PORTSMOUTH — State Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, was having dinner in Richmond with her two closest political friends one evening in March when they decided they would not be helping the Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney anymore.
The three powerbrokers — Lucas, Portsmouth Clerk of Court Cynthia Morrison and Portsmouth School Board member Costella Williams, who call themselves “The Three Angels” — did not immediately tell Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie N. Morales that they planned to withdraw their support. In fact, The Three Angels all spoke in favor of Morales at a campaign fundraiser for her in March, the same month Lucas says they were privately discussing withdrawing their help.
Since then, Lucas has heaved political pressure on fellow Democrat Morales, helping lead an unsuccessful attempt to get an influential PAC to withdraw support for her and submitting a Freedom of Information request to Portsmouth City Hall for Morales’ travel records. When asked early this month on Facebook why The Three Angels had turned against Morales, Lucas ominously replied, “It will be revealed for all to see sooner or later because no lie lives forever.”
Welcome to Portsmouth, where rumors and political alliances that shift like the wind on the Elizabeth River fuel a messy brand of politics controlled by Lucas that often spills out on Facebook.
Still, something else is underway in Portsmouth: a criminal investigation of the death of Jamycheal Mitchell, the 24-year-old mentally ill man who wasted away in a jail cell after allegedly stealing snacks from a convenience store. Even powerful state government agencies did not find out why he died during a 101-day stay at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in 2015.
So Morales is pushing ahead with her own investigation, assigning a new investigator in her office to interview approximately 20 medical providers who have not been questioned even though Virginia State Police had been investigating since last year. Meanwhile, attorney T.J. Wright is taking on Morales in the November election. As her political opponents seek to undermine Morales before the election, the Mitchell death investigation has become intertwined.
Morales, 33, was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who won a special election in 2015 after the former prosecutor, Earle Mobley, became a juvenile court judge.
She gained attention after prosecuting former Portsmouth police officer Stephen Rankin in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager after a shoplifting report at the city’s Walmart. In August, a jury convicted the white former officer, who had previously killed another unarmed man while on duty in Portsmouth after boasting on Facebook that his gun case was “Rankin’s box of vengeance.” He is serving a 2½-year prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter.
Lucas, 73, is president and CEO of Lucas Lodge LLC, a company that provides training, support, transportation and a variety of help to adults with intellectual disabilities. She was a shipyard worker who made her own way, becoming the first black woman on the Portsmouth City Council and winning her seat in the 18th Senate District in 1991. She wants a casino on Portsmouth’s waterfront.
Portsmouth has its own odd brand of politics.
For example: Longtime Sheriff Bill Watson, a chain-smoking, silver-haired 1950s throwback, last year decided to initiate a traffic stop on former Mayor Kenny Wright after a city meeting because the inspection sticker on Wright’s car was expired. Watson invited a TV news crew.
When Wright would not stop for his political opponent, the TV crew filmed a slow-speed chase, and the mayor later turned himself in on a felony charge, complete with mug shot. He was acquitted. (“The whole thing seemed insane to me,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Virginian-Pilot after watching a video of the incident.)
Lucas, previously a Wright supporter, last year backed his main challenger for mayor, former City Manager John Rowe, whom the City Council had fired after proposing a significant tax increase. Rowe won and became mayor. Without Lucas’ support, Wright, who is black, could not get the black vote he needed to survive.
Four years ago, a black Democrat, former federal agent Michael Moore, ran against Sheriff Watson in the Democratic primary. Lucas backed Watson, who beat Moore and remained sheriff.
This November, Watson is running for sheriff as an independent after an internal feud prompted some Democrats to leave the city party. Lucas is now backing Moore, the Democratic candidate for sheriff.
And that’s where some of the city’s politics overlap with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
Criticism of Stephanie Morales
Morales’ opponents are levying two key criticisms of her: that she supposedly tried to investigate Moore — now the Democratic candidate for sheriff — and that she should have stopped the indictment of Mark Whitaker, an African-American member of the City Council, on allegations of forgery but instead allowed a criminal case against him to advance.
Roderick Madison was competing with Moore in an April 29 party caucus for the Democratic nomination for sheriff. He made a written complaint to Morales’ office that Moore had offered him a future job in the sheriff’s office if he would withdraw.
Morales consulted the Virginia State Bar, which told her she should recuse herself and ask for a special prosecutor. For one, Morales is on the executive committee of a PAC that had endorsed Moore.
