Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor has called on her counterparts from the city of Hampton and Stafford County to review the fatal police shooting that occurred near Short Pump last week.
Two Henrico police officers shot at and killed a woman Sept. 17 in her home after a psychiatrist called for a welfare check. The woman, Gay Ellen Plack, was wielding an ax and barricaded herself in a locked bedroom, where the confrontation occurred in just a few seconds. She had long struggled with bipolar disorder.
“To ensure a complete, thorough and objective investigation, I will continue to review the case, but am also calling on two other commonwealth’s attorneys to independently review it,” Taylor said in a statement released Monday evening. “I do not want any doubt in anyone’s mind that this unfortunate, tragic incident receives anything but a thorough, objective and independent review.”
Over the weekend, the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union called for an independent investigation, as the group does in every officer-involved shooting. Taylor stopped short of recusing herself, saying she will release the findings of the other two attorneys, as well as her own.
Hampton prosecutor Anton Bell is a Democrat, as is Taylor. He won re-election in 2017 and is in his seventh year leading the office where he worked for a decade prior to taking the top post. The Newport News Daily Press has described Bell as a “hard-nosed prosecutor, often seeking life sentences on first-degree murder convictions and tending to favor trials over negotiated plea deals” while also pushing for alternative punishments for young people who had committed crimes and refusing to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana cases.
In 2015, Bell supported a local interagency police task force to investigate police-involved shootings, the paper reported. Under the plan, which has not yet been adopted, when someone is killed or wounded in a police shooting or dies in police custody, members of the task force — not the police officer’s own department — would investigate, the story said.
“It alleviates any conflict of interest that the jurisdiction is investigating their own” and will help in “building more community trust,” Bell said then.
Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen is a Republican and, like Taylor, faces a challenger in his re-election bid this November.
First elected in 2011, Olsen has been a prosecutor in Stafford since 1989. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reports that in his current bid for re-election, Olsen has pledged to continue to address the underlying cause of crimes in the county, which has resulted in such programs as drug court, mental health treatment and veterans court.
But in a story from 2015, his opponent at the time, defense attorney Jason Pelt, criticized his coziness with law enforcement and his prosecution of Reginald Latson, a man with autism who had multiple legal troubles in Stafford and was later conditionally pardoned by the governor.
Taylor did not indicate why or how she picked the two outside prosecutors, but said both had agreed to review the Henrico investigation.
She will ultimately determine whether to bring criminal charges against the officers. Taylor said Friday that she hadn’t made any decision yet, but also said then: “I have no concerns about the officers’ actions in the video — that is why I was confident in showing the footage to the media.”
Taylor also said she would “work to ensure the body-worn camera video is available to the public,” another demand from the ACLU of Virginia. Henrico officials showed footage from both officers’ body cameras to reporters Friday.
In her statement Monday, Taylor also called for a review of the police department’s welfare check policies, as well as better training for those tasked with responding to those calls and more resources for mental illness.
“This tragedy, and it is a tragedy, is yet another unfortunate reminder that we need additional resources to help those suffering with mental illness,” she said. “In addition to needing more resources, more mental health training and more options for care, I would like to see us revisit the community care/welfare check policies and procedures. After a tragedy such as this, it only makes good sense to ensure we review our program and see if there are improvements to be made.”
Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel has defended his officers’ actions. In a video statement on Thursday, Cardounel said the officers “had no other option” — though in that message, he didn’t make it clear that both officers fired at Plack.
“What we have seen here comports with a reasonable use of force,” he said Friday.
The ACLU on Monday criticized the chief’s public statements, saying on Twitter: “No police chief should exonerate their officers before the investigation even starts. That alone undermines public confidence in the objectivity of the investigation.”
While the ACLU frequently calls for independent review of police shootings, local prosecutors often do not agree. In Richmond, longtime prosecutor Michael Herring, who retired this year, was criticized when he refused an independent review in the 2018 shooting death of high school teacher Marcus-David Peters, who was naked and unarmed on Interstate 64/95 and again when he charged Richmond officer Michael Nyantakyi, who killed Peters.
Taylor charged the last Henrico officer involved in a shooting, but a jury acquitted him. The officer had shot a woman, a passenger in a fleeing car, four times.
The ACLU also called for the police department to release the names of the two officers involved, which police have declined to do so far.
