Southampton commonwealth’s attorney candidate: Eric A. Cooke

Published 5:29 pm Wednesday, October 18, 2023

1.) Can you briefly summarize why you decided to run for reelection as Southampton County commonwealth’s attorney?

I have been doing this job as the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney for 20 years, after being Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for more than seven years. I am a professional career prosecutor. I am passionate about the work and have built a solid team and reputation. Law enforcement as a career comes natural for me. I studied criminal justice in college, worked for a summer in a prison, worked as a police officer and police sergeant for 8 1/2 years, and went to law school while I was a police officer. My legal education benefited me as a police officer, just as being a police officer has been instrumental in my success as a prosecutor. Reelection is necessary every four years for me to continue as Commonwealth’s Attorney.

2.) What experience and achievements would you cite that support your bid as being the best candidate to serve as the county’s commonwealth’s attorney?

The contrast between my opponent and me couldn’t be more evident. I have worked my entire professional career, 35 years, in the criminal justice arena and I believe in our law enforcement partners and in our legal system. Contrast that to my opponent who has spent his career defending criminals, called for dismantling police units, and sued police departments and police officers. I enforce the law justly and fairly. In and out of the courtroom, my office and I have an unassailable reputation for honest dealing and tough prosecution. Those who assert otherwise are not being truthful. My only agenda is to enforce the law and my standards of professional ethical conduct are high. Those who work for me likewise adhere to the same standards.

3.) How would you describe your legal philosophy, and how would it be applied in the commonwealth’s attorney position in the forthcoming term?

Tough but fair, consistent, and above all, honest. That same philosophy will be applied during this next term, as it has been since the beginning. Those who know me well, and those who encounter me in court, know that this philosophy is one I live by and practice every single day, even when it may be detrimental to personal or professional relationships, or to the case being litigated.

4.) If elected, what goals do you hope to achieve over the next four years in your term as commonwealth’s attorney?

Continuing to honestly and successfully prosecute cases that need our attention. Filling the vacant attorney position would be helpful, but likely will continue to be a real challenge due to limited resources. I will continue to train and mentor my staff, each of whom already does an excellent job. Tactics, techniques, and technology are all continually being modified and improved.

One of the necessary goals for the next four years, unfortunately, will be to repair whatever damage has been done to the reputation of the office during this election by the dishonest and uncalled for attacks by my opponent. It is essential that the public has full confidence in what we are doing, why we are doing  it, and how we are doing it.

Violent crime remains an issue. The root causes are often beyond my control. We primarily deal with the aftermath and use prosecution to punish offenders, but also to deter potential future offenses. My staff and I will continue to be involved in the community and to provide education for law enforcement, students and others. Our Victim/Witness office will continue to provide excellent service to our citizens as well.

Southampton/Franklin is part of the 5th Judicial Circuit’s Drug Court. We meet as a team each Tuesday morning, after which the participants appear in front of the Judge. We just graduated our first participant, who has been sober for more than a year, obtained and excelled at his employment, opened a bank account, performed community service, obtained a primary care physician, paid on his court costs, and has attended individual and group therapy to address substance abuse issues.

This worthwhile program has helped break the cycle of drugs and criminality for a number of our participants and has been scientifically proven to work. I will continue to invest in the program with my time, energy, and resources because it works. Our slots in this program are just about filled and we will continue to participate as long as the funding is available.

5.) Is there anything that has been said about you by your opponent or others during the campaign that you would like to directly counter or respond to in this space?

Where to begin? My opponent has worked hard to defame and slander and spread untruths about me during this campaign and I expect that to continue at least until we are done on Nov. 7, 2023. My initial intention was to simply ignore his lies and run my own campaign, on my own record and reputation, mostly because I think negative politics demean all of us and undermine our electoral system. My opponent has gone too far, so here it is:

My opponent is pandering to his supporters, all of whom have an agenda of their own. For instance, he talks a lot about me arresting and handcuffing a 72 year old man after midnight in his pajamas. It is a ridiculous assertion, a bald-faced lie. I haven’t personally arrested nor handcuffed anyone since the mid-90s when I was a police officer. He knows that, but persists in being untruthful. My office had no involvement in the matter he refers to until days or weeks after the arrest when we were asked by the victim to handle the case. This isn’t just a mistake by my opponent, it is a lie. 

