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Commonwealth’s attorney candidates stake claims
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Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar (from right) speaks Tuesday at a candidate forum as moderator Phillip G. Gardner and challenger Clay Gravely look on. The forum was held at the former Henry County courthouse in uptown Martinsville. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin staff writer

Jury trials are helping keep city residents safe, according to Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar, but her lone challenger in the Nov. 5 election, Clay Gravely, thinks she tries to use them too much.

During a forum Tuesday night at the old courthouse uptown, they voiced their viewpoints on matters relevant to the elected position.

The commonwealth’s attorney is the city’s chief prosecutor.

Gravely, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney under Ziglar who now has a private law practice, maintained that Ziglar has a “cookie cutter policy” of seeking jury trials, especially for drug-related cases.

“I proudly demand” jury trials in drug distribution cases, Ziglar confirmed.

Gravely has said that juries often hand down harsher sentences than judges.

Yet depending on how jurors analyze factors brought up at trials, Gravely said during the forum, there is a risk that criminals will go free. For example, he recalled jurors at past trials telling him that although they thought that a defendant was guilty, they did not think there was evidence to convict him.

That is when plea bargains can be useful, he indicated. In a plea bargain, a defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing to drop a more severe charge and not seek a trial.

“No case is perfect,” Gravely said, and they are “oftentimes imperfect.”

If using a plea bargain will help convict a person who committed a crime, using it is “an easy choice for me,” he said.

Gravely said using the approach with defendants that “you’re guilty, ’fess up” or you will be jailed is not always the right approach because a person’s unique circumstances in life are not taken into account.

For instance, he said, a 17-year-old who is addicted to drugs should not be treated the same as a 50-year-old drug “kingpin.”

Ziglar, who has been commonwealth’s attorney since 1998 and is seeking her fifth four-year term, refused to apologize for using any measures that some people might think are too heavy-handed.

“If you’re bad (egotistical) enough to commit the crime, you’re bad enough to do the time” in terms of appropriate sentences, Ziglar said.

“Why should a defendant not be made to suffer the consequences of his actions?” she asked.

Ziglar said she thinks jury trials are not occurring too often. For example, she said, in recent months more than 30 drug cases were set for jury trials, but none went to trial after defendants learned of evidence showing their guilt.

Ziglar said plea bargains are necessary sometimes. But in handling serious crimes, she said, using them too often is a mistake because it does not let citizens be involved in the judicial process as much as they should be.

Judges, prosecutors and citizens alike should have a role in resolving court cases in order to ensure the judicial process is fair, according to Ziglar.

She noted that, ultimately, judges — not prosecutors — sentence criminals.

If criminals admit their crimes, they may get lesser sentences, she said.

Ziglar acknowledged criticism that she has promoted in campaign ads that Martinsville now has the lowest crime rates in about 30 years. That is based on figures released earlier this year by former police chief Mike Rogers.

Reductions in crime are the result of various efforts in the community, from police, prosecutors and judges to Neighborhood Watch groups, she indicated.

But as the commonwealth’s attorney, she has been part of those efforts, she said, and there is “nothing wrong with crowing” about it.

When she first was elected as commonwealth’s attorney, Ziglar told about 80 people at the forum, “I told you I’d be very tough on crime.”

“We are succeeding very well” in efforts to eradicate it, she said.

The forum was sponsored by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce. Local lawyer Phil Gardner was the moderator.

Each candidate was given three minutes to make introductory statements, three minutes to respond to each question and five minutes to make closing comments. Ziglar and Gravely were not permitted to make rebuttals to each other’s statements, and neither candidate tried to do so.

The candidates’ viewpoints on jury trials, plea bargains and the effects of illegal drugs on the community were among the questions asked.

Gardner also asked them what role experience plays in the commonwealth’s attorney’s job.

A lot, according to both candidates, who said that during their legal careers they have been in the roles of both prosecutor and defense attorney.

However, Ziglar maintained that she is more experienced than Gravely in a commonwealth’s attorney’s work, such as by having visited crime scenes more over the years. Gravely worked for Ziglar from 2008 to 2010.

The candidates were asked their opinions about “sentencing alternatives” — punishments other than incarceration, including ones designed to help them realize and correct bad behavior by dealing with problems in their lives.

Both voiced support for such alternatives.

“The last thing we want to do as a society” is to incarcerate people, Gravely said, adding that prison is “a breeding ground for becoming a bigger, badder criminal.”

Alternatives are suitable, he said, “if they (criminals) are salvageable” and have the potential to re-enter society as a responsible person.

But the area lacks as many alternative sentencing programs as other places, such as Northern Virginia, and if existing programs are full, judges might have no option but incarceration, according to Ziglar.

Gravely said more efforts are needed to reach at-risk youth and teach them how to do right before drug dealers and other criminals can influence them.

Gardner asked Ziglar and Gravely their opinions on administrative matters pertaining to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

Ziglar said the state compensation board determined her office is entitled to five attorneys but due to budget cuts, she now has four.

Despite the crime reduction, Ziglar said her office is seeing more work as a result of things such as repeat offenders, new laws and learning how to use new technology.

Asked if he will maintain the existing staffing level if he is elected, Gravely said he did not know if he could answer that question now.

Still, he pledged that if elected, he will do a “top down review” of the office to try to find efficiencies.

The candidates also were asked how they would address city businesses’ concerns about crimes affecting them, such as thefts and vandalism.

Gravely said the commonwealth’s attorney’s office must have good relations with businesses, treat them with respect when they are crime victims and do whatever is needed to help them.

Ziglar said her office has prepared brochures for businesses in which judicial processes are explained. She indicated she plans to continue that method.

 

 
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