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Democrats bar firearms from state Capitol and legislative office building

The General Assembly’s new Democratic majority has adopted a policy to prohibit anyone — ostensibly including legislators — from carrying firearms either concealed or openly into the state Capitol and the Pocahontas Building where the legislature conducts much of its business.

The Joint Rules Committee powered through the policy on an 11-5 party-line vote on Friday over the strong objections of Republicans who protested that they hadn’t seen the document until the meeting began.

The House Rules Committee then immediately adopted the same rules on a 12-5 party-line vote, despite Republican accusations that the Democratic leadership had misrepresented the role of the Division of Capitol Police in seeking the policy, which takes effect at midnight on Friday.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who chaired the joint committee of delegates and senators, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said the leadership relied on the recommendations of Capitol Police in developing the policy.

“Our goal is to keep everyone safe and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Filler-Corn said before the vote.

Herring said, “This is something that has been recommended by our Capitol Police. I think there are times when we sort of have to trust what our law enforcement officers are telling us in concern for our safety and concern for individuals in this building.”

The policy would apply to legislators, but they would not be subject to screening or removal from the buildings because of legislative immunity from interference in their public duties. The Constitution of Virginia bars legislators from arrest during General Assembly sessions except in cases of “treason, felony or breach of the peace.”

“It is important that the legislative process continue to operate uninterrupted,” Capitol Police Chief Steve Pike said.

Republicans protested immediately after the meeting that Democrats had tried to put responsibility for the policy on Capitol Police even though Pike said he had responded to the assembly leadership with recommendations for how to carry out a firearms prohibition in the buildings.

“I was told there was going to be a prohibition on firearms and to put together my recommendations,” Pike said in the subsequent meeting of the House Rules Committee.

Former Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, told Filler-Corn that she had “deliberately misrepresented” the role of Capitol Police.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said, “The entire effort to put this on the Capitol Police is disgusting.”

Democrats responded that the policy is similar to policies adopted for legislative buildings in other states, such as West Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma and Louisiana. They said it was necessary and long overdue.

“It’s not a political move or action, but it is a matter of public safety for us and for anyone coming into the buildings,” Herring said.

Democrats have been pushing for rules on firearms in legislative buildings in advance of a rally on Jan. 20 that could draw thousands of armed men and women from across the country in opposition to proposed gun control legislation.

On Tuesday, the eve of the General Assembly session, the Capitol Square Unified Command announced its formation. The unified command comprises the Capitol Police, Virginia State Police, the Richmond Police Department and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, among others.

“All citizens are welcome to come to Capitol Square to peacefully petition their lawmakers, as always,” the agencies said in the statement. “Virginia’s General Assembly is stronger because it is open to every Virginian.

“It is important to remind everyone that any violation of the law, non-peaceful protest, or attempts to intimidate fellow Virginians will not be tolerated. Those who engage in such behavior will be held accountable immediately.”

Pike said the new policy would not apply to people on Capitol Square grounds. He also said he is not working with the governor’s office on such a policy for Capitol Square.

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe first banned firearms in executive branch state offices in 2015 and the policy remains in force under Gov. Ralph Northam.

“Firearms are currently prohibited in all executive office buildings,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “For the safety of all who work in and visit the Capitol, we’re glad the legislature has followed suit.”

She added: “The issue of the open space that constitutes Capitol Square is more complicated from a legal perspective. That being said, the governor is reviewing options in coordination with state and local law enforcement and in light of incoming intelligence. His top priority is keeping Virginians safe.”

The National Rifle Association, the most prominent gun rights group in the country, has called for supporters to lobby legislators this coming Monday, when gun control bills first come up in legislative committees, a week ahead of the Jan. 20 rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

“The NRA is working hard to inform our members and supporters of this last-minute rule change to prevent confusion at our Legislative Action day on Monday,” spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said Friday.

