FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (7News) — Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano’s criminal justice reforms are drawing concerns from some attorneys on his own team.
7News obtained jaw-dropping emails from attorneys on Descano’s team who raised major concerns about how Descano’s policies are allegedly emboldening public defenders (PD) and defense attorneys and impacting the prosecution of child sex exploitation cases.
“There is a general feeling that the line prosecutors do not feel supported by leadership,” a Supervising Attorney wrote to Descano’s leadership team in September 2021. “We are constantly being second-guessed and not supported in or out of court. The lack of support makes it difficult for us to do our jobs and has created a very contentious work environment. The Public Defenders (PDs)/defense’s attorney are now emboldened and will say and do whatever it takes to get their way.”
The Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney supervising attorney said to Descano’s leadership team, “PD [Public Defenders] have told us that in JDR [Juvenile and domestic relations] sex cases that they will not plead to anything besides misdemeanors due to our office policy.”
In 2020, Descano told his prosecuting attorneys in a memo they shall dispose of felony charges as misdemeanors where appropriate and to avoid mandated minimum jail sentences.
During a 7News interview, Descano pushed back on the concerns coming from inside his office.
“First of all, that policy of treating some things as misdemeanors, that does not and never has touched sex cases. We take those types of sex cases very seriously,” Descano said. “It’s the reason why I created a special team that does nothing but child sexual assaults cases.”
But that’s not all.
“If we do not make an offer the public defender accept[s], they threaten Brady letters and/or bar complaints. This behavior has gotten unbearable since the new administration,” the Supervising attorney said to Descano’s leadership team. “PDs prevent us from appealing violent/sexual assault bond to the Court of Appeals due to the office policy, so they intentionally wait to file bond appeals with certain Circuit Court judges (“judge shopping”).”
The email from Descano’s supervising attorney says, “We are not being given the tools we need to adequately keep our victims and community safe. The public defenders are constantly using our policies to prevent us for prosecuting these violent, senseless acts.”
“That’s absolutely not true,” Descano said after 7News Reporter Nick Minock read the emails to Descano. “If you want to talk about the tools, let’s talk about the tools. They claim they don’t have the tools. Our prosecutors don’t have the tools to do their job is completely ridiculous.”
“How the public defenders decide they want to interact with our prosecutors, that’s their business,” Descano added.
The email goes on and says “Since the new [Descano] administration, the public defender’s behavior towards child victim sexual assault cases have gotten extremely worse. I raise these concerns because I do not want to lose any more prosecutors from our team.”
Another attorney said in an email that they were “so personally offended” that Descano’s office “does not value protecting children who have been raped.” And as a result, that attorney said they thought they could no longer represent Descano’s office in child sex crime cases and they asked to be transferred to another office.
“My guess would be that would be somebody who no longer works in this office, somebody for whatever reason, was not a good fit for our culture here. But, what I can assure you is we do value victims,” Descano told 7News.
The supervising attorney who worked in Descano’s office in 2021 also raised concerns that Descano’s leadership team is willing to meet with public defenders more than Descano’s own prosecutors who are handling child sex cases.
“PDs are allowed to meet with leadership regarding our cases per policy,” the supervising attorney said. “Many of the ACAs [Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorneys] feel that leadership will not meet with them and/or discuss reasons for not approving certification/mandatory minimums and/or other issues. ACAs are rightfully puzzled that it appears PDs have unfettered access to our leadership, but leadership will not meet with us. Justice requires fairness on both sides. This is not justice.”
In a 7News interview, Descano acknowledged that he has not personally prosecuted a case as the Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney.
“Have you ever personally prosecuted a case as the Commonwealth Attorney in Fairfax County?” 7News (WJLA) Reporter Nick Minock asked Descano.
“Nick, I would tell you that if I personally went up to court and prosecuted a case as Commonwealth’s Attorney of Fairfax County, I would be doing my community a disservice,” Descano replied. “Because we have dozens of dozens of prosecutors whose job it is to go up there and handled the cases. What my job as a leader of this office of 90 people is to make sure the values of our community are being heard in this office. It’s the reason why we have policies. It’s the reason we have procedures that I write and that our attorneys follow. The work that I do as an elected official is what allowed us to more than double the size of this office since I’ve come into office. There are only certain things an elected official can do. And quite frankly, trying cases and working dockets is not one of them.”
“So, you haven’t prosecuted a single case?” Minock asked Descano.
“What I will tell you is that just because I am not in court making the arguments, making the objections, does not mean that I am not involved intimately in some of these cases,” Descano said. “When we have murder cases, not only do I generally go out to the scene, but I work with our prosecutors on putting those cases together. Same for our high profile and more serious cases. So just because people see me in the courtroom does not mean I am not intimately involved in these cases that go on in this courthouse.”
“[Commonwealth’s Attorney] Buta Biberaj, for example, personally prosecutes cases in Loudoun County. Other CA’s do that too, but you haven’t in Fairfax County?” Minock asked Descano.
“We are the largest jurisdiction in the entire Commonwealth,” Descano replied. “The next largest jurisdiction in Virginia next to us if less than half of us. Meaning that we have our office, our community, have different needs.”