WOODSTOCK – A circuit court judge warned attorneys Wednesday he wants to stop the “pattern” of putting off or delaying action on cases.
Judge Kevin C. Black admonished attorneys on both sides in Shenandoah County Circuit Court for allowing charges against Debra Dawn Fernandez to linger in the court system for three years.
Fernandez appeared in court where she stands charged with sodomy, animate object penetration and aggravated sexual battery – all felonies against a child under the age of 13. Fernandez pleaded not guilty to her charges. Black ordered Fernandez arraigned, noting that court records did not make it clear if she had already been arraigned.
A grand jury indicted Fernandez on May 18, 2016, at which time then Judge Dennis L. Hupp ordered a bench warrant for the defendant’s arrest, court records show. Fernandez had charges in Sullivan County, Tennessee, around the same time, attorneys have said. She has remained free on bond.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Strecky told Black that she only recently took on the case from Austin Hovermale after he left the office.
Black asked the attorneys why the case has taken so long to move through the court. Fernandez’ attorney Peter McDermott, with the public defender’s office, advised that his client had charges in Sullivan County, Tennessee, around the time the commonwealth indicted her on the Shenandoah County counts.
After McDermott and Strecky explained some of the reasons for the delays, Black said he wanted to set the matter for trial but attorneys could bring the cases before the court at an earlier date if desired. Black scheduled the trial for Jan. 29, expressing concern that the court has had the case for three years.
“That’s just kinda getting out of hand,” Black said. “This is just a pattern that I want to break."
Strecky reiterated that much of the delay came as attorneys coordinated their efforts with the case in Tennessee.
McDermott asked Black if the court could put the case on a docket in October for further proceedings. Strecky concurred. Black said he didn’t like to do it and asked McDermott what this would accomplish. McDermott said setting the case for further proceedings would allow the attorneys to come before the court should they reach an agreement ahead of the trial date.
After her indictment, Fernandez appeared in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on March 15, 2017, with then Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis Campola as prosecutor and Pierre D. Greene, from the public defender’s office, representing the defendant, who made a motion for discovery material. Fernandez was remanded to the custody of the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail.
The prosecution and defense appeared in court on May 10, 2017, at which time the court granted a defense motion to schedule another date for the case. Fernandez appeared in court June 28, 2017, with new attorney Peter McDermott, also with the public defender’s office. Hupp granted a motion to allow Fernandez’ release on an unsecured bond on the condition she not leave Virginia except to appear in the Tennessee court for her charges there. The judge ordered Fernandez to stay at a Woodstock address while on bond.
Fernandez’ case came up in court again on Aug. 23, Nov. 15 and Dec. 13, 2017; each time the defendant waived her right to a speedy trial. McDermott made motions at appearances on Feb. 9, March 2 and April 11, 2018, to continue the case, without objection by the prosecutor’s office. At a scheduled court appearance on May 9, 2018, McDermott made a motion to continue the matter after hearing that Campola would be leaving the prosecutor’s office, which would need to assign the case to another attorney. Then-Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kristen Zalenski appeared for the prosecution on July 11, 2018.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Strecky and McDermott presented a plea agreement on Sept. 5, which Judge Clark A. Ritchie then denied.
“(Ritchie) asked us to go back to the drawing board essentially, and so it was set for trial,” Strecky told Black.
Hovermale appeared for the prosecutor’s office on Sept. 12, at which time the court set the case for a jury trial March 28. Parties appeared in court in early March and the judge released the jury and the case was continued again. The case came up April 10 and Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley appeared for her office. The court granted a defense motion to continue the case. The court on April 17 scheduled the case for a bench trial Wednesday.
Black heard from attorneys about the case status.
“At this point, I am just now getting involved in this case,” Strecky told Black.
Strecky pointed out that the alleged victim’s grandmother has appeared in court for each scheduled date. The lead investigator in the case also appeared Wednesday.
“I need an opportunity to meet with them so that I can better understand where this case is going,” Strecky said. “I know that typically after something’s been set for trial the court is not inclined to set it for another further proceeding date.”
Strecky said she has spoken with the alleged victim’s grandmother who is OK with putting off the case to give the prosecutor time to become familiar with the case. Strecky told Black she needed to speak to the alleged victim’s family to learn more about the Tennessee charges and how they relate to the Shenandoah County case.
McDermott did not object to putting the case off to another date. McDermott told Black he would need time to subpoena his witnesses. McDermott explained that he received some information in June pertaining to his client’s civil case proceedings in Tennessee. Strecky said she had not yet seen the information.