Convictions, indictments concerns in local race
WOODSTOCK – The candidates for Shenandoah County commonwealth’s attorney appeared in the same courtroom Monday, one among the spectators and the other prosecuting a man facing a capital murder charge.
Republican Chad Logan would like one day soon to take Amanda McDonald Wiseley’s place on the other side of the railing separating the judge and opposing attorneys from others in the courtroom. But Logan, who is a prosecutor in Rockingham County, first has to win Tuesday’s general election against Wiseley, an independent.
Wiseley, 37, is in her first term, which has included a turbulent period of six homicides, two of which were initially filed as death penalty cases. One of those capital murder cases remains unresolved.
Logan, 31, has been an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for about 4 ½ years and comes from a long line of prosecutors in Shenandoah County. He began working extensively on firearms cases and more recently has been focusing on crimes against children after asking to be assigned to a team in the office specializing in those cases.
The hearing Logan attended involved Claude Shafer Jr., who is accused of stabbing Phyllis Kline to death in her Edinburg home in June 2013. Logan left part way through the lengthy hearing without a word to Wiseley. But the candidates’ views of their jobs were on display at two forums earlier this month.
They touted their experiences as prosecutors, especially in the areas of drug law enforcement and crimes against children.
Few differences emerged until they began comparing data on indictments and conviction rates.
Wiseley has cited her prosecutions of six homicides committed between April 2013 and November 2014 as notable accomplishments. Three of the cases resulted in guilty pleas, and Shafer was about to become the fourth until he balked at the last minute during the hearing on Monday.
The agreement would have allowed Shafer to plead guilty to first-degree murder while committing a burglary, lifted the threat of the death penalty and imposed a prison sentence of 40 to 60 years.
Wiseley issued a written statement Wednesday in which she reaffirmed that she was ready to try Shafer for capital murder and would resume seeking the death penalty.
“I have been practicing criminal law for over 13 years, and nothing a criminal does surprises me anymore,” Wiseley said. “Whatever Mr. Shafer and his attorneys’ decide to do, my office is ready to proceed to trial on the charge of capital murder.”
Wiseley added that she has “always believed that the senseless murder of Phyllis Kline deserves the ultimate punishment, and I will do my very best to ensure that a jury gives Mr. Shafer the justice he so richly deserves.”
Logan has criticized Wiseley for a conviction rate that he considers subpar.
While Wiseley has cited a spike in the number of grand jury indictments – from 505 in the year before she took office to 1,127 in 2014 – Logan says she has compiled a conviction rate of 40 percent and dropped 50 percent of her indicted felonies while reducing another 5 percent to misdemeanors. He says he has recorded convictions in 77 percent of the cases he has prosecuted in Rockingham County.
“I will not accept a 40 percent felony conviction rate,” Logan says on his campaign website, adding, “I will not accept the outright dropping of 50 percent of the felony indictments law enforcement has taken the time to pursue and prepare, and which the grand jury of Shenandoah County citizens has certified for trial.”
Wiseley has questioned how Logan compiled his data, which Logan says he obtained by painstaking review of individual cases in the Virginia Supreme Court’s statewide court database.
“It took me three to four weeks everyday working on that,” Logan said of the conviction data, adding that the information is publicly available.
Wiseley said the statewide court database “may or may not be accurate” in recording convictions in individual cases and does not keep a summary of such data by county.
“There’s no agency that keeps track of conviction rates,” Wiseley said. “I think that’s telling because number one, it would be impossible to keep track of.”
Wiseley has cited cases that began with a long list of charges and ended with the defendants sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, despite the dropping of most of the initial offenses, as examples of the misleading nature of conviction rates.
Wiseley added that she and her assistants “don’t come back here from court and keep a chart and put a little notch after each case that we convict.”
In an interview a few days after Claude Shafer Jr.’s hearing, Logan said he questioned the length of time it was taking to set a trial date in the case. Wiseley had sought a trial date after Shafer dissolved the plea agreement, but Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp agreed to a request by defense attorneys to hold off. Hupp said he intended to schedule the trial at the next hearing scheduled for Nov. 6.
Logan said Shafer’s case has had too many hearings and postponements – called continuances in legal parlance – without a trial date being scheduled.
“I think it would have been time to get a trial date on the books at the time of the first continuance,” Logan said.
Wiseley has encouraged audience members at the two candidates’ forums to ask uniformed members of law enforcement what they think of her work as commonwealth’s attorney.
Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly and Woodstock Police Chief Eric Reiley declined to comment on the race.
“Our goal is to work closely with whoever wins the election,” Reiley said.
Sheriff Timothy C. Carter, has contributed $250 to Logan, but responded cautiously when asked about it.
Asked whether the contribution to Logan constituted an endorsement, Carter replied, “I’m a Republican sheriff and have donated to Republican candidates in the past.”
He refused to comment further.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org