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Prosecutor Reorganizes Office

Commonwealth's Attorney James Plowman has made a number of changes since taking office in January.

More than halfway through his first year as commonwealth attorney, James Plowman, 36, has made several changes in the operation of the office.

Plowman, who replaced two-term prosecutor Bob Anderson, set guidelines when he first took over in January. He maintained there should be:

· More trials by jury,

· Fewer plea agreements,

· Few, if any, sentencing recommendations made by the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, and

· Increased law enforcement agencies' involvement in the judicial process.

His most visible move was to eliminate one investigator's position and convert the other into an assistant Commonwealth's attorney job. Guy Morgan and Steve Van Winkle, former Fairfax police officers, had a combination of 50 years experience. "They were well qualified, talented investigators and interviewers," Plowman said. "But we don't have a need for them. We're working with sheriff and police investigators directly.

"Why do we need our own investigators when we have law enforcement agencies that we can work with?"

The move was not unusual, considering three of the four adjacent counties do not have investigators in the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. Arlington, Clarke and Fairfax counties work directly with law enforcement investigators outside their office, and Prince William County has one investigator. A computerized list of Virginia's Commonwealth's Attorney's offices indicates the majority does not have investigators.

ANDERSON SAID he relied on the investigators, because of their extensive experience. Many of the deputy sheriffs and police officers were new to police work and the court system, he said. "You also needed to have some continuity. We prosecuted cases from eight different agencies."

His first investigator, Gary Clemens, helped obtain an indictment in a 20-year-old murder case. "Gary tracked the witnesses up and down the East Coast," Anderson said. "We wouldn't have been able to do that without an investigator in the office."

Clemens is now clerk of the Loudoun County Circuit Court. VanWinkle is moving over to the county administrator's office next week, and Morgan is training police in Iraq. Plowman also replaced assistant Commonwealth's attorney, Tom Mulrine, with Anna Bonarrigo, a recent law school graduate. Anderson, Basham and Mulrine set up their own law offices across from the courthouse.

In addition, Plowman said he hired Gigi Lawless, a Tennessee lawyer who had been working in his office as a temp.

PLOWMAN SAID letting the investigators go brought about a needed change in the Grand Jury process. Law enforcement officials had not testified in the indictments, because that was the investigators' job.

"They need to be comfortable with the court process, testifying before people, juries and judges," he said. "I don't want an officer to stumble across a huge case and come to a court hearing or trial, and he hasn't been through the process in years."

Any overtime costs associated with sheriffs and police testifying before a Grand Jury is minimal compared to the budgeting of two investigators, he said "They are duplicating efforts, reading reports and testifying. Have the officer do it himself. He's in and out and he already knows the case."

Plowman said his office staggers the cases so officers don't spend hours sitting around waiting their turns. "If there is overtime, we are minimizing it," he said. Drawing more officers into the court process also improves the chances of winning a case.

He said he likes working directly with law enforcement agencies, he said. "I also want to do training at (police/sheriff) roll calls, updates in new case law, updates on search and seizure, that sort of thing.

"This is a different atmosphere with the Sheriff's Department then before. It is more open," he said. "The communication is great."

SHERIFF STEVE SIMPSON agreed. "I think it is working very well. It's kind of like it was … when I was working criminal cases in patrol or as an investigator. We had more direct contact, which made for better case preparation and prosecution," he said. "We're real pleased with the change in the Commonwealth's Attorney's office.

"It is a very good open line of communication."

Anderson said he had a good rapport with the deputy sheriffs, but not with Sheriff Steve Simpson. The attorney cited as an example a time when Simpson failed to provide a police report in a murder case. "I don't think that should have happened," he said. "With a case of that significance, there should be more responsiveness."

Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, said Simpson could not provide the supplemental report, because the case had been handled by his predecessor Sheriff John Isom, and an investigator had never written it.

Plowman, one of the youngest Commonwealth's Attorneys in Virginia, said he has maintained his goal of trying more cases, allowing fewer plea agreements in felony cases and making few, if any, sentencing recommendations. "Before I got here, you plead guilty to this and you'll get X, basically taking the role of judge when you don't have the full background on them," he said.

A prosecutor should not recommend a sentence before a parole officer researches the defendant's background, because some factors involving health, finances and criminal background are unknown, Plowman said. Another reason for not making a recommendation is to ensure equity. One prosecutor might have a heavy hand and another a lighter one when it comes to sentencing. There would be less disparity with a judge, he said. "Making a sentencing recommendation is going to be the exception, not the norm."

REGARDING HIS GOAL to try more cases and enter into few felony plea agreements, Plowman said jury trials give a voice to the community as to how members define justice. There are times when plea agreements are warranted, such as when either side does not have a strong case or if a defendant could provide testimony or evidence against another criminal.

For example, a drug user who is trying to support his habit by selling cocaine on the side might be willing to identify the "hard core dealer," he said. "Is he the guy we want or do we want his supplier? If he is able to turn the narcotics officer onto the dealer at the top of the chain, then we might let him plead guilty to possession instead of distribution."

