was suspended by the city’s now-former city manager. The majority-white city council, which appears to back Greene, had seemed prepared to fire the city manager, who resigned just ahead of a council meeting.

In the early afternoon of June 10, Lucas was at the site of Portsmouth’s Confederate monument after police officers arrested two NAACP leaders who approached the monument. Lucas, who had no formal role in the Portsmouth city government, told officers they should not arrest protesters, some of whom spray painted the monument while she was on the scene. Hours later, after night fell, demonstrators brought sledgehammers to the monument and decapitated four statues. One of the statues of a Confederate soldier fell on a protester, severely injuring him.

Lucas subsequently called for Chief Greene’s resignation, saying the police department should have stepped in when the situation became a threat to public safety. Portsmouth Police Sgt. Kevin McGee wrote a letter to the city government blasting Lucas, calling her rhetoric against the chief “disgusting” and “repulsive.” 

Greene subsequently praised McGee for sending that letter and allowed him to bring felony charges against Lucas and other defendants that he’d previously attacked. McGee also disparaged Morales in the letter and wrote that he was “afraid of ... persecution and prosecution for doing my job.” Police sources previously told HuffPost that McGee was one of the officers who had pushed for the ouster of then-Chief Tonya Chapman, who was the first Black female police chief in the state of Virginia and who spoke out against a culture of racism inside the Portsmouth Police Department after her dismissal.

Ungvarsky, Morales’ attorney, said the prosecutor hasn’t yet determined how she’ll handle the 19 cases going forward.

“Once she has the investigative materials, she’ll look at the cases and address them in the normal course, just like she looks at and addresses all cases, and then make whatever actions and decisions are appropriate,” Ungvarsky said.