The new policy applies to all forms of firearms, except for those currently on ceremonial display at legislative agencies. It also applies to everyone coming into the buildings, except on-duty law enforcement officers and military personnel “conducting official agency business.”

Pike said his officers would not seek to remove legislators seen to be in violation of the policy, which specifically exempts them from search or screening for weapons. He said the agency has no authority to enforce the policy against legislators performing their elected duties, whether in their offices, committee rooms or the floors of their respective chambers.

Republicans questioned the need for the policy, but several lawmakers have had incidents with handguns in the Capitol complex.

In 2017, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, accidentally left a holstered handgun on a chair in a General Assembly conference room.

During the 2006 General Assembly session, then-Del. John Reid, R-Henrico, accidentally fired a gun he was unloading in his office. The bullet hit a bullet-resisting vest on his office door and no one was hurt. Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, said this week that the legislature adopted a joint policy on firearms in legislative buildings temporarily after that incident.

Republican legislators said they also need to protect themselves from harm, whether walking to and from the Capitol complex on public streets or in response to threats by people over public policy disputes.

“There are times I feel we do need personal protection for ourselves,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, who called the policy “an overreach.”

A year ago, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, stirred concerns in the Capitol by openly wearing a holstered .38-caliber revolver while presenting her bills in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and subsequently on the Senate floor.

Chase said she wore the gun following an incident in which Capitol Police were called after immigration rights supporters confronted then-Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun.

Chase indicated Friday that she will not quit carrying in the Capitol, according to The Washington Post. “I’m going to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Virginia Constitution so help me God,” said Chase, who has been carrying a weapon in her purse this year.

Republicans on Friday objected to the way the new assembly leadership produced and adopted a policy for a joint committee that wasn’t appointed until late Thursday.

Gilbert called the policy a “sweeping change to security in this institution and its buildings” that Democrats had pushed through in a “reckless” way that he called “quite nefarious.”

Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, responded that the policy is neither “nefarious” nor secret. “That debate happened on November 5th,” he said, referring to legislative elections that Democrats claim as a public mandate for what they term “common-sense” restrictions on firearms.

However, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said the members of the new assembly leadership are not being transparent with the public they were elected to represent.

“Some people win, some people lose, but the lack of transparency is a real concern,” McDougle said. “The people of Virginia should be worried.”

Soldier who drove armored vehicle from Fort Pickett to downtown Richmond given conditional release

A Virginia Army National Guard officer who left his post in an armored vehicle during military training at Fort Pickett and led police on a 65-mile pursuit ending in downtown Richmond has been given a conditional release.

In August, Joshua Yabut, 31, was found not guilty by reason of insanity of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and violating the terms of his bond in Nottoway County Circuit Court. On Friday, a judge ordered his release contingent on several restrictions, which Nottoway Commonwealth’s Attorney Leanne Watrous did not detail in a news release.

The order stipulates that at least every six months, “reports on his progress and adjustment in the community be submitted to the court,” that Yabut cannot possess or own any firearms, and that he must seek the court’s OK to leave the state.

“If at any time the court finds reasonable grounds to believe that Yabut has violated the conditions of release, or is no longer a proper subject for conditional release, and that he requires inpatient hospitalization, the court may order an evaluation and may revoke his conditional release, or hold him in contempt for violation of the conditional release plan,” Watrous said in the release.

According to mental health experts Watrous cited during the plea hearing last summer, Yabut was delusional on June 5, 2018, when he drove a nearly 12-ton armored vehicle off Fort Pickett in Nottoway County.

The first lieutenant told psychologists after his arrest that he believed he had been given orders to carry out a “confidential mission,” Watrous told the court. Yabut believed that Fort Pickett military personnel and state police were “all part of the ruse,” the prosecutor said. Records showed Yabut has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two hours and 65 miles later, he was apprehended after stopping the M577 — an unarmed, tracked command post vehicle — near Capitol Square on Broad Street. The episode earned him local fame and the nickname “Tank Man,” although the vehicle he took wasn’t technically a tank.