Plowman recently allowed a plea agreement in the case of Matthew Lathram, 17, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter and several guns and drugs violations. He did not provide a sentencing recommendation.

Anderson said judges follow the Virginia sentencing guidelines 85 percent of the time. "Whether you recommend a sentence is no consequence," he said. "If there is a plea, usually the sentence is within the guidelines.

Plowman said his office has tried 18 cases in the last seven months, and Anderson averaged a dozen a year. Anderson had no experience as a prosecutor, but nine years as a defense lawyer.

Anderson said he was never hesitant about using jury trials. "We tried 30 murder death cases and had convictions in all but two."

PLOWMAN'S FIRST CHORE when he took over was to cut the office budget. The Board of Supervisors had demanded budget reductions from most county offices. His deputy, James Fisher, took on a high profile case involving Tyrone Smith, charged with murder in connection with a drug deal, while he looked for ways to save money. In addition to eliminating the investigator's position, Plowman made small changes. He discontinued renting a climate controlled storage room filled with records, many of which were so old that they were discarded. The other records were moved to the county's storage unit, which was rental free. Plowman also had office letterhead created on the computer, eliminating the need for the outside printing service.

Anderson had budgeted for a new secretary and an assistant attorney, but Plowman said he could get by without them. Plowman cut the budget by 30 percent.

Fisher had lost a bid for Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney at the same time Plowman ran for office in Loudoun County. "We're lucky to have him," Plowman said. "He's my right arm. He's a prosecutor's prosecutor and a law enforcement officer's prosecutor."

Plowman said he needed a deputy who could dive right into some heavy felony cases. Fisher, who had been an assistant Commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax for four and half years, replaced Anderson's deputy, Owen Basham. Fisher also served as Warrenton's town attorney and prosecutor while running his own private practice.

With two attorneys armed with prosecutorial experience, how have they decided who takes which case? "We fight over it," Plowman said. "Actually it just depends what my schedule looks like and his schedule looks like."

They both plan to handle the recent case of Pareen Mandanapu, who is charged with dismembering and killing his wife.

PLOWMAN, WHO PASSED the bar in 1996, set up his own practice in Fairfax for a year and a half, then joined the office of Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan Jr. "I couldn't pass it up. It was too good of an opportunity. It was the best job I ever had until now."

His stint with the Fairfax County office was after Fisher had already practiced law there from 1989-1993 and moved onto a practice of his own in Fairfax and Warrenton. Plowman worked 1998-2001 as an assistant Commonwealth's attorney in Horan's office. "I tried countless cases. You are dealing with criminal law every day," he said. "Fairfax is unique in that you have to deal with every law enforcement agency in the area."

Plowman worked with county, city, town, airport, and state police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service and postal inspectors. "I had an opportunity to deal with all those agencies, plus the sheer volume, case management, docket management, making decisions quickly, dealing with evidence," he said. "I was doing major felonies within six to eight months, dozens of jury trials."

Plowman and his wife, Angela, had a daughter and another on the way when he decided to leave Horan's office and work as a civil litigator for Allstate Insurance. "If I were to go out on my own or team up with a buddy, it's nice to have a little more experience, being diverse, having criminal and civil experience."

Angela Plowman is an assistant county attorney in Loudoun and works across the street from the Commonwealth Attorney's Office. They moved last month from South Riding to Leesburg. They have two children, Erin, 4, and Joanna, 2, and two cats, Paws and Casey. Another child is due in September.

Plowman met his wife while he studied at George Washington University and National Law Center. He grew up in Northern Virginia and earned his bachelor's degree at Virginia Tech in 1989. He attended law school at night and clerked for the Sheet Metal Workers National Pension Fund Office of General Counsel in Alexandria.

HIS CANDIDACY for the Commonwealth's Attorney was his first run for political office. He had worked with the Republican Committee, served as treasurer and 67th legislative chair. He also was a member of the candidates search committee.

"I grew up in a political atmosphere," he said. "My Mom worked for (senior) President Bush and still does. She basically schedules, coordinates and does event planning from her home in Great Falls."

Kathy Super also handles Barbara Bush's schedule.

Plowman said national politicians do not usually make donations to local campaigns, but Bush made an exception in his case. "I think the world of him," he said. "He is a great guy, very personable."

Plowman's father, James Plowman, was a Navy pilot when his plane was shot down in North Vietnam. "Five months before I was born," he said.

Super remarried when Plowman was in high school and had a daughter, Elizabeth, who is attending Virginia Commonwealth University.

Plowman, still active in the Republican Committee, said he manages the Commonwealth's Attorney's office with a team approach. "One of the best things you can do is lead by example," he said. "Jim and I try to do that. By not being administrators, we get involved with the court system, especially when we are short staffed. … I started assigning myself some cases. I want to be in tune with what is going on."