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Democratic Primary Election Is Tuesday

This coming Tuesday, June 20, is the official election day after a month of early voting for the Democratic primary when Falls Church voters will decide who that party’s nominees will be for State Senate in the newly reconfigured 37th District, now covering Falls Church, and for the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the Arlington/Falls Church circuit. On election day, polls will be open from 6 a.m. — 7 p.m.

Both races have been highly contentious. In the State Senate race, due to redistricting, Falls Church voters will be choosing a new state senator for the first time, the choices being between State Sen. Chap Petersen, whose district before this year was west of Falls Church, and Sadam Salim.

In the waning days before the election, however, it is the Commonwealth’s Attorney race between incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and challenger Josh Katcher that has taken the most contentious turn. 

The tragedy of young Braylon Meade’s death by an Arlington drunk juvenile driver last November, which has become central in the testy campaign, raised a slew of crime questions. They include, When do local prosecutors charge an underage offender as an adult?

And, more important for voters, Are there really differences in the views of incumbent Dehghani-Tafti and challenger Katcher?

Katcher’s literature and TV ads feature Rose Kehoe, the mother of Washington-Liberty High School basketball player who was killed by a drunk driver on Old Dominion Drive. They fault Dehghani-Taft for being too concerned with the perpetrator at the expense of the family victims. The family had also wanted the 17-year-old defendant tried as an adult, which clashes with Dehghani-Tafti’s stated restorative justice principle that “in nearly three years our office has never certified a child as an adult.” In the Meade case, her office had asked for three years detention, but the judge reduced it one year plus probation.

The actual facts of the prosecution are tough to verify due to state law’s confidentiality requirements, Katcher notes. “Anything you read from someone who was not in the courtroom is, at best, second or third-hand information,” he told the News-Press. “It’s important to consider the bias of individuals sharing this information or seeking to act as an authority on the matter. That includes my opponent who did not even attend the final sentencing argument.”

Dehghani-Tafti responded, “I looked at this case carefully, listened to all sides, analyzed the facts and the law with our team, and we fielded numerous calls, emails, and letters from friends of the family who urged us to transfer the case to adult court but the facts did not meet the criteria for transfer.” She added that the probation officer, “who both wrote the pre-sentencing report and who contributed to my opponent’s campaign, recommended a sentence of one year.”

Katcher’s website describes his views as similar to those of the incumbent. “I firmly believe that we need to try to keep children out of the justice system, whenever possible. That means not charging them in the first place and not trying them as adults,” it says. And he told the News-Press, “The decision to transfer a juvenile, when that decision is not mandated by the Virginia Code, is both a heavy and complicated one. These cases should be rare and the exception, not the norm.” But, he added, “Bright-line rules in prosecution are unserious and fundamentally not in alignment with the reform principle of treating each and every case with the nuance they deserve. They are the creations of non-practitioners and politicians trying to get elected.” And such tough decisions in the complex juvenile justice cases “is why prosecutors rarely start their career handling these types of cases. That’s also why experience matters so much. Developing a basis for comparison and a comprehensive understanding of the system and all of the available programs is critical for accomplishing the twin goals of rehabilitation and accountability.”

As Katcher attacks her on issues of performance, Dehghani-Tafti says she bases her decisions on “significant developments in science over the last 20 years [that] have shown that peoples’ brains are not fully developed until their mid-20s — and the part that isn’t fully developed is the part that controls executive function, impulse control, and long-range thinking,” she told this reporter via email. “Adolescence, considered to be 10-25 years old, is a time of opportunity for requiring the brain. We draw an arbitrary line at 18, but that line is midway through adolescence. We still don’t let people drink, buy cigarettes, or rent cars until 21.” Nationwide, she added, the number of children tried as adults decreased 80 percent from 2001-19. “In 2003, Virginia law even allowed for children to get the death penalty, and Virginia executed someone for a crime committed as a child in 2001. That has since been held to be unconstitutional in light of the new brain science,” she said. “I think it’s important to listen to science and to follow the rest of the country rather than moving backwards on this issue.”