Judge William S. Moore Jr., the chief judge of the Portsmouth Circuit Court, said no to a special prosecutor in May. Case closed.
But that’s not how a Lucas backer is spinning the situation.
Earlier this month, Barry Randall — who bills himself as “the people’s pastor” — posted this on Facebook: “I’m crushed to learn of how the office of our commonwealth attorney tried to bring charges against Michael Moore because of a conversation that she had with another candidate Roderick.”
But if Morales had wanted to charge Michael Moore, she could have done so on her own.
“She didn’t even have to go to the point of recusing herself,” said Randall, once a supporter of Morales, in an interview. “She could have shut it down.”
Michael Moore, reached Friday, said he never offered his opponent a position but met with him only to suggest that they work together to unseat Watson.
The criminal case involving Whitaker, the city councilman, began in an unusual way — it was initiated by Sheriff Watson. Sheriffs in Virginia operating in localities like Portsmouth that also have police departments generally stick with running a jail, serving legal papers and securing a courthouse. But sheriffs have few limits on their power outside of voters.
Watson’s office conducted an investigation of financial issues involving Whitaker’s church. Officials in Watson’s office presented their file to Morales, the prosecutor.
Whitaker, as a sitting councilman, has a vote on Morales’ office budget and she knew him personally. Because of that, she asked Judge Moore for a special prosecutor. Moore agreed.
The special prosecutor requested a special grand jury — the judge again agreed. After hearing testimony, the grand jurors in late April indicted Whitaker on felony charges, including forgery.
After taking criticism for not shutting down the case as soon as Sheriff Watson’s office presented it to her, Morales asked the Virginia State Bar for its opinion. An official with the bar replied that she acted ethically in recusing herself and asking for a special prosecutor.
Vernon Lamont Tillage, the legislative assistant to Lucas and secretary of the Portsmouth Democratic Party, would later post on Facebook that The Three Angels were upset at Morales for not protecting the councilman from what they see as a politically motivated investigation by the sheriff.
“Senator Lucas, Cynthia Morrison, and Costella Williams made their decision because the Office of CA has been used for politics,” Tillage wrote. “Our CA could have made many other decisions with the Whitaker case. She knew that Whitaker and Watson are political foes and that all of that was stirred up because of Watson hating Whitaker. She could easily of said it was political and it be over with. That is not an office to play politics with.”
The three judges on the Portsmouth Circuit Court bench are former politicians.
Judges Moore and Kenneth R. Melvin were members of the House of Delegates, serving in the General Assembly with Lucas.
In 1997, Portsmouth’s Circuit Court judges appointed Moore to an opening on the juvenile court bench just hours after he resigned his seat in the House.
The maneuver came under fire at the time — Moore, as a lawmaker, had helped elect the very judges who then made him a judge.
“Billy Moore is insulting the intelligence of every Virginian if he expects us to believe no deal was cut for his judgeship,” a Republican Party official said at the time.
Melvin lives just a few houses away from Lucas. During the 2016 General Assembly session, Lucas briefly made a deal with Republicans to back their choice for the state Supreme Court in a battle with McAuliffe, the Democratic governor. In return, Melvin would get on the state Court of Appeals.
“One of the best judges I know is my neighbor, my friend and the person who helped me get to the Senate of Virginia in the first place, Circuit Court Judge Ken Melvin,” Lucas told reporters. But McAuliffe quickly persuaded her to flip back to her own party, and the deal was off.
The third judge, Johnny E. Morrison, is a former Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney. His wife is Cynthia Morrison — one of The Three Angels.
Jamycheal Mitchell’s death
Here is where worlds collide.
Virginia State Police investigating Jamycheal Mitchell’s death were unable to get interviews with most of the jail’s medical staff, who were employed by a private medical provider.
On the morning of Wednesday, May 24, Morales filed a motion in court asking for a special grand jury in the death. Such a panel could subpoena records and interviews from the medical provider. Morales’ office issued a news release about her request.
T.J. Wright, the lawyer running against Morales as an independent in the November election, was quoted in a story in The Virginian-Pilot on May 26 questioning whether Morales’ motive in investigating Mitchell’s death was political.
“He added that over the past 21 months, several other agencies have investigated what happened to Mitchell and that the U.S. Justice Department is still investigating,” the story said of Wright.
