The office of Charlottesville’s head prosecutor, Warner D. “Dave” Chapman, is tucked off a mundane hallway in City Hall, far removed from the bustle of lawyers, clerks, cops and cons a few blocks north in historic Court Square.
Chapman, too, is usually removed from the pomp and politics of the local legal scene. While his counterpart in the county, the bow-tie-clad James L. Camblos, III, is highly visible both in the justice system and with the local Republican party, Chapman mostly stays out of the limelight.
City Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman isn’t one to hog the limelight.
Yet the lawyer who both majored in politics and took his law degree at UVA has been Commonwealth’s attorney for the city for 13 years, and has worked on some of the area’s most serious cases. Before that, he served as assistant and deputy Commonwealth’s attorney in Albemarle, and maintains membership on a number of policy and justice boards locally and statewide. He’s also an active member of the local Democratic party. In short, the guy is known. But why the disappearing act when it comes to the press?
“Many times a prosecutor’s office is not doing its job well when it’s especially visible,” says Chapman. The public hears less “if you don’t make a bunch of mistakes.”
Chapman also maintains a strict “no comment” policy for ongoing cases: “We do not try our cases on the courthouse steps.”
This approach might stem from the fact that in more than a decade, Chapman has never had an opponent in the Commonwealth’s attorney’s race. That means he can run his office like a lawyer, not a politician.
Still, Chapman has his fair share of struggles behind the scenes, foremost being low attorneys’ salaries. Virginia’s criminal justice system is “chronically underfunded,” resulting in high turnover and making it difficult for prosecutors to take on the sometimes well-paid defense attorneys.
“We have a very high bar here,” Chapman says, “and we have to be able to take on any lawyer.”
Despite the low pay, the city prosecutors are effective case-closers. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania recently worked with the county to obtain a guilty verdict in the capital murder trial of wife-killer Anthony Dale Crawford.
“If a prosecutor’s office ever gets out of 90 percent in terms of a conviction rate,” Chapman says, “there’s something wrong.”
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