Commonwealth’s attorney candidates debate at forum

Published 4:17 pm Thursday, October 26, 2023

The race for who will serve the next four-year term as Southampton County’s commonwealth’s attorney has been a hotly contested one, and that trend continued at the Candidates’ Forum held Wednesday evening, Oct. 18, at Franklin High School by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Lambda Psi Omega Chapter.

Eric A. Cooke has served as Southampton County’s commonwealth’s attorney for 20 years, and this year, he is being challenged by attorney James S. Ellenson. This is the first time Cooke has been challenged in an election since 2003.

This story will highlight a few moments in which Ellenson and Cooke clashed during the Oct. 18 forum.

In Ellenson’s two-minute introduction at the forum, he explained why he was running to be the Commonwealth’s attorney.

“Just a few months ago, Greg McLemore and Ricky Sykes approached me and asked me would I consider running because they felt that Eric Cooke, along with his mentor Dick Grizzard, were the architects and designers of massive incarceration,” Ellenson said. “And then I talked to people out at the county, and there were a number of other people out in the county who are quite dissatisfied with the way Mr. Cooke has been running his office. They asked me to run also. I agreed to.”

An individual from the audience noted that Cooke had been accused of being a bully, asking for maximum sentences, and in a question, they allowed Cooke to respond to this characterization.

“The short answer to that question is I don’t behave like a bully in the courtroom,” Cooke said. “I am very mindful of the sentences that I ask for, and they’re based on people’s conduct in the particular instance and their background.”

He stated that what happens so often is that by the time people get to the point where they appear in circuit court, they may have been arrested 15 or 20 times. He said that if people are nonviolent criminals, they have to work pretty hard to get to the penitentiary.

“But the sentencing guidelines don’t really take into account everything in question,” he said. “For instance, if you commit a burglary, your guidelines may call for probation, and those are discretionary with the judges, but it will be very rarely that I would agree with that, because I know the damage that does to people.

“Likewise, aggravated sexual battery, that may call for probation — I’m not about that,” he added. “I think people need to be held accountable to be mindful of the rule of law. That’s why I individually make the determinations that I make and proceed that way.”

Later, Ellenson was asked a question that allowed him to respond to Cooke’s comments.

He acknowledged the examples that Cooke cited, then said, “But there’s probably 40 or 50, at least, criminal offenses, and every day, routinely, Mr. Cooke asks for a sentence in excess of the sentencing guidelines. 

“The sentencing guidelines are promulgated so that the entire state of Virginia gets pretty much the same thing,” he continued. “Mr. Cooke thinks the laws of physics do not apply to Southampton County. He thinks that here, everybody’s getting everything as much as they can.”

Ellenson said this results in excessive sentences.

“He was mentored by the biggest bully in Southampton County, Dick Grizzard, and that’s how he practices law, and it’s just way too over the top, and we just need to be in the middle, reasonable,” Ellenson said. “Yeah, there’s certain times you’re going to have to give somebody more time, but they have to be few and far between, and the guy really has to deserve it. It’s not just each and every time.”

Cooke was asked the following question: Can you tell us what you have done or not done about the complaints raised by some members of the Board of Supervisors about the school finances of Southampton County Public Schools?

“What’s been brought to me was an interest in charging people with crimes for teaching Critical Race Theory and a tremendous concern about transgender bathrooms,” Cooke said. “That’s what’s been brought to me, and I’m not going to prosecute anything that is not a crime. It has to be a crime. So if somebody thinks it’s bad policy, it may or may not be, but I’m not going to prosecute someone for bad policy. That will never happen.

“In terms of the other things that were brought to me, I got an anonymous letter from a lawyer with a bunch of allegations with no substantiation, and it was clear to me that was being done for political reasons in advance of that elected-versus-appointed-school-board issue,” he added.

Ellenson received the following request from a member of the forum audience: Instead of explaining what someone is not doing, tell us what changes you propose if elected?

“One of the first things I would do is review every sentence that was in excess of 10 years on a nonviolent felony, and I’m afraid that there were many, and those excesses will need to be corrected, if possible,” he said. “That’s the first thing I will do.

“I would also try to increase diversity in the Commonwealth’s attorney’s office,” he continued. “Mr. Cooke complains he doesn’t have enough money. There has never been a person of color in Southampton County’s commonwealth’s attorney’s office — ever. 

“Eighty-five percent of the jail population is African American in Southampton County,” he added. “Is somebody targeting a certain demographic? That will stop also.”

Cooke was given a chance to respond.

“What Mr. Ellenson just said about my staff is entirely inaccurate, and it’s reflective of the fact that he doesn’t know how we operate because he has not worked very much in our court system,” Cooke said. “The reality of it is, I had a wonderful African American prosecutor. She stayed with me for four years and then moved on and has a great government position elsewhere.

“I would gladly hire qualified African Americans just as I would gladly hire qualified non-African Americans to fill the positions that I have,” he continued. “In the last year and five months, I’ve had two applicants for the vacant attorney position.

“But the allegation that I’m targeting people because of their race or religion or for any other reason is just blatantly false, but it is consistent with the way Mr. Ellenson has operated during this campaign,” he added.

In response, Ellenson said, “How come the Meherrin Drug Task Force only operates on South Street?”

Ellenson asked Cooke why the task force does not operate in the county, enticing people who are there.

“That’s targeting a certain demographic,” Ellenson said.

Given another opportunity to respond, Cooke said, “The reality of it is, the drug task force brings me cases for those people who sell drugs, that are selling to informants, and often what we get is informants who say, ‘I can buy …’ and then they name the people they can buy from. Those people are committing crimes, and if we’re able to arrest them for that, I’m very happy to do that, whether they are white, whether they are Black, or otherwise. It does not matter to me someone’s skin color. There is no targeting.

“And if you look at the way we have sentences and recommendations to the court, which they may or may not follow, you can rest assured that my recommendations are the same, regardless of someone’s sex or racial or ethnic origin or anything else,” he added. “What I’m looking at is the conduct and their background, period.”

A later question led to the opportunity for Ellenson and Cooke to speak more on the topic of what the Commonwealth’s attorney’s office can do in relation to the Southampton County School Board.

Ellenson said, “Eric talks about transgender and CRT — that’s not the issue. The issue is an audit of the finances of the School Board, and that has nothing to do with color. That only has to do with the color of green, which is how much money is being spent, and why won’t the School Board allow everybody in Southampton County to know where every single penny is spent? That’s not a controversial issue. Color does not enter into that.”

In his response, Cooke said, “What’s being offered is that Mr. Ellenson says he’ll impanel a special grand jury to investigate the School Board. My question is, ‘For what?’ Because the Commonwealth’s attorney’s job is to deal with crime. 

“The School Board gets audited every year by the county and by the state,” Cooke continued. “If there are abnormalities there, people need to come forward and tell it, unlike what was given to me. If they want to talk about something that’s a crime, I’m interested. If it simply is bad policy or bad management, that is not the role of the Commonwealth’s attorney’s office — not now, not ever.”

Ellenson countered, “The audits were very superficial.”

He said that all the county and state audits established was that money was spent, but he said that there were no actual details of who received the money, what the salary structures were, etc.

“(Freedom of Information Act) requests have repeatedly been denied,” Ellenson said. “It’s just a transparency in government issue, and the Commonwealth’s attorney can do more than just prosecute crimes. That’s just a very limited, narrow view of what our office does.”