His delusional state apparently persisted after he was released on bond. Yabut traveled to Iraq in January 2019, violating the terms of his bond. He told a clinical psychologist that he was acting under the belief that “once he got there, he would solve everything,” Watrous said in her summary.

After his insanity plea, Yabut was sent to Central State Hospital, where he was evaluated to determine whether he should be committed indefinitely or released with conditions.

Yabut still faces a more serious charge of eluding police in Richmond. Two other charges, including driving under the influence of drugs, were dropped earlier, and his case in Richmond Circuit Court was moved to the mental health docket. He was last in court in December; no future date has been set.

Yabut was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with the Illinois National Guard and remains a member of the Virginia Guard, which, according to a spokesman, is waiting until any civilian criminal charges are adjudicated until deciding whether to take any military disciplinary action.

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Mistrial declared as jury deadlocks in Dinwiddie cheerleader murder case after weeklong proceeding

After a week of testimony and nearly a day of jury deliberation, a judge declared a mistrial late Friday in the second-degree murder case of a Dinwiddie County man charged in the June 2018 slaying of a Dinwiddie High School cheerleader.

The 10-woman, two-man panel deliberated more than eight hours before sending a note to Dinwiddie Circuit Judge Paul Cella about 8:40 p.m. that they were deadlocked in their deliberations and could not reach a unanimous verdict.

The judge then brought the jurors into the courtroom and thanked them for their service, and they were dismissed. The case will be reset for a second trial.

The case centered largely on the reliability of GPS tracking data from an electronic monitoring device worn by the defendant, Anton Deonte Coleman, 22. He was accused of killing Ke’Asia Adkins, 17, a rising junior at Dinwiddie High School and a member of the varsity cheerleading squad. The defendant and victim were first cousins.

The case caused a sensation two years ago when Adkins vanished under mysterious circumstances after failing to return home after cheerleading practice. Her disappearance triggered a dayslong search by family and members of the community.

She had last been seen alive on the morning of June 25, 2018, at her grandmother’s residence in the 5900 block of Sentry Hill Court, where she and her mother were living. Coleman also was staying at the residence on a temporary basis.

It wasn’t until three days later that a cadaver dog that had been brought in to assist police detected Adkins’ remains in heavy woods just 165 feet from the home. She was buried facedown under a mound of leaves and pine needles. She had been asphyxiated, with her head covered by two plastic garbage bags that were knotted and zip-tied.

Coleman was arrested and charged with abduction shortly after Adkins’ body was found. He was indicted two weeks later on charges of first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile.

Then last year, the murder charge was upgraded to capital murder, but the abduction charge was dropped. At the outset of jury selection for this week’s trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill amended the capital charge to second-degree murder.

The prosecution’s case relied heavily on GPS tracking data, which an FBI computer scientist extensively analyzed and narrated for jurors Wednesday in a PowerPoint presentation. The data, which included an estimation of Coleman’s location every minute by latitude and longitude, indicated that on the day Adkins disappeared, the defendant twice walked into the woods near where the teen’s body was eventually discovered.

At the time, Coleman was wearing a GPS ankle monitor as a condition for his release for an earlier, unrelated arrest in a domestic case involving his mother and stepfather in Chesterfield County.

The accuracy of the GPS device and the analysis of the data it recorded became a point of contention between the prosecution and defense, and opposing experts provided starkly differing views of what the data showed. The defense expert disputed much of the FBI agent’s methods and analysis, saying it was “very unlikely” that Coleman had walked into the woods.

As the defense strongly noted in closing arguments Friday, the fifth day of the trial, the prosecution had little other evidence that linked Coleman to the killing.

It was a circumstantial case without fingerprint or definitive DNA evidence, incriminating statements by Coleman, or eyewitness accounts.

“The commonwealth has not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” defense attorney John Rockecharlie told jurors. “They have not even come close to doing it.”