Some indicators suggest an evolution in Arlington’s handling of serious juvenile offenders. In 2002, for example, a W-L student named Ray Bynum, with three classmates in a stolen car using alcohol and marijuana, drove at a high speed near Lyon Village. Bynum flipped the car which caught fire, killing his three friends and fleeing so that police had to pursue him. Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Trodden threatened to try the 17-year-old as an adult on three counts of felony murder and three counts of involuntary manslaughter. A guilty plea deal was worked out, and a remorseful Bynum, who faced 45 years, tearfully told Judge Paul Sheridan he accepted 11.5 years in prison.

Such severity in today’s climate is rarer. Molly Newton, a veteran of 23 years as an Arlington prosecutor now in private practice, told the News-Press that historically Arlington has not transferred many juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. “It’s only in very serious cases such as homicide or rape. Juvenile transfer is more common in other parts of Virginia,” she said.  But even if the perpetrator was tried as an adult, the result might have been similar. “What is missing in the current discussion of juvenile transfer is that when a person is certified as an adult to Circuit Court, it does not mean the young person has to go to adult prison,” Newton said. “The Circuit Court has all the sentencing options available to the juvenile court. The Circuit Court’s powers extend beyond that of the juvenile court and accordingly can potentially offer a young person additional rehabilitative services beyond that of the lower court, including supervision after the age of 21.”

Newton supported Dehghani-Tafti in 2019 but this year has donated to Katcher’s campaign. “I have worked with Josh on serious cases. He treated the client fairly, made reasonable offers and was diligent in turning over evidence,” she said.    

In Dehghani-Tafti’s corner has been Brad Haywood, chief of the Office of the Public Defender, posting analyses on Facebook and Nextdoor. Had the teen who killed Meade been transferred for trial as an adult, the adult sentencing guidelines would have recommended a low-end of 10 months, a mid-point of one year, eight months, and a high-end of two years, six months, he wrote. “The median sentence for all Virginia vehicular manslaughter cases over the past four years is two years, six months. “Had the Commonwealth tried to transfer to adult court and failed, there would have been less incentive for the defendant to plead guilty.”

Haywood told the News-Press that such transfers were already slowing in Arlington before Parisa’s tenure. “Though I’ve been critical of Theo Stamos, this is one area” where she was right, he said, tracing the last such transfer to 2016. “Parisa got better about stopping the use of threats to transfer to coerce guilty pleas.”

Backers of Dehghani-Tafti have combed courthouse records and extracted redacted excerpts from transcripts in a bid to show that Katcher in the past hasn’t behaved as a reform prosecutor. One result was a feature in Arlnow describing “a domestic violence victim” whom Katcher prosecuted for violence, despite evidence, Dehghani-Tafti says in criticism, that the woman was defending herself against an abusive husband. Katcher declined to comment on this and other past cases by reading only excerpts without refreshing his memory with full documentation. 

Meanwhile, the advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia in a June 3 blog praised Dehghani-Tafti for avoiding the “overcharging” it said was common under her predecessor Stamos, in which prosecutors “make the risk of losing at trial so great, with punishment so harsh, that any rational person would plead guilty—even those who are innocent.” She won an endorsement May 31 from the Arlington Education Association and is backed by former county board member Walter Tejada. And the nonprofit abortion rights advocacy group REPRO Rising Virginia backed her, its executive director saying, “The current status of abortion access in the South is dire, and we need progressive prosecutors like Parisa that will take a firm stand against the criminalization of people seeking abortion care.”

Katcher, having won backing from the Arlington Coalition of Police, on June 8 announced he had won the endorsement of former Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran. (His brother, former Congressman Jim Moran, is backing Dehghanti-Tafti.)

The News-Press has endorsed Salim and Dehghanti-Tafti.