In my opponent’s most recent ad, he alleges, “He (Cooke) routinely arrests folks on Friday so they have to wait until Monday to see the judge for bond.” Police or Deputies, not me, make arrests as necessary without my input as to timing. To be sure, no one is locked up just to hold them unfairly. Each person who is arrested sees a magistrate, even on weekends, to set a bond if appropriate. Surely my opponent knows that much about arrest procedures?

The same is true of the traffic crash case that has generated so much interest. My opponent  asserts I interrupted the grieving father during his testimony and no other prosecutor would have done that. I certainly empathize with the family’s loss and hope they will at some point realize that neither the investigator, the Sheriff, nor I were responsible for the young man’s death.  Their misdirected grief has become a quest for vengeance, using my opponent as their sword. I missed a deadline which would not have hampered my ability to convict the driver of the felony offense of leaving the scene. I have never done anything other than acknowledge that simple mistake, which in laymen’s terms would be the equivalent of being five minutes late to a doctor’s appointment. Likely would still see the doctor as planned that day. In the worst case, you’d have to reschedule. I make no excuses for missing a deadline, but it would not have effected the outcome of the case at all. What did effect the outcome was the family’s lawyer coming to see me. I was not their lawyer. I represent the Commonwealth. Nearly verbatim their lawyer said, “These are good Christian people. They don’t want to ruin her life. They don’t want her to be convicted of a felony.” He then gave me a list of what the family wanted: A conviction for misdemeanor reckless driving, substance abuse counseling, a letter of apology, acknowledgement that her speed and alcohol consumption contributed to the crash, the possibility of some jail time. That was their proposal via their lawyer. I confirmed the content of the agreement with their lawyer before making the offer, which I independently thought was reasonable, then obtained the maximum jail sentence under the plea agreement at sentencing. 

Interrupting the father in that case was necessary and appropriate. Rather than respond to the question about how the loss of his son had affected him as we had discussed, the father proceeded to lash out at the investigator and Sheriff’s Department with personal attacks alleging misconduct in every way unrelated to the offenses at hand. An objection to my own witness was necessary and consistent with the rules of evidence. The father’s own lawyer had a conversation with him, likely to advise him of the legal jeopardy he was incurring with his testimony. Although the judge allowed the father’s testimony to continue despite my objection, I do not regret interrupting the witness.  It is the job of an attorney to object when appropriate.

It is troubling to see my opponent engaging in such obvious pandering to a major donor. It is more troubling to consider just how disingenuous it is. My opponent himself objected to testimony by a grieving ex-stepfather in the murder sentencing hearing of Wesley Hadsell. That witness simply wanted the judge to know how painful the loss of AJ Hadsell was to him, the man who had raised her. The ex-stepfather was prevented from sharing his grief due to my opponent’s objection, to the point that the man had to be wrestled to the floor and taken away in handcuffs.  This is classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

In one of my opponent’s early mailings he alleged that I “crop pictures. essentially alleging that I tamper with evidence. I asked to meet with him and did so in the presence of a witness. That sort of dishonest allegation goes beyond anything protected by free speech. I asked my opponent first if he was the author of the mailing. He confirmed he was. When asked about that allegation, he confirmed that he was repeating what he had been told by a convicted child pornographer and had not even viewed the photos which were in the court’s file. He stated he thought his statements about cropping photos might be “over the top.He has since ceased that blatantly false allegation.

