Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates clash over criminal justice reform at debate

Michael Dranove Politics Leave a Comment

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh (right) and challenger Steve Descano (left) squared off yesterday at a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters.  By the end of the night, the two had offered up substantive policy differences, and dived into their opponent’s records to try and undermine their credibility.

Morrogh spent the evening shoring up his Washington Post endorsed image as an experienced realist standing in the way of a naïve reformer.  In his opening remarks he pointed to his 36 years of prosecutorial experience and contrasted this with his opponent.  At one point he elicited chuckles from the crowd by saying, “I generally agree with Steve, but he’s never tried a case in our courthouse so he doesn’t know how it works.”  Morrogh hammered home the experience gap throughout the event, eventually closing the night with a simple admonition of Descano: “He’s not qualified…I’m sorry to say it, but he’s not.”

Descano, for his part, is relatively inexperienced, but not totally so.  A former white-collar prosecutor with the Justice Department, Descano has served on the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel and the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee.  Last night, Descano claimed he was, “not only just talking the talk, but actually walking the walk,” on criminal justice reform.  Of the many reforms he claimed he would implement if elected, one was a promise to avoid seeking cash-bail for offenders not deemed to be dangerous.  After moderator Sakira Cook noted that half of all Virginia inmates are awaiting trial and many cannot get out because they cannot afford bail, Descano claimed, “What happens when you have a cash-bail system is you take a system that’s supposed to be equal, and you create a two tier system of justice where you penalize poor people simply for being poor.”

Keeping in form for the evening, Morrogh responded to Descano’s cash-bail statements by painting it as another example of his opponent’s inexperience with Virginia criminal law.  Morrogh claimed Descano misunderstood how cash-bail worked, saying that there is little prosecutorial discretion on the issue.  This is a point which Morrogh has made previously, and which Descano calls, “ridiculous.”

Digging deep

Aspersions heightened throughout the evening, and the atmosphere reached a boiling point when Descano brought up the subject of Justin Wolfe.  Fans of the NPR podcast Serial might recognize this name from season 1, episode 7, as Wolfe’s case is brought up because of its similarities.  Morrogh secured a first-degree murder conviction against Wolfe in 2016 for the 2001 killing of Justin Petrole.  Controversy stems from the fact that a number of abnormalities about the case have come to light.  Based on these developments, Wolfe’s attorneys have appealed his conviction, and have claimed that he is the, “target of a vindictive prosecution.”

Steve Descano (left) attacking Ray Morrogh's (right) record
Steve Descano (left) attacking Ray Morrogh’s (right) record

As Descano relayed his critical version of the events, a red-faced Morrogh sat laughing and shaking his head.  After Descano finished and sat down, a heckler caused a moment of confusion by demanding that Morrogh be allowed to respond shouting, “that’s not fair.”  Unfortunately for Morrogh, it was not his turn to speak, and there would be no chance for him to rebut Descano’s statements. Morrogh did not respond to requests from TysonsToday for comment on the issue. 

However, although he did not have a chance to respond at the debate, Morrogh did have his own ammunition, and soon laid into Descano’s record as a prosecutor.  Morrogh brought up a 2014 conviction Descano secured against a Peruvian immigrant for tax fraud.  The conviction was later overturned, and the judge in the case said that Descano made, “‘baseless’ and ‘fallacious’ arguments in his closing argument.” 

In a follow up email with the Descano campaign, Descano responded saying, “The truth is, on appeal to the 2nd Circuit of the United States, the court did not find a problem with my closing argument.”  

June 11th

Though maybe interesting, both of the aforementioned cases might be no more than isolated incidents.  In the end, what the race probably comes down to are broader questions. Is Morrogh serious about dealing with mass incarceration? Is Descano truly qualified for this position?

Watch the video above to get a better sense of the candidates’ positions. Voters can choose between the two at the Democratic Primary on June 11th.  All registered voters can vote in the Democratic Primary.  There is no Republican Primary this year in Fairfax County.