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Candidates debate 'vertical' prosecution method
In Martinsville commonwealth's attorney contest
Joan Ziglar (right) and Clay Gravely
Thursday, October 17, 2013
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
(Editor’s Note: This is another article in a periodic series about the Martinsville commonwealth’s attorney race in the Nov. 5 election. Further interviews with the candidates will be published in upcoming editions.)
One prosecutor should follow a court case until it is resolved, according to Martinsville commonwealth’s attorney candidate Clay Gravely.
He pledged to make that standard practice if he is elected.
But that is easier said than done, said incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar, who is running for a fifth four-year term.
The commonwealth’s attorney is the city’s chief prosecutor.
The same prosecutor should “carry the case all the way through the trial,” Gravely said, because victims and witnesses feel more comfortable dealing with one attorney, and that can “help you win your case.”
Ziglar said the process is called “vertical prosecution.” She said she and her assistant attorneys “try our best” to ensure that the same prosecutor follows a major case in which participants could be highly sensitive, such as child molestation or murder, until a sentence is handed to a defendant.
But with some types of cases, “there is no need for the same attorney to handle the case” consistently because there are no special circumstances that must be taken into account, Ziglar said. As an example, she cited a driving under the influence charge lodged against a habitual offender.
In such instances, a prosecutor who takes on a case handled previously by another attorney can look at the notes of the previous attorney, Ziglar said.
If a prosecutor thinks he should stay with a case until its conclusion but for some reason — such as an illness — cannot be in court on the day it is to be heard, he can ask for it to be continued to another day, she said.
According to Ziglar, state officials determined that based on Martinsville’s size, her office is entitled to five attorneys but she has four.
Gravely was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney under Ziglar from 2008 to 2010 before leaving to start his private law practice. After he left, state budget cuts resulted in the position going unfilled, Ziglar said.
If vertical prosecution always were practiced, Ziglar said, four attorneys always would be sitting in court, which is not efficient.
She generally assigns a specific attorney to work in court on a specific day. That frees up other attorneys to handle other tasks, such as visiting crime scenes and consulting with police officers, she said.
Things like that take more than 15 minutes here or there, Ziglar said.
If four attorneys are in court at the same time, she added, “you can’t do anything (argue a case) until the person (attorney) ahead of you is done” arguing his side and the case is resolved, and that wastes time, she said.
Gravely looks at it differently. He said the time another prosecutor spends getting familiar with a case he has to take on can be spent more effectively on other things.
Ziglar said she plans not to change any of her office’s procedures in getting work done if she is re-elected.
“It’s working,” she said of the way her office operates now, noting that crime levels in the city are at their lowest points in about three decades.
Gravely said that if he is elected, he will initiate a “top down review” of the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to try to find operating efficiencies.
Asked what he would do if he was forced to reduce the office’s budget, he said “it’s impossible to say” without knowing how large the cut would be.
However, his first priority would be maintaining the current staffing level, he said.
Ziglar said she plans to handle any future budget cuts basically the same way that she has handled them in the past — furloughs and pay cuts.
In response to past budget cuts, she said, “each of us (in the office) have taken a pay cut to keep everyone employed,” Ziglar said.
She emphasized that she has reduced her own salary.
As the chief, she said, “I take the largest” cuts.
Her employees have voluntarily taken pay cuts, Ziglar noted.
“I never forced them to,” she said. When the issue arises, “I take a vote.”