In that same mailing my opponent asserts that I, “entrap(s) the innocent to prop up his statistics.” I asked him what he was referring to and his answer had to do with the skimpy attire of an informant used by the Drug Task Force. Of course, I don’t select informant’s attire, which is irrelevant in any case. Not to mention, I am not driven by “statistics. My office prosecutes those who merit it, constrained by our limited resources. We don’t prosecute the innocent for statistical reasons or for any other reason.

My opponent criticizes my sentencing recommendations in cases where people plead guilty. To be clear, he knows the sentencing guidelines are discretionary. That means the trial judge can go above or below, or sentence within the guidelines as they deem appropriate. And they do all of the above depending on the circumstances of the particular case. Indeed I do ask for punishment that exceeds the guidelines recommendation in some cases, as do prosecutors across the Commonwealth. As an example, a burglary offense often results in a guidelines recommendation of no active sentence, just probation. Only very rarely would I believe that sort of leniency is appropriate for someone who intrudes upon the sanctity of another’s house or business. Likewise repeat offenders, persistent violators, and violent criminals often deserve more than a slap on the wrist. To be clear, an offender involved in non-violent crime generally has to work hard to make it to the penitentiary. Those who do have typically been arrested and convicted over and over and over to the detriment of our society. I argue for what I think is appropriate, but the judges set the sentences on non plea agreement cases. My opponent knows that and knows I am not alone in making the sentencing recommendations I think are appropriate.

In his most recent ad, my opponent likens me to the prosecutors in Georgia and New York who are prosecuting President Trump. That is ridiculous. I do not arrest anyone and am not beholden to any person or party. I am running as an independent because the office needs to be independent from all influences, with no motive other than to justly and fairly uphold the law. I encourage each voter to look at my generally conservative stance on law and order. Contrast that to my opponent who has represented cop killers, called for disbanding or defunding police units, represented a Somali pirate charged with murdering Americans, sued police departments and police officers, and has been chastised for his dishonesty and sleazy tactics going back all the way into the 1980’s. His offensive tactics remain the same today. He has not changed at all and remains the same anti-law and order liberal he has always been. To elect this man would be to embrace the policies of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, or Chicago.

My opponent asserts that I “gave the school board a pass. To be clear, I am no one’s political henchman. When “prominent citizens” in our local government called on me to prosecute school board members for teaching “CRT. I told them clearly that I would not do so. Why? Because that conduct, even if true, is not a crime. Bad policy? Perhaps, depending on your political perspective. But, not a crime. Likewise, when a lawyer appeared in my office in March of last year with a letter alleging various “discrepancies” at the School Board, but no clear criminal offenses, I spent a fair amount of time examining the letter and documents. I then requested various additional information from the lawyer such as: whether he had identified any crime or suspected crimes and if so, who were the alleged perpetrators. I asked how the allegations squared with the annual audit conducted by the county, who were his clients and whether they were willing to go on record. If so, I suggested they report the matter to the Sheriff or the Virginia State Police for investigation. They did not do so. I asked whether the attorney’s review of the school books was comprehensive or only limited, and whether the “discrepancies” were reconciled elsewhere. And I asked whether his clients had inquired of the School Board or the Superintendent about their concerns.

To each of these questions I got no response. I originally suspected this anonymous complaint was brought to me for political reasons in advance of the elected/appointed school board issue on the ballot in November 2022. The unorthodox way this was brought to me and the lack of response to my inquiry confirmed that was likely a correct analysis. I believe these people wanted me to send the matter to law enforcement for investigation so it could be leaked to the press that the Commonwealth’s Attorney was investigating the School Board in order to gain advantage in the election issue. As it was, they need not have worried because that issue passed 80/20. Most of us think an elected School Board is a fine idea. What needs to be clear to all, though, is my office will never be weaponized to suit anyone’s political agenda. Not going to happen against the School Board in this case and won’t happen to anyone else. If a crime is legitimately alleged and proven I will prosecute it as any other case.

Thank you for considering my lengthy yet necessary responses to these questions. I encourage all voters to visit my website, ElectEricCooke.com, for additional information about me or talk to any person who works in our court system, except my opponent.