Letter: Ask the prosecutor to get the whole story
I would like to take this opportunity to respond to questions raised by Richard Hill in your Feb. 20 edition, “Why all the suspended sentences?” Judges throughout the Commonwealth, and our nation, suspend sentences (in whole or in part) as one tool in the criminal justice system because suspended sentences involve a period of probation during which the sentence can be imposed if the defendant violates probation. Just because a portion of a sentence is suspended does not mean that a defendant received a lenient sentence. What must be determined is whether the punishment imposed is appropriate in a case based upon the facts of the particular case. The reason sentences are so similar in Gloucester, Mathews and Middlesex counties is because we normally have the same District Court judges and Circuit Court judges serving these three counties and, therefore, the sentencing is consistent from county to county.
I am frequently asked questions about cases listed in “THE PUBLIC RECORD” portion of the newspaper and I encourage citizens to contact me anytime they have questions. It is important to understand that misdemeanor and traffic cases are tried in the District Court but felony cases are not. The purpose of the hearing for felony charges in District Court is to have the judge send (certify) the case to Circuit Court for trial. If a District Court judge finds there is not sufficient evidence to certify a felony case to Circuit Court, the judge will dismiss the charge. Even though a case is dismissed or “nolle prossed” in District Court, the case can still be tried in Circuit Court. Additionally, it is important to realize that cases listed in “THE PUBLIC RECORD” portion of the newspaper do not contain the facts of the case, normally do not include all the terms of the sentence imposed, and do not include felony cases that are certified to Circuit Court. This is not intended to be a criticism of the newspaper, but is merely pointing out the purpose and limitations of “THE PUBLIC RECORD.”
In order to determine if the punishment imposed is appropriate, it is necessary to learn more about each case. There were four cases in which a jail sentence of 60 to 90 days was imposed, with all but 4-5 days suspended. All of these cases involved misdemeanor offenses. One involved a 19-year-old defendant, with no prior criminal record, who was convicted of damaging an oyster float. The damage was minor and the owner of the float did not want restitution. Another involved a single parent of two, with no prior criminal record, who was convicted of trespass with the intent to damage property. One involved a person charged with driving while his right to drive was revoked—he was not speeding or driving recklessly. The fourth involved a person shoplifting a $14 flashlight from a store. The defendant was sentenced to a fine of $200, 60 days in jail with 56 days suspended for three years. He must complete a shoplifting class offered by his probation officer, must pay restitution by April 28, 2014, he cannot go upon the store property, and he will be on supervised probation.
As to why some charges were “nolle prossed,” one case involved a person charged with stealing property from two relatives. The relatives were sympathetic to the defendant and asked for leniency. The two charges were merged into one charge which resulted in the one charge being certified to Circuit Court and the other charge was “dismissed by merger.” The paper reported one charge as being dismissed but did not report that the other charge was certified to Circuit Court for trial. Another case involved insufficient evidence to prosecute and required further investigation by law enforcement. I asked the court to “nolle pross” this case and I plan to recharge the defendant should further investigation reveal sufficient evidence to do so.
The questions raised by Mr. Hill were fair and ones that I am frequently asked. Citizens deserve answers from their elected officials, who are public servants. Since it is impossible to “fully discuss” any case due to space limitations, I encourage citizens to contact me anytime you have a question about a case. I will always take the time to discuss your questions or concerns.
T.C. “Tom” Bowen III
Mathews Commonwealth’s Attorney