The Weiner factor: How one case derailed Denise Lunsford

Questions about the Mark Weiner case arose after his conviction in 2013. Judge Cheryl Higgins denied a motion to set aside the verdict in June 2014. Submitted photo Questions about the Mark Weiner case arose after his conviction in 2013. Judge Cheryl Higgins denied a motion to set aside the verdict in June 2014. Submitted photo

Unlike Charlottesville, where it was a given that Democratic candidates for City Council would win, Albemarle had several contested races, including two for board of supervisors and four candidates vying for clerk of court. But the race everyone was watching: Whether Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford could hold onto her seat for a third term against challenger Robert Tracci.

When Lunsford ousted her predecessor, Jim Camblos, in 2007, former Albemarle supervisor and commonwealth’s attorney Lindsay Dorrier observed, “It’s hard not to make enemies in that job.” Camblos, who was seeking a fifth term, was blasted for the “smoke bomb” plot, in which four students were held in detention for months for allegedly planning to bomb a high school—even though some of them didn’t know each other and the evidence was meager.

Ironically, eight years later, another notorious case was on voters’ minds when they headed to the polls November 3 and repeated the ouster of an incumbent.

For Lunsford, the Mark Weiner case became the bête noire of her reelection efforts. Weiner, who was held in jail for two and a half years before his abduction conviction was vacated in July, became a national news story, and it was the issue Lunsford could not escape in her campaign. The weekend before the election, she accused Tracci of focusing solely on that case and threatened legal action for an ad that had Weiner’s sister saying Lunsford “withheld evidence” that would have cleared her brother.

“It was one factor in the race,” says Tracci. “For many people it was emblematic.” Tracci says he spoke to Lunsford the morning after the election and they both pledge a smooth and orderly transition. “I want to be as positive as I can going forward.”

However, he acknowledges that it was a contested race and Mark Weiner was a factor. “I do know the support I received was bipartisan,” he says. Lunsford did not return a phone call from C-VILLE.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jon Zug, a Democrat who works for Lunsford, swept to victory with just more than 50 percent in the clerk’s race, unseating incumbent Debbie Shipp. From knocking on doors and being out in the community, he says, “To many, Mark Wiener was a huge issue, the result of statements Mr. [Steve] Benjamin [Weiner’s lawyer] made and reporting by your organization.”

Says Zug, “The impression that Denise intentionally withheld evidence—that is inaccurate. It’s exceedingly troubling to me that Denise Lunsford is being pilloried.” Zug blames Weiner’s original lawyer for not subpoenaing witnesses, and says, “Denise was adhering to the rules of evidence and she’s being faulted for it.”

Norman Dill, a Democrat who narrowly defeated Republican Richard Lloyd by 116 votes for the Rivanna District seat on the Board of Supervisors, says Weiner was a major factor in the prosecutor’s race. “It’s a complicated issue and hard for people to understand,” he says. “It’s easy to blame her, but it’s one case out of thousands she tried. I was disappointed she lost. I think she’s extremely well qualified.”

Scottsville Dem Rick Randolph, in the winner’s circle in that district’s Board of Supervisors race over Republican Earl Smith, says in conversations with the county’s police chief and sheriff, he never heard any issues with Lunsford’s “prosecutorial ability and ethics.” Says Randolph, “To extrapolate from one case over one’s body of work is very suspect.”

Upcoming for Tracci, a former special assistant U.S. attorney, is the high-profile capital murder case for Jesse Matthew for the death of UVA student Hannah Graham, as well as murder and abduction charges for the slaying of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington. In light of Matthew’s three life sentences for a 2005 brutal assault in Fairfax, legal expert David Heilberg is dubious that Matthew will go to trial.

“Albemarle is not a community that overwhelmingly craves a death penalty though individual opinions might differ,” he writes in an e-mail. “The cost to taxpayers seems wasteful where Matthews most likely will agree to multiple life sentences without an expensive capital trial or years of appeals.” Matthew has a pretrial hearing November 10 leading up to the trial scheduled for July 2016.

Another issue for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, which will lose both Lunsford and Zug January 1, is whether Tracci will keep the current staff, which appeared on a couple of Lunsford campaign mailings. “Mr. Tracci could retain all, some or none,” says Heilberg.

Tracci says he plans to meet with with each of the prosecutors  to see what they bring to the office. “Also there’s something to be said for a measure of continuity,” he says.

“The law is nonpartisan,” he stresses. “The position is elected, but it should not be political.” And he reiterates his main campaign issue: “The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice.”