Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano is gearing up for what may be the most heated local election race in 2023.
The first-term chief prosecutor, who defeated a longtime incumbent in 2019 on the strength of a progressive platform, is planning to seek reelection next year, a representative for Descano confirmed to FFXnow.
An official announcement is expected to come soon, another spokesperson said.
Over the last three years, Descano has championed reform policies including a diversion program for those who commit non-violent crimes, increased transparency of bond hearing data, and an end to cash bail.
Like Arlington’s Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Loudoun’s Buta Biberaj, who were also elected in 2019 as reform advocates, Descano has been accused of being “soft on crime” and mishandling certain cases, with those involving sexual violence receiving particular scrutiny. He was also the focus of two recall campaigns last year.
In a statement to FFXnow, Descano touts his record as a “progressive” who has helped the county become “the safest jurisdiction of its size anywhere in the country, saying he’s been “encouraged by many over the last year to continue this work.”
I plan on making an announcement soon regarding the 2023 election. Since first being elected in 2019 I have worked each day to deliver safety and justice for our community. I’m proud of what we have accomplished, delivering progressive criminal justice reform including investments in “next generation” diversion programs, increased use of Veterans Treatment and Mental Health dockets, creating a Red Flag Law team aimed at getting guns out of someone’s hands who poses a danger, and leading a more transparent office by the launch of a public Data Dashboard on our work.
These and other reforms have helped deliver a justice system led by our values all while making Fairfax County the safest jurisdiction of its size anywhere in the country. I have been encouraged by many over the last year to continue this work. I am grateful for that encouragement and also for the widespread community support that has resulted in us having over $100,000 in campaign funds on hand one full year prior to the next election. This shows the strength and breadth of the support from those that want to keep Fairfax County’s justice system moving forward.
Four years ago, Decano was part of a wave of Northern Virginia progressive prosecutors to be elected as their localities’ top law enforcement officer.
In Arlington, Dehghani-Tafti launched her reelection campaign late last month. Biberaj hasn’t yet declared her intentions for next year.
Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid is also planning to run for reelection in 2023, she told FFXnow by email, though she didn’t elaborate on her reasoning.
Kincaid was first elected in 2013 in a special election, becoming the first woman to lead the office in its nearly three centuries of existence. She was reelected in 2015 and 2019, so this will be her fourth time running. Read More
In a scathing Nov. 30 Facebook post, the owners said the justice system failed the business and the community by not taking a tougher stance on the case, accusing the office of Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano of trivializing “a stressful, frightening, and unsafe situation.”
“Where is MY PROTECTION? I didn’t ask your office to move mountains. I expected your office to PROTECT OUR COMMUNITY. There were MULTIPLE FELONIES committed that night. I only asked for ONE TO stick. One FELONY,” the business wrote in the post.
The defendant, De’Quinn Le’Charn Hall, 29, has been indicted on a felony charge of discharging a firearm in an occupied building. A plea deal was offered but hasn’t been officially accepted by the court. A Fairfax County Circuit Court grand jury will take up the matter on Dec. 22.
The post by Sully’s includes allegations that additional charges were not pursued in order to avoid impacting the defendant’s commercial driver’s license. It also states that the case was not handled seriously because no one was killed in the incident.
“HE jeopardized LIVES and your office cared about his job?!” the post says. “We still have people traumatized, but why would you care about them.”
Laura Birnbaum, a spokesperson for the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, emphasized that the investigation is still ongoing. She also disputed some statements in the post, including its characterization of how one of the assistant commonwealth’s attorneys interacted with the victim and the police department.
“This case is ongoing and no final resolution has been presented to or accepted by the court,” she said. “CA Descano is reviewing this case and will determine the proper path forward. We want this community to know that we take these types of crimes seriously and will always seek final outcomes in line with the seriousness of the alleged conduct.”
Photo via Google Maps
A new data dashboard shows Fairfax County prosecutors are sometimes asking for more detainments of defendants than judges.
The Office of the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney (OCA) released a dashboard in October with data comparing how often and under what circumstances prosecutors are asking for pre-trial detainment and release to a judge’s recommendations.
“We’re trying to become a more data-driven office,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano told FFXnow. “We’re using this information that we’re collecting here for internal improvements, internal trainings, restructurings, and changing of our processes.”
He acknowledged that too often decisions in the justice system lack transparency and are done without the public’s knowledge.
“We want to let the community know what is going on in their justice system,” he said. “I think this system is a black box to many people. We want to change that.”
Courts and prosecutors diverge on when to detain defendants
The dashboard only covers bond review hearings, where a county prosecutor makes a recommendation to a judge that a defendant either be detained or released before their trial.
Descano said that involves “a small percentage of our cases,” though he was unable to provide the exact percentage compared to the total number of cases handled by the county.
