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Former prosecutor turns her attention to the future
Former Martinsville commonwealth’s attorney Joan Ziglar (center) talks with Cathy Burton (left), a receptionist in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Paula Bowen before leaving her job as the city’s chief prosecutor. (Bulletin photo by Mickey Powell)
Monday, January 6, 2014
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Joan Ziglar is glad to be out of the public eye — at least for now.
“I am excited about being a private citizen again,” said Ziglar, who lost her bid for a fifth term as Martinsville’s commonwealth’s attorney in the Nov. 5 election. She had been the city’s chief prosecutor since 1998.
No longer being a government official means, for instance, “not having to give an account of what I do and say” constantly and being able to turn off her phone when she wants privacy, she said.
Ziglar lost the election to her former assistant, Clay Gravely, who recently had been in private law practice. Gravely officially became commonwealth’s attorney on Thursday.
Although she wanted to be re-elected, “I’m good. I’m at peace” with the defeat, Ziglar said.
“After so many years of prosecuting, you make a lot of enemies,” especially in a small community where people are more likely to know who their chief prosecutor is than people in larger, metropolitan cities, she said.
While campaigning, Ziglar often stressed that by aggressively prosecuting crime, her office helped bring Martinsville’s crime rate to a 30-year low. She maintained that she would continue to prosecute cases vigorously, use plea bargains infrequently and work to increase sentences for major crimes.
Gravely has criticized some of Ziglar’s approaches, including her resistance to using plea bargains. In an interview before the election, he said not using plea bargains “hamstrings a prosecutor’s ability” to prosecute guilty people and that a prosecutor’s goal is “not always a guilty verdict” but “to achieve justice.”
By electing Gravely, based on his ideas, “the majority of voters have said they want a lighter approach” to dealing with crime, Ziglar said.
She said she has no animosity toward her successor.
“I want the city to succeed. I want Clay to succeed. I truly love Clay,” she said.
But “I stood on my principles,” she said. “I wasn’t willing to compromise” in striving to uphold the law, “even if it meant losing the election.”
“Harsh enforcement” of laws and “zero tolerance” of crime ultimately is needed to keep Martinsville safe, she added.
In the near future, “I think our crime rate (in the city) is really going to soar,” Ziglar said based on instances of crime she recently has seen, the behavior of criminals with whom she has dealt and an erosion of morals in society.
She also senses an increase in crime due to gang activity.
There is “a new mentality” that a gang member can defy police and become more prominent among the gang, Ziglar said.
The “level of defiance toward police” is growing, she continued, noting that since she began practicing law two decades ago, “I never have seen so much disrespect toward law-enforcement officers.”
“People just don’t care about being labeled a criminal anymore,” she said.
Furthermore, “parents don’t want teachers ... and law-enforcement officers to correct their children” and kids now think they can get away with mischief, regardless of how much it hurts people, Ziglar said.
Now that she is a private citizen, she feels comfortable voicing her opinions on issues affecting the city she served for roughly 15 years.
Ziglar often credited cooperation between the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the Martinsville Police Department for lowering Martinsville’s crime rate in the long run. She said she would like to see Capt. Eddie Cassady, who is serving as interim police chief, get the job on a permanent basis.
“Eddie has worked every avenue of law-enforcement in Martinsville, and he has a rapport with so many residents here,” she said. “In law-enforcement, that’s half the game ... getting people to trust you.”
Ziglar said minority representation in the city government has “drastically decreased” over the years, among employees as well as elected officials.
“The population is almost 50-50” in terms of the percentages of black and white residents, so a balance in representation is needed, she said.
Amid public concerns expressed about a lack of minorities in the Martinsville schools, Ziglar said the schools seem “more balanced and diversified” racially in terms of personnel and the school board “than city hall.”
She mentioned there now are two black Martinsville School Board members, J.C. Richardson Jr. and Chairman Robert Williams, as opposed to one black member of Martinsville City Council, Sharon Brooks Hodge.
Among minorities, more “qualified candidates” — residents with knowledge of the city and issues it faces — should run for seats on the council and volunteer to serve on local boards and commissions, she said.
But convincing such people, especially younger ones, to get involved could take some effort, she observed.
“With my generation and back,” Ziglar said, “it was beaten into our heads that you get involved in your community” and strive to make a difference. Younger people lack that encouragement, she said.
Ziglar, 52, is a graduate of Ferrum College, Virginia Commonwealth University and The College of William and Mary Law School.
Before serving as commonwealth’s attorney, she administered housing grants for the city and served as a probation and parole officer, assistant public defender and special counsel to the state attorney general.
She now is looking at career opportunities locally and elsewhere, she said, declining to elaborate.
Ziglar said that if she stays in the area, she might run for commonwealth’s attorney again in four years “if things are not going well,” such as if crime is “out of control and people are not being punished” for crimes they commit.
But that likely would be the extent of her future political involvement. When asked if she might run for city council, she answered, “No way!”
“That’s a hot potato I would not touch,” she chuckled, adding that she thinks she would be too outspoken.