A look behind the campaign to recall progressive prosecutors in Virginia
A recall campaign targeting so-called progressive prosecutors in Virginia has made recent headlines. To understand it, it's worth taking a look at the background of an organization called the Law Enforcement Defense Fund.
One of the few prosecutors who ever became a household name was Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas, Texas from 1951 to 1987. Not only did he prosecute Jack Ruby for killing President John F. Kennedy's assassin, but his readiness to prosecute women for getting abortions turned into Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized the procedure. Even before these events, DA Wade was a local courthouse legend—annually handling more cases than his counterparts in bigger cities, and with a sky-high conviction rate.
He was also a notorious racist, who once told one of his subordinates, "If you ever put another [N-word] on a jury, you're fired."
And yet, when Wade was nearing the end of his career, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese, III chose to make a laudatory speech about how Wade "redefined the very meaning of 'district attorney.'" On September 18, 1986, Meese told an assembly of prosecutors who gathered in Washington, DC that Wade was a "prosecutor's prosecutor," one who turned the Dallas DA office into a "prosecutorial Sherman tank."
After Meese was criminally investigated over the Wedtech scandal and pushed out of the Reagan administration, he moved to the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, to carry on his work. Then, in 1996, he and three other attorneys formed the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which would spend the next decades soliciting donations on behalf of police officers who stood criminally charged for illegally wounding or killing civilians.
A January 25, 1998 article from Detroit Free Press explains how LELDF, before its formal incorporation, funded the legal defense of Stacy C. Koon: the former Los Angeles police sergeant who supervised the officers who brutally beat Rodney King in 1991.
Once incorporated, it backed the defense of Walter Budzyn, one of the two cops who beat Malice Green to death in 1992. Budzyn's first conviction was tossed, then Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy obtained another murder conviction at a retrial. in a recent op-ed, Worthy described the Budzyn case as Derek Chauvin déjà vu.
Derek Henderson Martin, then the LELDF president, said that his organization's mission was to "try to support hard-working, law-abiding police officers who are unjustly prosecuted for doing their jobs"—a category that LELDF seems to believe means all accused police officers.
The group's decades-long run is stuffed with other details that people concerned with police accountability would find deeply unsavory.
During the O.J. Simpson trial, the organization solicited newspaper columns supporting former Los Angeles police officer Mark Fuhrman as "a cop just doing his job." Fuhrman was accused by the Simpson defense team of planting evidence. After video footage of Fuhrman using racial slurs surfaced, LELDF returned the money it raised for him.
More recently, it cheered President Trump's pardon of Stephanie Mohr, a former Prince George's County, Maryland police officer who sicced her K-9 on a homeless man. An attorney and criminal justice reform advocate who served on Mohr's prosecution team said, "Of all the acts to pardon in a year that witnessed the killing of George Floyd, it is the most insensitive and inflaming."
Today, much of LELDF's work has been reproduced and made more efficient with technology. Crowdfunding campaigns on GoFundMe and other sites now inevitably include fundraisers for cops who kill. Although LELDF's total revenue has shrunk, from $2.5 million a year in 2013 to around half that amount in 2019.
Perhaps that's one clue as to why it has sought and found a new cause for war in the concept of "progressive prosecutors." Current LELDF President Jason C. Johnson has personally bemoaned the "virtually unfettered and unchecked discretion" that elected prosecutors enjoy, and how they can "unilaterally…implement [George] Soros' vision of social justice." That is not quite true, though both supporters and detractors of Soros-funded prosecutors have said as much.
Understanding why a group like LELDF would take aim at progressive prosecutors is not rocket science. These prosecutors do not just run on ending mass incarceration—they also boast plans to hold rank-and-file law enforcement accountable for misconduct. That cuts to the heart of what LELDF was formed to prevent.
The movement's first prosecutor in Virginia, Portsmouth Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Morales, successfully prosecuted former police officer Stephen Rankin for manslaughter during her first term, then was re-elected in 2017. Two years later, the state's roster expanded to include Parisa Tafti-Dehghani in Arlington, Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County, and Steve Descano in Fairfax County. In 2021, Ramin Faheti joined their ranks in Norfolk.
It was Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Descano who last year charged Fairfax County Police Officer Tyler Timberlake with misdemeanor assault and battery after using a stun gun on a man experiencing a health crisis. The incident was caught on video. The local police chief disowned Timberlake, saying his actions ignored the "sanctity of human life."
Going with its time-tested script, LELDF published a June 7, 2020 Facebook post stating, "Prosecutors across the country are now criminally charging police officers without taking the trouble to investigate first. What happened to due process?" (It also said Descano made the charging decision to "appease an angry mob.")
Most recently, LELDF has apparently authorized its policy director, Sean Kennedy, to create a new prong in the strategy to protect cops from even the slightest scrutiny. While still employed by LELDF, Kennedy formed Virginians for Safe Communities, a 501(c)(4), to campaign for the recall of Virginia's progressive prosecutors. (The two organizations say they are independent from one another.)
Earlier this month, Kennedy said, "We are launching this campaign to hold accountable the prosecutors who have taken office under a writ of reform but have gone too far. They are continuing to flout the rule of law, failing to enforce the law and are endangering our families and communities."
Some conservatives use the phrase "rule of law" as a synonym for "public policy I like," and "flouting the rule of law" for "public policy I hate." Appropriately used, the theoretical notion describes a society where "where no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law, everyone is held accountable to the same laws."
Kennedy's employer has long made clear that its goal is to place police officers categorically above the law, so they can use violence not based on necessity but as a perk of the job. Virginia's new wave of prosecutors potentially threatens that mission.
Henry Wade left the national limelight after his DA tenure—other than more than a dozen men he prosecuted for murder being exonerated in the 2000s and '10s. But the proliferation of what he stood for—prioritizing conviction rates and sentencing harshness over justice, prioritizing the investigation of "vices" like pornography and drugs over violent crimes, and rife law enforcement misconduct—did not need him to flourish.
This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.
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