Plack, 57, lived in the 2900 block of Huntwick Court in the Wellesley subdivision near Pump and Three Chopt roads. The officers entered her home through an unlocked door, and repeatedly shouted Plack’s name and identified themselves as police. They searched upstairs and downstairs and came to a locked bedroom door they eventually kicked open. She then charged at the officers while swinging the ax.
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A vulnerable suburban Richmond Republican is bringing Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook scandal into his state Senate bid, criticizing his Democratic challenger for calling on Northam to resign but later taking Northam PAC money.
The attacks come via direct mail pieces by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, who is seeking a second term. He is running against Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, who has outraised him.
The race in Senate District 10 is among a handful of Nov. 5 contests that could determine control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow majority.
Hashmi, a community college administrator, tweeted in February that Northam should resign. She was among countless Democrats in Virginia and nationally who made such calls after the revelation of a racist photo on Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
After an attempt to explain himself at a February news conference, Northam resisted pressure to resign and remained in office. An investigation by the law firm McGuireWoods failed to determine who was in the yearbook photo on Northam’s page, which showed one person in Ku Klux Klan attire and a second person wearing blackface.
Sturtevant’s mail attack notes that Hashmi tweeted that Northam should resign, then in June accepted $25,000 from his political action committee, The Way Ahead.
Sturtevant’s mailer calls Hashmi, a first-time candidate who decided to run for office because of political attacks on Muslims, “a dishonest politician who will do anything to win.”
Hashmi declined to be interviewed.
Her campaign manager, Philip Stein, said by email that the mailers are “just another typical, partisan Republican attack from Senator Sturtevant and his Republican allies.
“It’s the type of desperate and dishonest negative campaigning we expect from a politician who can’t run on his Republican record of voting to take away health care, diverting funds from public education, and selling out to the NRA. The voters that we talk to every day are concerned about access to affordable health care, funding for public education, and solutions to the gun violence epidemic. We trust voters won’t be fooled by this distraction.”
Sturtevant said in an interview that a state senator needs to be consistent.
“It’s important for a state senator to take a stand on issues, and to stand by positions that you’ve taken and campaigned on,” he said. “I called on the governor to resign back when his scandal broke. Hashmi did as well. And then she took $25,000, and that has apparently changed. And so I think the question is, why has that changed after receiving $25,000 from Northam’s PAC?”
Sturtevant also dinged Hashmi in his mail pieces for pledging not to take money from “corporate polluters” but then accepting money from Northam, the Democratic Party of Virginia, and the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus, all of whom have taken big dollars from Dominion Energy. The Democratic Party of Virginia recently announced that it will no longer accept money from Dominion.
Sturtevant said he’s “proud to be supported by Dominion and Dominion employees,” saying the company is a large employer in the district.
“Hashmi claims that she refuses to take money from Dominion, but every one of us knows that Dominion gives money to the Senate Democratic Caucus, and then they turn around and they give that money right to Hashmi,” Sturtevant said. “So she’s apparently OK taking it when there’s a middleman.”
Dominion has been the largest corporate donor since 1999 to both the Democratic and Republican Senate caucuses, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The 10th District includes Powhatan County and parts of Chesterfield County and Richmond. Republican performance in the district in statewide elections since Sturtevant’s election in 2015 has been poor.
State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, opened up a new battle front on Monday by demanding an apology from a consultant that she said botched a campaign ad, making it seem as if she would not be afraid to “shoot down” anti-gun groups.
The firm responded with emails and a screenshot that it said showed Chase had approved the controversial language and that she was the one “misrepresenting the facts.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch first reported on the digital ad on Friday. It originally showed Chase holding a pistol at a gun shop with the words, “I’m not afraid to shoot down gun groups.” Democrats said they were outraged by the language and Chase came under scrutiny.
Chase and her campaign manager said the ad was supposed to say, “I’m not afraid to shoot down attacks from any anti-gun groups, because gun rights are women’s rights.” The ad was changed and they blamed the vendor, The Prosper Group, based in Indianapolis.
Chase said Monday that she recorded a phone call on Saturday with a company representative. In the recording, which she provided to The Times-Dispatch, the company representative agreed that protocol was not followed because the ad was not approved by Chase before it went live on Facebook. Chase asked for a public apology from the company, and the representative said he would push his supervisors to issue one.