In arguing for a conviction, Baskervill appealed to the emotions of jurors, juxtaposing a picture of the teen as a vibrant high school sophomore with crime scene photos of her body facedown in a makeshift grave.

“Where is Ke’Asia, what happened to her, why did she die, why was a plastic bag on her head?” the prosecutor said to the jury. “There’s still a whole lot that we don’t know.”

But Baskervill said that doesn’t mean there was a lack of evidence. “Questions are not the same thing as doubts,” she said. “They are not reasonable doubts.”

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard in a criminal case that must be met by the prosecution in order to obtain a conviction.

Baskervill described Coleman’s defense as a case of “smoke and mirrors” that jurors should disregard “so we don’t get a miscarriage of justice.”

“[Coleman] is entitled to a fair trial, and he’s gotten it,” the prosecutor said. “He’s not entitled to murder Ke’Asia for God knows whatever reason and get away with it.”

In contrast, Rockecharlie, in closing for the defense, reviewed for jurors point-by-point much of the testimony and evidence presented at trial and why, in his estimation, it didn’t come close to supporting a conviction.

It was a terrible wrong that Adkins died, Rockecharlie said, but it would be equally wrong to convict an innocent person.

The attorney told jurors that Baskervill “talked about Ke’Asia and pulled on your heart strings for 45 minutes, and that’s because the evidence doesn’t support her position.”

Rockecharlie reminded jurors of the instructions the court provided them for their deliberations: When the prosecution relies on circumstantial evidence, the circumstance must be consistent with guilt and inconsistent with innocence. It is not sufficient that the circumstances proved a suspicion of guilt, however strong, or even a probability of guilt.

The instructions also addressed the disputed GPS evidence: A defendant’s presence in the area of a crime is sufficient to prove opportunity, but standing alone, it is insufficient to prove guilt.

Juvenile pleads guilty to first-degree murder in death of 87-year-old Chesterfield preservationist

A 17-year-old Chesterfield County youth pleaded guilty Friday to the murder of his elderly neighbor by beating him to death with a hammer last year.

Raphael Angel Vargas, 16 at the time of the slaying, was convicted of first-degree murder in the April 2 slaying of Bryan Walker, 87, on Wentworth Street in the Bensley area. A related robbery charge was dropped Friday as part of a plea agreement.

Vargas will be sentenced on April 14.

Outlining the evidence against Vargas before Circuit Judge Lynn Brice, prosecutor Ken Chitty said a drop of blood found behind Vargas’ right ear was sent to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science for DNA testing. He said the results showed that Walker’s blood was present.

A search of the home where Vargas lived, just two houses away from the victim, turned up Masonic pins and cuff links belonging to Walker, who served as master of the Chester Masonic Temple in 1970 and was the most senior master of the lodge until his death. He had also spent 30 years on Chesterfield’s Preservation Committee and worked to have 30 properties in the county designated as historic landmarks.

Chitty said Vargas initially denied the murder and told investigators a friend had come to his house about 6 a.m. the morning of the murder. Vargas told police his friend asked for a sweatshirt and a weapon, and Vargas said he provided both. The weapon was a brown-handled claw hammer.

Vargas said his friend returned about 20 minutes later wearing a blood-stained hoodie, which Vargas disposed of along with the hammer, Chitty said.

The medical examiner determined that Walker died of blunt force injuries to his head and there was a defensive wound on his left hand, Chitty said.

Police said last year that the victim’s blood was found throughout the kitchen, including on the walls and ceiling.

Vargas told Brice he was in the 12th grade and that he attended Meadowbrook High School through the 10th grade and attended most of 11th grade at Poplar Springs Hospital in Petersburg.

It has not been disclosed why Vargas was at the hospital, a residential treatment facility for patients struggling with psychiatric issues or substance abuse. Vargas was found to be competent to stand trial last year.

“Do you want me to accept the plea agreement?” Brice asked.

“With all my heart,” he answered.

His lawyer, Jason Reed, told Brice the sentencing hearing could take a whole day.