Franklin resident questions criminal justice system

Published 12:01 pm Saturday, April 25, 2015

by Ron Cornwell

I suspect no one really thinks about the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, his duties or his responsibilities, until they find themselves on one side or the other of the law: victim or accused. Then, how he conducts himself, how he applies the law, the wisdom he exhibits and the understanding of how his actions affect all involved, can become an issue.

I also suspect that the CA is never popular with the person who finds themselves on the prosecuted side of his duties. In my youth, I somehow came to feel the law was the law. Black and white, right and wrong. In my 20 years involved with the Criminal Justice system as a probation and parole officer, I sat through every Circuit Court proceeding in two counties, unless I was sick or on vacation. In that time I dealt with all levels of that system. I met with the judges before court, sat with the Commonwealth Attorneys, dealt with the Defense Attorneys, prepared victim impact statements, which required meeting with the victims, prepared Pre-Sentence Reports which meant meeting with the defendants and often supervised the convicted on Probation.

That experience taught me that the law is mostly made up of gray areas that require good judgment, common sense, study and opinion. Thus, the need for those involved to be educated, experienced, and in possession of good reasoning abilities and a clear understanding of the consequences their failure to use these qualities can have on all involved. But most especially on the accused, their families, their friends, and the community as a whole.

The approach, it seems to me, needs to be cautious, in an effort not to cause more harm than any good that could come from a prosecution. The facts need to be ascertained prior to bringing charges, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office should never be used to bully and threaten defendants into plea agreements, just to maintain some sort of conviction record, regardless of the harm that it can cause.

In some cases, no victims exist until the police intervene, and at the instruction of the CA, take actions that then create victims, and the relentless push for convictions then swing into motion, regardless of what facts the CA’s office then uncovers.

Another thing I learned in my experience is that these folks are generally good people, but that they sometimes lose site of the true effect of their actions on peoples lives.

As you have probably ascertained by this point, I have recently experienced this kind of action against my family… one member was charged, I believe completely unjustly, and the victims then piled up as the Franklin and Southampton CA pursued with a vengeance the finest of all people. That pursuit caused harm to my family’s peace of mind, the peace and security of my children and grandchildren and ultimately the high price of mounting a defense. My family was under attack from the very people that for generations, my family has taught us was there to help us and was on our side. It felt as though a thief had entered our lives and stolen that peace and security. The frustration of that action was, that the thief turned out to be the very system I would have turned to for help. The system I had defended and admired for so many years, was now the perpetrator.

I would expect, that if questioned, the Commonwealth Attorney would respond with the usual answer: that you don’t have all of the facts. I do, and I would suggest that HE did not have all the facts.

I think the CA has lost sight of what his actions can cause. My thoughts are that the police acted properly AT FIRST; however after the initial contact, there was a failure to ascertain the facts surrounding what she saw, and the failure to use good judgment from that point forward.

In the preliminary hearing, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge DISMISSED the charges, and stated that he didn’t see anything that rose to criminal behavior, even after the police officer, in my opinion, began altering her testimony, exaggerating some facts, and in some cases, falsifying what actually happened. I know, because I was there shortly after initial contact. Yet, after assuring my family’s attorney he would not pursue the charges further, he did, and carried the charges to the grand jury. After hearing only the Commonwealth’s evidence, as is the law, they delivered the indictments. For the second time, my family member was arrested, in front of her children.

I have elected not to go into any further details about what happened. My family has been harmed enough, the verdict has been rendered and the case is over. We will continue to live our lives in love and devotion to each other, and over time the harm done by the CA and police will fade and we will continue to move forward.

I investigated filing a complaint against the CA with the Virginia Bar. I can do that, and the findings of the Bar are confidential, according to the Supreme Court of Virginia. But as I read the last paragraph of the Virginia Bar web site on filing the complaint, the reader is informed that even though their proceedings are confidential, that does not protect against a law suit by the accused attorney if that attorney FEELS the charges were unfounded. So, again, a lawyer needs to be hired to protect against the accused lawyer. That feels like a threat to me, and again, the need to cut our losses and move forward precludes filing such a complaint.

The budget for the CA for Southampton County/Franklin City for the 2014-2015 budget year is $560,305, more than twice that of the Southampton County Administrator’s budget. That figure represents $360,216 for salaries. The other $200,000 is for other employment related expenses such as hospitalization, retirement, insurance, $3,000 for travel, conventions and education plus, $17,700 for office supplies. Office supplies…yes I said it twice… and office equipment is different line item. It should be noted that that total budget does not include any court room security, no part of the Sherriff’s Dept. budget, clerks office’s budget or judge’s budgets. Just the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.

I would just ask that all of you consider what may have been previously unknown or unconsidered issues found in the CA office and how those issues could impact you and your family in the future. The only real recourse, it seems to me now, is at the ballot box.

The Southampton/Franklin Commonwealth’s attorney is up for re-election in 2015. I don’t know if he is opposed yet, but the filing deadline is June 9, 2015. There is still time for an opponent to mount a challenge. Please contact the Registrar of Southampton County to get the necessary filing package. Contact me and a team will be put together to help you complete the work by the filing deadline.

Ron Cornwell is a resident of Franklin and for 20 years he was a probation and parole officer with the criminal justice system. He can be contacted at