Chase said Monday that she spoke with Kristen Luidhardt, the firm’s president and co-founder, on Saturday and Monday but that Luidhardt refused to issue an apology.
“It was a huge blunder on their part, and we just want them to own it and apologize,” Chase said.
Luidhardt declined to comment, but the company released a statement saying it “terminated its relationship” with Chase as of Sunday.
“Unfortunately, State Senator Chase is misrepresenting the facts and refused to take ownership for language she approved, and by recording our staff without their knowledge, acted in bad faith.
“A member of our staff didn’t have the full understanding when he spoke to the Senator. When later presented with the facts, State Senator Chase refused to accept responsibility.”
Luidhardt provided an email exchange from Thursday between Prosper Group representatives and Chase. It showed that a Prosper representative sent Chase a “landing page” for the ad. The company says that the landing page language mimicked the language of the ad itself, and that Chase approved it.
According to the company, the language sent to Chase on Thursday afternoon was: “I’m not afraid to shoot down any gun groups because gun rights are women’s rights.”
“Approved! Looks good,” Chase wrote in an email to Prosper representatives in response.
Chase insisted Monday that she never saw such language and said the ad she discussed with the vendor was supposed to say she would shoot down any “attacks.”
When asked about a screenshot provided by the vendor, which the vendor claimed was the language she approved, Chase said, “How do you know they didn’t re-create that? I mean, they are the IT people. ... Computer IT people can go back and Photoshop or do anything they want.”
Chase is seeking a second term, facing Democrat Amanda Pohl, who said last week that even the revised language of the ad is unacceptable.
A City Hall administrator linked to a nepotism scandal that led to the firing of Richmond’s top administrator has received the City Council’s unanimous blessing to temporarily fill her former boss’s post.
Mayor Levar Stoney fired then-Chief Administrative Officer Selena Cuffee-Glenn last week after an investigation by the city’s inspector general found that five of her relatives obtained jobs with city departments that she oversaw. With the critical post vacant, Stoney tapped Cuffee-Glenn’s closest deputy, Lenora Reid, for the job.
On Monday, with no discussion, the council unanimously approved Reid’s interim appointment at its first meeting since the investigation’s findings were released Wednesday.
“We all want a highly efficient, effective, well-managed local government, and we want rules, regulations and policies to be adhered to. We have full expectation that, if there’s any deviation, the mayor will address that on the administrative side. He’s addressed it. We’ve responded,” said Cynthia Newbille, the council’s president.
Reid — who had been the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for finance and administration since 2015 — oversaw the Department of Human Resources during the period in which the hires of Cuffee-Glenn’s relatives took place. Investigators found that Reid spoke with one of Cuffee-Glenn’s second cousins about a job in the Finance Department, which she also oversaw, prior to that person’s hire.
In July, Reid renewed the provisional employment of three of Cuffee-Glenn’s relatives, before the substance of the investigation could be made public. She said that she believed the hires complied with city protocols and that she did not discuss them with Cuffee-Glenn.
Prior to coming to Richmond, Reid and Cuffee-Glenn worked together for years in Suffolk. In 2015, when then-Mayor Dwight C. Jones hired Cuffee-Glenn as the city’s top administrator, Reid followed close behind.
Once in Richmond, Reid helped lead a turnaround of the city’s Finance Department, which had failed to meet financial reporting deadlines set by the state amid turnover and issues with the implementation of new accounting software.
Council members said Reid’s interim appointment would provide continuity as the administration conducts a search for the position.
“Right now, we need to make sure that the city continues to move forward and the [comprehensive annual financial report] is on time,” said Councilman Michael Jones, the 9th District representative, referring to the annual accounting report the city must send the state later this year.
There is no timeline for the search for Cuffee-Glenn’s permanent replacement, said Lincoln Saunders, the mayor’s chief of staff.
“We’re going to move as quickly as possible to find the best person to serve the citizens of the city of Richmond,” Saunders told the council.
Other high-ranking city administrators who helped facilitate some of the hires of Cuffee-Glenn relatives remain employed by the city, including Department of Public Utilities Director Calvin Farr Jr., Department of Public Works Director Bobby Vincent Jr. and interim Department of Human Resources Director Karen Garland.
