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Commonwealth's Attorney candidates square off at forum

By Ashley Hodge 

Staff writer 

The two candidates for Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Michael Freshour and Tracy Quackenbush-Martin, participated in an open forum Tuesday night at Mt. Laurel Ruritan Club featuring a question and answer session with Nick Long, general manager of 95.3 WHLF FM, moderating.

 

Each presented opening comments before the questions began. Long reached out to Halifax supervisors and school board members, members of Halifax Chamber of Commerce, members of Halifax County Farm Bureau, the law enforcement community and the candidates themselves for guidance in the questions asked. 

Freshour said, “I am your Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Freshour, I have been a trial attorney for 14 years for which the last 10 years I’ve been a prosecutor in the Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. I started my career as the Project Exile gun prosecutor. Ten months later I was promoted to the deputy commonwealth’s attorney position. I held that position for about seven and a half years. In August 2012, I assumed the role of Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

Freshour added, “Since I’ve taken over, my team and I have increased the number of charges prosecuted in circuit court by 43 percent. We’ve increased the number of defendants we prosecute by 53 percent. We have worked vigorously and diligently to become a more aggressive prosecutor’s office, especially for violent offenders, repeat offenders and repeat drug offenders. My goals for being commonwealth’s attorney are to prosecute criminals and keep your family and mine safe. Since taking over, we have not only increased prosecution but work really hard to increase sentencing for violent offenders and repeat offenders. I have served the citizens of Halifax County for 10 years, and I would appreciate the opportunity to continue doing so.”  

Quackenbush-Martin said, “I’m here tonight because we have a problem in Halifax County, and I want to fix it. My name is Tracy Quackenbush-Martin. I am the independent candidate running for commonwealth’s attorney. I have been a criminal trial lawyer for 15 years. 

“When I graduated from Washington and Lee University, I worked for the judges in Norfolk writing their opinions. I have worked for the U.S Attorney’s Office. But, Halifax is where I have put my roots. It’s where I fell in love with my husband, David, who is in law enforcement. It’s where my parents live and where I opened my successful practice of law, which I have built over 15 years.

“I love this community, and I want to see the job done right. Serving my community has always been a priority to me. It is a desire to serve this community in a greater way that has prompted me to leave my comfortable practice to offer myself to the citizens of Halifax County.” 

Quackenbush-Martin added, “I’ve handled thousands of cases. I have extensive experience in the courtroom and managing my own office. I have the skills. I have the desire. I have the experience to be your commonwealth’s attorney. 

“I want to take that experience, and I want to fix what is broken. In talking with the people of this community and as a citizen in this county, I’m very troubled by the revolving door of crime, by the length of time it takes to resolve cases, by witnesses and law enforcement sitting in court over and over again only to discover that their case was continued. We can do better.” 

In some court cases, a plea agreement is offered which can save the court as well as the commonwealth time and money. Each candidate told attendees why sometimes these are used and their opinions on using them. 

Freshour said, “There are two reasons why a prosecutor might enter into a plea agreement. One, if a witness changes their story or if something happens that the evidence of the case changes. The second reason is to save the taxpayers money. My interest as a prosecutor is to do justice, so if I have to reduce a charge in order to obtain a conviction, I will do that to seek justice not only for the victim but also for the citizens of Halifax. 

“The second reason is if I have a defendant who is willing to plead guilty and do the amount of time within the constraints of the guidelines, the code requires a pre-sentencing report, that costs the taxpayers about $1,500. My job as a commonwealth’s attorney is not to spend taxpayers’ money but to do what is in the best interest of the citizens” 

Quackenbush-Martin said, “According to the Virginia Supreme Court statistics of all the cases that went to circuit court in 2012, only eight percent went to trial. That means that 92 percent of the cases in 2012 were noll-prossed which means dropped by the commonwealth or dismissed or pled out. That means the results you see in the paper about suspended time that causes so much dissatisfaction in the county more than likely was agreed to by the commonwealth. It’s too many plea bargains. We lack consistency and fairness.”

Quackenbush-Martin added, “The problem with the idea of increasing charges by 43 percent is that it’s an election year. What were we doing the last seven years? Either it was a woefully inadequate job before or we have an artificial show for the public in an election year. 

“Justice requires individual attention in each case, putting in the hard work to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses, the facts and harm to the county; balancing these factors is what determines justice. As far as plea bargains, there is nothing wrong with offering them if you determine that is what justice is, but you must be consistent without it being in regards to an election year.” 

Most understand the primary role of the commonwealth’s attorney is to take the state’s case before the judge, but there are more, like staffing the office, public relations, plus serving on boards and commissions possibly even statewide. Each candidate explained the importance and the duties they are prepared to assume. They also addressed the importance or non-importance of a political party affliction.  

Quackenbush-Martin said, “My focus is to lead this office to getting good results and offering Halifax County a commonwealth’s attorney who is present in court and in the office to do the hard work to prepare these cases. I’m no stranger to hard work. I do think there is a greater leadership role that the commonwealth can play as I have in the past in my public service. That would be important to me as a commonwealth’s attorney, to remain public to all segments of society. To hear and to listen to what’s happening, so I know the desires of the public that includes communicating with the public, about why decisions are made, so the best way to do that is to communicate that information to the press and that’s what I would do.” 