The dashboard also only has data from a six-month period between Jan. 1, 2022 and June 30, 2022.
According to the provided data, decisions by the OCA don’t always neatly line up with the self-described “progressive” prosecutor reputation that Descano ran on in 2019, nor do they clearly affirm detractors’ perception of the office as “soft on crime.”
While prosecutors and courts generally align on non-violent misdemeanors and felonies, the OCA recommended detainment for violent felonies 20% more often than the courts, including cases involving cash bail. Descano called that the number one “disagreement” between his office and judges.
As the dashboard notes, the OCA and courts don’t always agree on when a perpetrator is a “danger to family or household member.” Descano said those disagreements generally relate to domestic violence cases, particularly those involving strangulation.
“We take those really seriously because data has shown that if an intimate partner strangles somebody, they’re seven times more likely to actually murder them,” Descano said.
The OCA also recommended detentions for sex offenses at higher rates than the courts. For felonies, it asked for detainment 89% of the time, while the judges recommended it 52% of the time. For misdemeanors, OCA asked for detainment 58% of the time, with judges agreeing in only 25% of cases.
“It shows me that some judges may not see the same dangerousness to those types of crimes that we do or may value it differently,” Descano said. “We’re not putting this out data to try to slam judges or anything. If anything, it shows [how] different actors in the system view different types of accusations.” Read More
The man who allegedly fired a gun inside Tysons Corner Center this summer, sparking a chaotic evacuation of the mall, is expected to face trial after getting indicted by a Fairfax County grand jury yesterday (Monday).
The circuit court jury indicted Noah Settles, a 22-year-old D.C. resident also known as rapper No Savage, on seven charges that could result in up to 45 years of imprisonment if he’s convicted, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano told FFXnow.
“This really traumatized folks who were in the mall that day and really left a scar on the people in Fairfax County at large,” Descano said of the June 18 incident. “I want people to know that you cannot come into Fairfax County, wave a gun around and shoot off in a crowded building and not expect to be held accountable and to be held accountable severely, and that’s what we’re looking to do here.”
Settles turned himself in on June 22 after the Fairfax County Police Department identified him as the suspect in the shooting, alleging that he had fired three gunshots on a mall concourse after getting into an argument with a rival “crew” based in southeast D.C.
No one was hit by the gunfire, but three people were injured while fleeing, police said. About six weeks later, Tysons Corner Center was evacuated again after the sound of a shattered light fixture prompted panic and unfounded rumors of an active shooter.
Settles was initially charged with attempted malicious wounding, use of a firearm in commission of a felony, and three counts of discharging a weapon into an occupied building.
According to Descano, the grand jury’s indictment included two additional charges for brandishing a firearm and possession of a concealed firearm that prosecutors introduced after a preliminary hearing in Fairfax County General District Court on Aug. 15.
At the hearing, a lawyer for Settles argued that he had acted in self-defense, though a judge found probable cause to send the case to a grand jury, WUSA9 reported. Settles’ defense attorney, Peter Greenspun, didn’t return a request for comment by press time.
Descano says the new charges will enable prosecutors “to fully tell the story of what allegedly happened that day, particularly before the first rounds were fired off.”
“Those two additional charges are vital to producing accountability, which is really what our end goal here is,” he said.
Descano says his office is committed to prosecuting existing gun laws, but he has also argued that more federal and state legislation is needed to address the issue of gun violence, including a closure of loopholes that allow untraceable “ghost guns.”
Just this past weekend, the FCPD responded to two shootings, one in Annandale and another in Woodlawn that ended in the victim’s death.
“Action is needed because we can’t live with this as the new normal,” Descano said. “…When you have guns flooding the streets, what starts as a personal beef can very quickly escalate into shooting, violence, and death.”
A Greenbriar East Elementary School health aide has been indicted on charges for stealing students’ medication, according to the Fairfax County police.
Former Fairfax County Health Department employee Jennifer Carpenter, 45, of Fairfax falsified documentation on prescription medication she gave students, according to a press release. Carpenter dispensed sugar placebo pills and over-the-counter medicine in place of narcotics — including Ritalin, Adderall, and Focalin — that police believe she was keeping for personal use.
During the investigation, detectives identified seven students at the Fair Lakes area school whose medicine was being abused, police said.
Detectives began investigating on May 27 after a health department supervisor noticed a discrepancy in the amount of medication several students maintained at the school, the release said.
Carpenter was indicted on seven counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor; two separate counts of unlawful possession of controlled substances; one count of obtaining drugs by fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, embezzlement, or subterfuge; and one count of unlawful dispension of a drug in place of another without permission of the person ordering/prescribing.