Farr declined comment Monday. Vincent previously referred questions about the report to the mayor’s press office. Garland referred questions to a Stoney spokesman.
While some council members expressed disappointment about the situation, some differentiated between Cuffee-Glenn’s role in the situation and that of administrators who answered to her, including Reid.
“It’s hard to point the finger at exactly one person, other than the former CAO,” said Councilman Andreas Addison, the 1st District representative.
In other business Monday, the council appointed Haskell C. Brown III as interim city attorney. Allen Jackson, who has held the role for the past nine years, will retire Nov. 1.
Stricken from the agenda was a proposed parking lease between the city and an entity associated with developer Louis Salomonsky. The lease would have tied up the city-owned property at 212 N. 18th St. — which could sit atop evidence of Shockoe Bottom’s history as a hub of the slave trade — for 40 years.
A council committee last week sharply criticized the Stoney administration’s plan for the property. After an outcry, Stoney tweeted that he would direct his recently formed Shockoe Alliance group to look into an archaeological study of the parking lot.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch is among a handful of news organizations suing the Virginia Department of Corrections to enable citizen and media witnesses to view executions from start to finish.
Some key steps in executions by lethal injection have always been hidden in Virginia. But following a controversial 2017 execution, a state policy change now hides everything except the reading of the death warrant and the inmate’s last words just before the chemicals start to flow.
“The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees the public an affirmative right of access to certain government proceedings, including a right to witness the entirety of executions carried out by the government,” contends the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Richmond on Monday.
That right includes the viewing of initial execution procedures — which are now literally hidden behind curtains — that are necessary, fundamental parts of the process from the moment the prisoner enters the execution chamber, argue the plaintiffs.
Public access to the entire process guarantees public oversight of executions. Witnesses ensure that the actions of execution teams and state officials comport with execution protocol and do not violate the bar against cruel and unusual punishment, the suit says.
In addition to The Times-Dispatch, owned by BH Media Group, the other plaintiffs are The Associated Press; The (Staunton and Waynesboro) News Leader, owned by Gannett Co.; and Guardian News and Media LLC, established by The Guardian newspaper in London. The media outlets are represented by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School and lawyers with the Richmond law firm Christian & Barton LLP.
“Plaintiffs are news organizations that bring this [suit] to vindicate the public’s right, through their representatives in the press, to witness the entirety of executions conducted by the Virginia Department of Corrections,” the suit argues.
The defendant is Harold W. Clarke, in his official capacity as the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Death row inmates in Virginia have the option of dying by electrocution or by lethal injection. Injection is the default means if the inmate refuses to choose and has been the most frequently employed method since it was first used here in 1995. Executions are conducted in an execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.
Prison policy calls for the attendance of six citizens, designated “official witnesses,” who must be 18 or older and residents of Virginia. They may not be employees of the Department of Corrections or have a felony record.
Up to four media pool witnesses — one each from print, television, radio media and the wire services — and an unspecified number of immediate members of the murder victim’s family are permitted to witness the execution. Non-family witnesses view from a glass-enclosed area in the death chamber. Family witnesses watch through a window from a separate room.
The view from both areas can be blocked by a front curtain drawn between the witnesses and the gurney or electric chair. During lethal injections, a rear curtain behind the gurney remains closed, blocking witnesses’ view of the physician, the heart monitor and those administering the drugs.
Secrecy surrounding executions has increased in Virginia and in other states in recent years as the drugs needed to conduct lethal injections have grown scarce and are being compounded by pharmacies that remain undisclosed by law.
Prior to 2017, most of the steps in Virginia’s electrocutions had been visible to witnesses. More of the lethal injection procedure had been visible, too, although the placement of IV lines and the electrodes for the cardiac monitor on the inmate has been done behind a curtain.
Prison policy was changed to conceal more after the Jan. 18, 2017, execution of Ricky Gray, which was delayed more than half an hour by activity conducted behind the closed front curtain, as reported by witnesses with The Times-Dispatch, The Associated Press and other media.
Also, a physician appeared and checked Gray with a stethoscope to be sure he was dead. Normally the physician stays out of sight and monitors the inmate’s heart from behind the rear curtain that also conceals the injection of drugs into the IV lines by the execution team.
