FAIRFAX, Va. -- For decades they've been fixtures in northern Virginia courthouses: longtime prosecutors who made their names and earned public trust with successful convictions of serial killers and snipers.
Now, though, a national reform movement emphasizing the rights of defendants is posing a serious threat to career prosecutors who in the past have cruised to reelection.
In Fairfax County, Virginia's most populous jurisdiction, incumbent Ray Morrogh is facing a June 11 primary challenge from former Justice Department lawyer Steve Descano. Morrogh has been a prosecutor in Fairfax County for 35 years, serving for many years as chief deputy to legendary prosecutor Bob Horan before being elected commonwealth's attorney in 2007. He personally prosecuted Lee Boyd Malvo, who is serving a life sentence after a series of sniper attacks in 2002 that left 10 people dead in the D.C. area.
In neighboring Arlington County, Theo Stamos took over in 2012 after serving for 25 years as an assistant prosecutor and then chief deputy prosecutor. Stamos, a Chicago native, has personally prosecuted capital murder cases of her own. Her opponent, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, has worked in the D.C. public defender's office and as an appellate lawyer for people who argue they've been wrongfully convicted. She has never worked as a prosecutor.
A third northern Virginia prosecutor — Paul Ebert, who obtained the death penalty against Malvo's sniper partner John Allen Muhammad and has put more men on death row than any prosecutor in Virginia — opted not to seek reelection after a record 50 years as his county's top prosecutor.
Virginia is one of only four states to hold legislative elections this year. The state's odd-year balloting is often seen by political analysts as a potential bellwether for future national elections. In 2017, Virginia Democrats, women in particular, made huge gains in state legislative races, presaging a similar national trend in 2018.
Both Dehghani-Tafti and Descano are heavily backed by a political action committee funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, who has emphasized criminal-justice reform and supported reform-minded candidates nationwide.
The most recent campaign-finance reports show Dehghani-Tafti received $583,000 from the PAC, and Descano received $392,000. Those amounts dwarf the entire fundraising by Stamos and Morrogh, who report gross contributions of $162,000 and $242,000, respectively.
The two challengers received another boost when they were endorsed by Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who remains popular in heavily Democratic northern Virginia.
McAuliffe weighed in after Stamos and Morrogh fought his effort to automatically restore the voting rights of convicted felons after they serve their prison time.
"I just can't fathom why Democratic commonwealth's attorneys would try to stop a Democratic governor from doing the morally right thing," McAuliffe said. He noted that restoration of ex-felon's voting rights was an effort to correct a century-old wrong, in which voting rights were taken away to keep blacks from the ballot box.
Morrogh and Stamos both acknowledge their stance has created a political liability for them, but they said they felt compelled to oppose the governor. Both said that while they favor restoration of voting rights, they are concerned it could be a first step to restoring the right to carry firearms.
"Sometimes you have to take on a rich and powerful person like the governor of Virginia if you think what you're doing is right," Stamos said.
Jonathan Blodgett, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said he believes incumbents are unfairly painted as enemies of reform.
"Most prosecutors are doing these things, and doing them willingly," Blodgett said.
Prosecutors had little incentive to emphasize criminal-justice reform and defendants' rights in past elections, when voters favored law-and-order candidates.
Descano, who served on a newly created police review board in Fairfax County, said he was confident voters were ready to embrace a reform message, "but nowhere in my wildest dreams did I think it was going to be like this."
Morrogh acknowledged that the issues resonating with voters this year have changed.
"The pendulum swings," he said. "But I've always talked about balance. A prosecutor needs to have balance and be fair to everyone."
Both Morrogh and Stamos say that regardless of whether their actions clicked with voters, they quietly implemented numerous reforms to ensure the system is fair for those accused, and bristle at the notion their offices are in need of reform. Morrogh, for instance, broke with the precedent of his predecessor and implemented open discovery rules, meaning defense attorneys get access to all the evidence in the case, not just what the law requires.
Stamos has emphasized her work to raise the threshold for increasing a larceny to a misdemeanor, and her support of legislation that eliminated automatic license suspension for those convicted of a first-time marijuana offense. But she says unless a law is itself unconstitutional — such as Virginia's old law prohibiting interracial marriage — it is not a prosecutor's job to usurp the role of the legislature and decriminalize marijuana by fiat.
Dehghani-Tafti and Descano disagree. Both have pledged to not prosecute marijuana possession cases.
Dehghani-Tafti said that if voters want real reform, her background makes her the clear choice. She said she gave long consideration to whether she could serve as the county's top prosecutor after a career of fighting prosecutors. Ultimately, she decided that her job has been about using the courts to find the truth, and she can bring that perspective to the commonwealth's attorney's office.