In a statement, FCPD Criminal Investigations Division Commander Captain Frederick Chambers said:
As parents, we have an expectation that a person in a position of trust will care for our children. When that trust is broken, we can feel betrayed. Thanks to the swift notification of the health department and schools, our detectives were able to immediately begin their investigation when the discrepancy was noticed. We will continue to hold anyone who abuses their position of power accountable for their actions.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Steven Descano called Carpenter’s actions a “gross breach of trust” in a statement.
“This situation could have easily evolved into a medical emergency for any of the children affected,” the statement reads.
This morning, CA Descano announced the indictment of Jennifer Carpenter on two counts of possession of schedule I or II drugs, one count of adulterated or misbranded drugs, and seven counts of contributing to the delinquency or abuse of a child. pic.twitter.com/YHiaBp9vb2
— Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Descano (@FairfaxCountyCA) July 21, 2022
If convicted, Carpenter faces a sentence of three to 32.5 years in prison, and up to $25,000 in fines, Descano said.
Police ask anyone with information about the case to call 703-591-0966. Tips can also be submitted anonymously through Crime Solvers by phone – 1-866-411-TIPS (866-411-8477), and by web.
Photo via Greenbriar East/Facebook
FCPS Condemns Recent Mass Shootings — “Fairfax County Public Schools remains steadfast in our commitment to speak up and speak out against such acts of hatred and domestic terrorism. This past weekend, the Buffalo, New York, and Laguna Woods, California communities experienced unthinkable acts of violence. We grieve with the families who lost loved ones and are suffering.” [FCPS]
Metro Veers Into Another Safety Issue — “Metrorail repeatedly powered the electric third rail while workers were still on the roadway in recent weeks, bypassing safety procedures and putting people at risk of injury and death, according to a new report issued by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.” [DCist]
County Bus Workers Win Statewide Competition — “Fairfax Connector Operators and Maintenance Professionals excelled at the Virginia State Bus Roadeo last month…The Fairfax Connector/ Transdev Maintenance Team placed first in the maintenance team category and will represent the Commonwealth of Virginia in the International Bus Roadeo next year.” [Fairfax Connector]
Local Vietnamese Community Recognized — A Virginia Historical Marker recognizing the significance of Vietnamese immigrants in Northern Virginia will be dedicated at Eden Center in Falls Church on next Tuesday (May 24). The community was nominated by Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School students last year as part of a statewide Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month contest. [City of Falls Church]
Descano Left Out of Virginia Violent Crime Task Force — “Commonwealth’s attorneys Buta Biberaj, of Loudoun County; Amy Ashworth, of Prince William County; and Steve Descano, of Fairfax County, told WTOP they were unaware a task force was being assembled until Youngkin’s news release Monday. All three prosecutors are progressive Democrats.” [WTOP]
Food Trucks Pop Up at Courthouse — “NEW! Starting TOMORROW, 5/18 food trucks will be visiting the Courthouse Grounds THIS week, from 11:30am-2:30pm to offer lunch options.” [Fairfax County Circuit Court/Twitter]
Lake Anne Parking Lot to Close Next Week — “The Lake Anne Park parking lot will be closed off next week due to required warranty work, starting on May 23 through the 25th (weather dependent). A contractor will be seal coating and restriping the entire lot. Any vehicles left overnight will be towed.” [Reston Association/Twitter]
Sale of Tysons Broadcasting Company Approved — Tegna stockholders voted yesterday to approve a sale of the Tysons-headquartered company to investment firm Standard General. Expected to close in the second half of this year, the $5.4 billion deal will turn the broadcaster, which owns 64 TV stations in 51 markets across the country, into a private company. [Deadline]
“Wheel of Fortune” Coming to Tysons — “‘Wheel of Fortune Live!,’ a new live stage show, is kicking off a tour in September that includes a stop at Capital One Hall…Guests can audition to go on stage and will have the chance to spin a replica of the iconic wheel and solve puzzles to win prizes, including $10,000 and trips to Paris and Hawaii. Audience members will also have the chance to be randomly selected to win cash and prizes.” [Inside NoVA]
It’s Wednesday — Rain overnight. High of 72 and low of 52. Sunrise at 5:55 am and sunset at 8:19 pm. [Weather.gov]
The parents of 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, the McLean resident killed by U.S. Park Police in 2017, and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano have voiced their dismay over Virginia’s decision to drop a criminal case against the officers.
At the behest of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, the Commonwealth filed a motion on Friday (April 22) to drop the manslaughter charges against the officers. A federal appeals court officially dismissed the case yesterday (Monday).
“I remain saddened and dumbfounded,” Descano said yesterday (Monday) in a statement. “Not only did they lose their beloved son, but time and again, actors in the criminal justice system treated them with appalling coldness and brutality.”
Three former U.S. attorneys general — William Barr, Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, all Republicans — weighed in on the criminal case with an amicus brief a day before the Commonwealth’s motion.
Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, had filed an appeal of the criminal case in January to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. He lost his bid for reelection in November.