Gray was sentenced to die for the 2006 murders of sisters Ruby Harvey, 4, and Stella Harvey, 9, who lived in South Richmond. He also killed their parents, Bryan Harvey, 49, and Kathryn Harvey, 39.
Less than a week later, he and an accomplice killed Ashley Baskerville, 21; and Baskerville’s mother, Mary Tucker, 47; and stepfather, Percyell Tucker, 55, in their Richmond home.
The day after Gray’s execution, the Virginia Department of Corrections said the delay was caused by difficulties in placing the IV lines, as had happened in some other executions over the years.
It was the first time Virginia used two chemicals made by compounding pharmacies, and Gray’s lawyers and the ACLU were not satisfied with the explanation. They called for more transparency and sought an outside investigation.
Instead, several weeks later, the Department of Corrections revised its protocol and now bars citizen, media and victims’ family witnesses from watching even more parts of the proceedings.
The front curtain blocking the view of witnesses is not open, and a microphone is not turned on to allow witnesses to hear until the warden or his designee is ready to read the execution order and the inmate is asked if he or she wishes to make a last statement.
Following the last statement, or if there is none, the microphone is turned off before the chemicals start flowing.
William Morva, executed in July 2017, is the only inmate executed under Virginia’s new procedure. He could not be seen by witnesses as he was led into the execution chamber and strapped onto the gurney and witnesses were unable to roughly tell when the placing of the IV lines began and ended, as had been possible before.
Morva murdered two law enforcement officers in Montgomery County in 2006.
For electrocutions, the new policy would also block the viewing of the inmate as he or she is led into the execution chamber until they are strapped into the electric chair and other actions — redacted from the copy of the policy that has been made public — are taken.
Monitoring whether those unknown procedures are followed and evaluating the effects of those procedures on the inmate are no longer possible, adds the suit.
As a result of the new policy, the public can no longer see the initial condition of inmates or their demeanor as they are led in or the manner in which they are strapped to the gurney or chair, says the suit.
There have been no electrocutions since the new policy was adopted.
The suit also complains that during lethal injections, the front curtain blocks the public from monitoring how the IV lines are placed as well as how many attempts and how long it takes personnel to place the lines. And the rear curtain obstructs witnesses from seeing how and when the different drugs used to sedate and execute the inmate are injected into the IV lines.
The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit, nor did the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, which will defend the department’s execution procedures.
Last year, responding to questions about execution secrecy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections wrote in an email to The Times-Dispatch that keeping the curtain closed while the IV lines are placed reduces stress on the staff members placing the lines, which in turn makes the process likely to go more quickly for the inmate.
The change also brings Virginia’s practice into line with that of other states that carry out executions, wrote the spokeswoman.
The lawsuit filed by the news media contends that the First and 14th amendments guarantee the public a right of access to government proceedings for which there is a history of accessibility and in which access plays a significant, positive role in the functioning of the process.
In a 2017 decision in a case brought by The Guardian and The Associated Press, a federal judge in Arizona ruled that the media had a First Amendment right to view the entire lethal injection procedure in that state, but said they were not entitled to learn more about the drugs used or who made them.
The suit alleges that secrecy severely curtails the public’s ability to understand how executions unfold, or to assess whether a particular execution violates the Constitution or is otherwise botched.
“Throughout American history, from the colonial period to the present, there has been a tradition of public access to the entirety of the execution process, from the moment that a prisoner arrives at the execution site to the moments following his or her death. Even as the methods of capital punishment evolved over the centuries, members of the public remained a constant presence at American executions,” assert the plaintiffs.
The viewing of botched or otherwise gruesome hangings led many states to abolish hangings in favor of the electric chair, the gas chamber and then lethal injection over electrocution, note the plaintiffs.
The suit concedes that the public’s right to view entire executions is not absolute and can be overcome if the state shows that access leads “to a substantial probability of harm to a compelling and overriding governmental interest; that there are no less restrictive alternatives to closure; that any closure is narrowly tailored; and that any closure is in fact effective in protecting the state’s compelling interest.”
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has no compelling governmental interest that overrides the public’s right of access to view the entirety of its executions, including the placement of IV lines in its lethal injection executions,” contends the suit.
The suit asks the court to declare that the parts of the state’s execution manual barring public access to viewing the entire execution procedure violate the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution.
Virginia has conducted 113 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976, a count second only to Texas, with more than 500.