The Virginia police department that slapped a prominent politician, local civil rights leaders and public defenders with felony charges related to the destruction of Confederate statues is also pushing to prevent a progressive prosecutor from handling the cases.
And it’s doing so by claiming the prosecutor is a potential eyewitness ― even though she says she wasn’t at the scene of the protests.
The Portsmouth Police Department announced Monday that it put felony warrants out against Virginia Senate Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D), a local school board member, leaders of the local NAACP and public defenders. The felony charges and warrants, announced at a press conference by Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene, quickly drew scrutiny from Democrats and civil rights leaders in Virginia, who saw both the broad charges and the timing of Greene’s announcement as suspicious.
The charges include felony injury to a monument and conspiracy, related to the destruction of Confederate statues in Portsmouth in June during protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism. Demonstrators beheaded four statues and pulled down one, which fell onto and seriously injured one of the protesters on the scene. While court documents have not been made publicly available, it appears that Portsmouth police took a very broad view of what it meant to enter into a conspiracy to destroy the statues. Greene stated that the investigation identified “several individuals [who] conspired and organized to destroy the monument as well as summonsed hundreds of people to join in the felonious acts.”
Typically, the commonwealth’s attorney would prosecute those cases. But the office of Stephanie Morales, the commonwealth’s attorney in Portsmouth, said Tuesday that police arrest warrants and a probable cause summary had listed Morales as a witness, “which could effectively create a conflict of interest and prohibit the Commonwealth’s Attorney from being involved in the job she was elected, by the citizens of this city, to do.”
Morales “was not on scene to be an eyewitness to any of the matters listed,” according to her office, which plans to attempt to quash any subpoena she receives.
Morales ― who as a 36-year-old Black woman has broken barriers amid a population of elected prosecutors that skews older, white and male ― has gained a reputation has a progressive prosecutor. In 2016, she successfully prosecuted a Portsmouth officer for killing an unarmed 18-year-old Black teenager. She often speaks to the harm caused by mass incarceration, she’s worked to dismiss marijuana possession cases in Portsmouth, and she recently helped form a new organization of Virginia prosecutors to help push for criminal justice reform.
Now it appears she’s facing backlash from within the city police department. Other progressive prosecutors, including Kim Gardner in St. Louis, have come under attack both externally and from within the ranks of law enforcement in their cities. In Portsmouth, the divisions don’t break down precisely along racial lines. Chief Greene, who is Black, replaced the first Black female police chief in Virginia, who said she faced systemic racism on the job from a “small contingency” of Portsmouth officers whose racism was “so inflammatory” that she declined to detail it because she feared disclosing it would threaten public safety.
If Morales is able to take over the cases, it is possible she’d move to dismiss all or some of the charges, particularly if her office concludes ― as seems pretty likely here ― that police overreached in its charges. But Morales’ office warned that, if a judge denies their motion to dismiss a subpoena against Morales, a special prosector could be appointed, which would prevent Morales from playing a role in the case and “places the matters in the hands of a special prosecutor who is not accountable to this city.”
Under Virginia’s magistrate system, prosecutors, referred to as commonwealth’s attorneys, don’t typically have intake units, and the majority of cases originate from probable cause warrants sworn out by the police. Police in Virginia can even act as prosecutors in misdemeanor cases, but not in felonies. Prosecutors typically receive information on cases after arraignment, meaning that judges have to sign off on decisions to dismiss cases. (In effect, that means elected prosecutors have less ability to exercise prosecutorial discretion than their counterparts in other states, and that there’s even less oversight on police claims before charges are filed.)
Morales’ office questioned why Chief Greene didn’t go through the process of presenting evidence to their office before bringing the charges, and said they never received investigative files from the Portsmouth Police Department.
“The Portsmouth Police Department chose their traditional process of securing warrants, albeit over two months after the alleged events, in lieu of submitting complete investigative results to this office,” the statement from the commonwealth’s attorney’s office said.
In the statement, Morales’ office called “for a fair and equitable process for all involved.”
The felony charges against Portsmouth demonstrators are reminiscent of the Trump Justice Department’s prosecution of Trump inauguration protesters, who faced felony charges even though prosecutors conceded they had no evidence that many of them actually participated in property destruction or violence. Those prosecutions were a colossal failure for the government, which ended up dropping cases against almost all of the hundreds of protesters initially charged. Still, by bringing the cases, the Justice Department was able to effectively punish demonstrators by forcing them through a lengthy and expensive legal process that theoretically exposed them to years in prison.
In Portsmouth, The Virginian-Pilot reported that while several of those charged were present during daytime protests, it was “not clear whether any of them are accused of being present hours later, when people beheaded the statues and a man was seriously injured by a falling piece of the structure.”
State Sen. Lucas, according to reports, was long gone when the property destruction actually took place.
“She left at 1 o’clock and riots began at 9 in the evening,” Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D) told The Washington Post. “I just don’t know how you incite a riot eight hours after you left the place. There’s something that just does not make any sense.”
Lucas, long before the charges were filed against her, called for Chief Greene to resign, and Lucas also said she’d asked the Justice Department to investigate one of her local police departments (though she didn’t specify if it was Portsmouth).
A spokeswoman for the police chief did not have a response to Morales’ statement, but pointed to Greene’s press conference in which she stated that it was “the duty of the Portsmouth Police Department to begin a thorough and comprehensive investigation” after a “discussion with the Commonwealth’s Attorney regarding a special grand jury and a special prosecutor did not yield any action.”