Quackenbush-Martin added, “Being only in court would be a mistake. But I do believe serving on boards should be limited to those positions which are likely to make us safer or which are preventative such as Mentor Role Model and do not distract from the primary role of the commonwealth’s attorney which is to do a better job at seeking justice, otherwise it’s just politics. We have some serious problems to fix. That would be my priority as commonwealth’s attorney, which is seeking justice regardless of party affiliation. It’s why I’m running as an Independent candidate. Justice has no place for politics, and I would treat everyone fairly and equally.” 

Freshour said, “I have assumed the duties of commonwealth’s attorney, and I’ve been doing that for over 14 months. I’ve fully staffed the office, and I have dealt with the public. I have worked in the office as shown by the numbers. We have gone from 160 defendants in circuit court last year to 246 since I’ve been in charge.”

“There is no place for party affiliation in the courtroom,” said Freshour,  who is running as a Republican candidate. “When a case is tried, there is no box to check for party affiliation. No one asks about that. However, there is a stark difference between the candidates in this race. I am the Republican nominee. I’ve been a Republican, and I’m going to stay a Republican. I have stood fast by who I am.” 

It appears there are fewer jury trials recently in Halifax County, the moderator said. The judges have limited time on the court’s calendar for these types of trials. 

Each candidate offered their thoughts on this issue and expanded on their experiences with jury trials. 

Freshour said, “Most trials are bench trials. Jury trials are for really violent crimes or repeat offenders. We’ve had several jury trials scheduled. As far as my experience, I’ve prosecuted 17 jury trials. With regard to limited time, jury trials take priority. Also, there has never been a time where I haven’t been able to go to a judge and ask for dates and not received them. I’ve always had time to prosecute a jury trial.” 

Quackenbush-Martin said, “The appearance of fewer jury trials is correct. The numbers of jury trials are down. There have been very few the past few years. I have extensive trial experience with judges and juries. I have successfully tried cases to judges and juries. I’ve been successful before the Supreme Court and the Virginia Supreme Court. I’m ready to make sure the young prosecutors in the office are prepared to pursue jury trials when appropriate.”

Quackenbush-Martin added, “Jury trials are one of the highest forms of advocacy for the citizens of Halifax County. In my opinion, the commonwealth does not use them enough. They are particularly important for the public in those cases that they should have input in the judicial process. If I have heard the public correctly, I’ve heard many say that for repeat offenders they wish to have stiffer penalties. If that is so, then the commonwealth should be asking for more jury trials so that the public can have direct input on this process. I will point out that about 40 percent of the cases resolved last year took more than 12 months to get there. There is a problem, and I don’t think we can contribute it all to the defense bar.” 

 The candidates were asked for their thoughts on capital punishment, and if the situation is appropriate would they seek the death penalty. 

Quackenbush-Martin said, “It is the just result in certain cases. When the evidence and the law support it, I would definitely pursue it. I would take this decision very seriously. I’ve been counsel on two murder cases and assisted in capital murder cases as well.” 

Freshour said, “I have, will and always will support the death penalty. If the facts support a death sentence, I would not have any reservation for asking for a death sentence. As far as my experience, I have helped and assisted with two capital murder cases. I have also spent a week training for prosecution of murder cases.” 

The candidates were asked if they would say that repeat offenders are responsible for a large percentage of crime in Halifax County? If so, what would they propose to do in regards to repeat offenders in the county? 

Freshour said, “I do see the same names on a regular basis. When I assumed the role of commonwealth’s attorney, I made it my mission to go after repeat offenders. I have dealt harshly with them. As for punishment, each case is different and was constrained by the guidelines. We routinely ask the judge to sentence above the guideline for the simple fact the person keeps coming back, but ultimately the decision of sentencing rests with the judge.” 

Quackenbush-Martin said, “We see the same names in the paper. Yes, repeat offenders are responsible for a lot of crime in this county. Talking to the people in this county, I share a concern of the revolving door of repeat offenders getting slapped on the wrist, coming out of jail and doing the same thing again. It’s the job of the commonwealth’s attorney to convince the judge of what justice is in each case.”

Each candidate explained the difference between the standards that law enforcement officers use to make an arrest versus the criteria the commonwealth’s attorney office uses when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Candidates also were asked if all attorneys rely on the same laws and rules in court whether they are a defense attorney or prosecutor. 

Both candidates agreed the standards for an officer to make arrest is probable cause, which means probably a crime was committed, and it was probably the person of interest who did it. 

Quackenbush-Martin said, “There is an ethical standard as an administrator of justice as commonwealth’s attorney that is beyond simply to win. There is an ethical duty not to bring a charge that does not have probable cause behind it. The commonwealth must be able to present credible evidence. The catch is when deciding to prosecute a case, there is a clear cause. The key to the difference between probable cause and ultimate guilt in a trial is to establish good relationships with law enforcement so there is little to no gap between arrests and successful prosecution.”  

Freshour said, “For a prosecutor, my ethics dictate that I can’t pursue a case in court unless I believe the evidence shows belief beyond a reasonable doubt. When it comes to all attorneys, the laws and the rules of court do not change.” 

The session ended with closing comments from each candidate asking the public for their vote

 

The candidates plan to speak again to the public in another forum on Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at South Boston-Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts & History.