Descano, also a Democrat, sought to bring criminal charges against the Park Police officers, identified as Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard. A grand jury indicted the men in October 2020 on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.
But a year later, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled in favor of the Park Police officers, dismissing the case.
Descano said he’ll now turn his attention to advocating for the Department of Justice to prosecute the case. The DOJ previously declined to pursue charges against the officers in 2019, but the department indicated last summer that it would be open to assisting in a prosecution.
If federal prosecutors pass on the case again, it would allow for the resumption of a civil lawsuit that James and Kelara Ghaisar, Bijan’s parents, filed against the U.S. government. The lawsuit has been on hold since October 2020.
Efforts by the family, community members, and elected officials to hold the Park Police officers accountable for Bijan Ghaisar’s death have now dragged on for more than four years after he was shot at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue.
U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine said in a joint statement yesterday (Monday) that their “hearts go out to Bijan Ghaisar’s loved ones, who have spent more than four years searching for closure following the fatal shooting of Bijan by two U.S. Park Police officers. We are deeply disappointed by this decision by Attorney General Miyares to end Virginia’s pursuit of justice for Bijan and his family. This decision only stands to cause further harm to the Fairfax County community while preventing a heartbroken family from reaching the closure they desperately need.”
At a federal court hearing in October 2020, an attorney for the family argued that they had been waiting for years and a case shouldn’t be paused indefinitely.
“Almost three years ago Bijan Ghaisar was gunned down by two Park Police officers,” attorney Tom Connolly said at the October 2020 hearing. “His family has waited now three years to get some semblance of justice in this case.”
Hilton agreed and set a status conference for the civil case for March 26, 2021. But three days before that date, the court said the meeting was put on hold with a rescheduling “to be determined.”
The wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, seeks $25 million and other damages and costs, alleging negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other charges.
The results of Virginia’s 2021 general election could have significant ramifications for local efforts to seek alternatives to jail and other criminal justice reforms, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano says.
Descano, a Democrat, addressed expectations that his agenda will clash with that of Republican Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares in an online event on Tuesday (Nov. 16) hosted by the McLean chapter of the American Association of University Women, which seeks to promote equity and education for women and girls.
A day after defeating incumbent Mark Herring, who was seeking a third consecutive term as Virginia’s top legal officer, Miyares told reporters on Nov. 3 that he plans to introduce a bill that would let the state intervene in local cases.
“This legislation was inspired by a child rape case in Fairfax County, where a defendant was charged with repeatedly raping and molesting a 5-year-old child and was eligible for a life sentence,” Miyares said in a statement to FFXnow, pointing to a case involving Oscar R. Zaldivar, 53, who received a 17-year sentence through a plea deal.
Despite objections from the families involved, Descano’s office defended the sentence in statements to media after the September hearing as longer than what 75% of defendants in Virginia face for the same offenses.
Prosecutors typically get discretion to determine when to pursue a case based on whether the available evidence is sufficient and other factors. Descano said Miyares’s proposal would turn the legal system on its head.
“He wants the police to be able to sideline a prosecutor who’s inconvenient for them at anytime,” Descano said, adding that Fairfax County is fortunate to have a professionalized police force.
Miyares countered that he would get guidance from Commonwealth’s Attorneys to advocate for a bill that would “invite” the attorney general to prosecute child rape or violent crime cases “when the local prosecutor refuses to prosecute.”
The clash between Descano and Miyares presages the uphill battle that Fairfax County’s mostly Democratic elected officials will likely face over the next few years in trying to work with the n0w-Republican-led state government.
The county started a veterans court in 2015 to provide support systems for service members faced with charges. It then launched a Diversion First initiative in 2016 that offers rehabilitation over incarceration for certain nonviolent offenses. Since then, the county has also created specialized court dockets focused on the needs of people with drug addiction and mental health issues.
According to Census data compiled by the nonprofit The Marshall Project, Fairfax County’s jail population has declined significantly over the past two decades, from 3,749 people in 2000 to 1,207 people in 2010 and 667 people in 2020.
Elected in 2019 amid a progressive surge in Northern Virginia, Descano has implemented many of his pledged reforms, including eliminating cash bail, not holding suspects on nonviolent charges when they aren’t deemed a danger to the community, and enabling prosecutors to take “community values” into account instead of deferring to judges.
He said on Tuesday that the changes are intended to improve fairness in prosecutions.
The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney also has a data director who is working with researchers from American University and other partners to create a public dashboard with information on how it handles different cases.
Descano says the data will allow for analysis of prosecutors’ decisions, which will help avoid problems, such as unfair treatment based on gender or race.
When asked about the data effort by Aroona Borpujari, a statistician who watched the event, Descano replied that his office will release the data when they have enough of a sample size.
“It’s our pledge that we’re going to be transparent,” he said, describing the office as previously being in the Stone Age.