But that’s not accurate: State lawmakers thought the Office of the State Inspector General was responsible for investigating jail deaths, but former State Inspector General June Jennings said her office lacked the authority. The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services looked into Mitchell’s mental health evaluations and the reasons why he was erroneously kept in jail instead of being transferred to a state mental hospital, but the office did not review his treatment at the jail. And the Department of Justice is doing a review of procedures at the jail.
Two days after the special grand jury request, Judges Moore, Melvin and Morrison signed an order rejecting it. Some of their ideas mimicked those of Wright’s in the morning newspaper: “The matter at hand has been investigated by several professionally staffed independent entities and appears to be the subject of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.”
Wright returned a voicemail from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday and at first said he had not made any comments in the Pilot about the Mitchell case. After a Times-Dispatch reporter read the headline to him and provided the date for the story, Wright said he was looking it up, then said he found it. When asked about his comments in the story, he said he got the information from the judges’ order denying a special grand jury, and from statements from Morales that referenced the work that had already gone into the case.
But the judges’ order and the details from Morales came on Friday afternoon — a day after Wright made his comments that were published.
When asked how he could have based comments on documents that did not yet exist, Wright said, “I don’t know, man. To be completely candid with you, I don’t know. That was my understanding.”
In asking the judges to reconsider, Morales noted that the federal review is about jail practices, and the state inspector general’s report was deemed so incomplete that the General Assembly this year voted to fire the former inspector general in a nearly unanimous vote. And she reminded the court that it had just approved a special grand jury for the case of Councilman Whitaker.
One week later, The Three Angels, who had once helped Morales get elected and had spoken on her behalf a few months earlier, went public. A Facebook post on their pages, featuring a picture of the three of them, read, “This is to officially announce that we are withdrawing as advisors from the campaign of the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney, Stephanie Morales, which includes having our names removed from campaign literature.
L. Louise Lucas
Cynthia P. Morrison
Costella B. Williams”
Members of the community began to buzz. What was the reason for their decision on Morales? The next day, Lucas made her ominous Facebook post about how “no lie lives forever.”
Morales made a Facebook post of her own on her personal page, saying she would remain positive in the face of negativity. Many people came to her support.
“I appreciate anyone who has supported me at any point but I will always stand up for what is right and I will also stand up to people when they attempt to push me around because they disagree with me,” she wrote. “No one elected me to be anyone else’s pawn. I was elected because people trusted me to exercise my best judgment. Anyone who thought another politician ran me or my office can now take note that this was not (and will never be) the case!”
When pressed during a recent interview for the reasons why she was backing away from Morales, Lucas said the decision to withdraw “didn’t have anything to do with Jamycheal Mitchell.”
“It’s just that people are not satisfied with the way the office is being run,” she said. “I’m just saying that’s the way people feel.”
Lucas would not be specific.
“I’m not satisfied with the reports that are coming back to me,” she said, referencing only “incompetence in the office.”
In a follow-up interview Friday, Lucas acknowledged that she was upset that Morales requested a special prosecutor in regard to the complaint about Lucas’ chosen candidate for sheriff. That was “the engine that tipped the scale for me.”
Morales said she has worked hard to make professional decisions, even when they’re unpopular, since taking office two years ago.
“I have taken on whatever challenges have come with the job and have displayed through my prosecution of the Rankin case and my handling of many other difficult matters, such as the Mitchell matter, that I am not afraid to do what is right no matter the political ramifications,” she said in a statement. “I will continue to perform my duties appropriately and to the best of my ability as long as I am in office.”
The Hampton Roads Regional Jail, where Jamycheal Mitchell died, is in Lucas’ Senate district. When asked her opinion earlier this month on whether a special grand jury was necessary, she said, “All I can say is that I respect the opinion of the judges. Period.”
The three judges did not return a request to be interviewed, nor did the other Angels, Morrison and Williams.
In the end, the investigation may continue without a special grand jury.
Following publicity of Morales’ request — and a report in The Times-Dispatch that state police had been unable to get critical interviews and records in the case — an official with the former medical provider, NaphCare, said the company had cooperated. State police never asked for any records, he said, and the company made two people available for interviews — it simply did not want employees to have to talk to police without counsel present.
Morales, meanwhile, has filed an update in court saying there are 22 people who need to be interviewed, and that NaphCare agrees to cooperate.