Due Process 

Three candidates for commonwealth's attorney run to join a restructured city government.

Three candidates — all Democrats — are vying to be the city's chief prosecutor. Because no Republican candidate has emerged, the outcome essentially will be determined by a Democratic primary June 14.

Those seeking the post include private defense attorneys Michael N. Herring and Corey Nicholson, along with Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Michelle Welch.

The candidates will spend the next two months explaining why they're right for the job. Yet in the context of a city shake-up, the more compelling question may be which candidate is right for the time. Whoever wins will join a new mayor, a new police chief and a newly restructured City Council.

What's more, the candidates for commonwealth's attorney seem to know that whoever wins may become part of something more than a historic moment.

As constitutional officers, common-wealth's attorneys are elected to four-year terms. For their respective localities, they represent the people of Virginia in prosecuting criminal cases. They try the most serious crimes: felonies, including murder, rape and robbery, as well as serious misdemeanors. In Richmond, commonwealth's attorneys oversee nearly 10,000 cases a year. They manage an office of 75 workers, more than half of them attorneys. Their office is independent of City Hall, the Richmond Police Department and the Office of the Mayor. Yet it works with all three.

Commonwealth's Attorney Hicks says Welch is the best candidate to work effectively outside and inside the office. "There are riders and there are runners, and runners make their own way," he says of his protégé. It's a lonely job, he says — one that requires perseverance and tenacity, traits Welch demonstrates. "She has a heart for the people and the courage of her convictions," say Hicks.

Hicks' endorsement of Welch may appear unlikely. Both Herring and Nicholson worked in the commonwealth's attorney's office under Hicks before becoming trial lawyers in private practice, the route Hicks took before running for office. Hicks sees it differently. "My confidence in Michelle is because she's a career prosecutor, not a politician. When she applies herself, she doesn't give up whether it's graffiti, animal abuse or domestic violence," he says. "I never thought I'd say this, but out of the three running, I have the most in common with her."

"Too often we lose sight of the little things," Welch says, sitting at her desk in the John Marshall Courts Building. The room is small and cluttered with paperwork and pictures of her husband, her 3-year-old daughter and friends. Posters decrying animal abuse abound. Every dog fighter she's ever convicted points to the "bigger things," she says.

Welch, 39, was raised by her single mom in a low-income South Side neighborhood. She went to eight different high schools and graduated with honors. When she was 13, she decided she wanted to be a prosecutor after she saw Al Pacino in "And Justice for All." She graduated from University of Virginia, then worked for lawyers for a few years before entering law school at University of Richmond in 1996. Since then, she says: "I've come up through the ranks in the commonwealth's attorney's office. I've been the community prosecutor for all of Richmond. And I've anchored every court."

Welch stresses that she has no further political ambition than commonwealth's attorney. As such, she says she'll work to recruit career prosecutors who'll stay in public service, committing at least five years to the office. She plans to expand the city's drug-court programs and hold parents accountable when their children skip school.

"I know most of this [crime] is societal," she says, hoping her idea for a "monthly roundtable with kids" will help solve it. She says she'd restructure the office and focus on neighborhoods as the place to address crime prevention and reduce recidivism. If there are words Welch lives by, they appear to be that nothing worth having is too out of reach. "It sounds really corny," she confides. "But I really want to save the world."

Herring's office on East Franklin Street, indeed his practice, has been taken over by his campaign. Herring, who is married with three young children, recalls going to his former boss, Hicks, to tell him of his plans to run last year.

A native of Southern Barton Heights and a graduate of John Marshall High School, Herring, 39, received his undergraduate and law-school degrees from the University of Virginia. Then he went to work for Hunton & Williams, where he says he received "great analytical teaching."

As a prosecutor first for former Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Morrissey then Hicks, Herring specialized in narcotics and violent felonies, an experience that taught him to "stand on two feet," he says. It also cured him of what he says many young, aggressive lawyers fall victim to, an "arrogance of immaturity," in which the number of convictions supersedes the process. Defense work provides another perspective, he says. "Being on this side, representing the indigent, enables me to be in a position of restoring people's confidence and faith in the system," Hicks says.

Whereas Welch's approach seems holistic, Herring's seems exclusive, with pointed targets and functions. "The cause of street-level violence — and it is predatory violence — is narcotics," he says. He shares Welch's philosophy that smaller crimes lead to big ones, but adds: "There's another class of criminal driven by money, greed and opportunity. They either sell that crap that's crack or heroin, or rob the dealers who do." When gunfire erupts, he says, "Odds are the person who pulls up and shoots you isn't a graffiti artist."

Herring says his management style differs from that of his opponents. "I'm not looking for an office of career prosecutors," he says. "If years down the road they aren't getting offers from big firms, I'd be concerned."

Herring has attracted support from 1st District City Councilman Manoli Loupassi, an avid Republican. Loupassi, the city's vice mayor, is a fellow defense lawyer and the former chairman of City Council's public safety committee.

Herring is the only candidate, Loupassi says, who can reverse the "horrible state" of the commonwealth's attorney's office. Throughout the city, a kind of synergy is growing, but "the weakness" of the office office threatens it, he says. "Michael's the only one with strong leadership, persona and marketability. We're in crisis mode. We need an infusion of talent, and I'm not seeing it."

What Loupassi seems to see, though, is the significance of how the public perceives the office. "It sends a message all through the crime-fighting food chain, all the way through the city. If you have a vigorous commonwealth's attorney, you have an invigorated police," Loupassi says.

Since the shooting death of Verlon Johnson by Richmond Police Detective David D. Melvin in August 2002, relations between the commonwealth's attorney's office and police have been strained. The incident triggered aggressive prosecution by Hicks and brought two mistrials, followed by a third trial in which Melvin was acquitted.

As a longtime mentor to at-risk youth, Nicholson says he's precisely the person to mend fences between the community, the commonwealth's attorney's office and police.

Nicholson, 41, grew up in New York City. He received his undergraduate degree from Yale University, then graduated from Harvard Law. His grandfather lived in Brunswick, so when Hunton & Williams recruited him from Harvard, he accepted. Running for office, he says, is a natural progression of his commitment to community involvement.

"I don't think we've seen the common-wealth's attorney's office play enough of a role on the front end in terms of prevention," Nicholson says. He proffers an aggressive tack on prosecuting drug crimes and their consequences. Court dockets are full of defendants charged with selling drugs or possessing them, "but if you look behind the dockets, there are many more cases" that stem from drugs, he says. Despite widespread belief that the drug trade thrives in secret. Nicholson says the opposite is true: "It thrives on being out there, taking a hold on the community, not being behind the scenes."

While Nicholson eschews big-name endorsements — he calls them a "double-edged sword — he did confide in his friend and mentor former Richmond Mayor Walter Kenney about aspirations for public office.

In addition to being chief prosecutor, he says there's an equally important function the commonwealth's attorney should serve that easily becomes subjugated — that of community leader. "There's a disconnect between grassroots and downtown," he says, which prevents citizens and city officials from understanding each other.

If Nicholson wins, he says he'll work to bridge that gap. "The commonwealth's attorney is in a unique position," he says. "He has to stay independent, yet work with the police, the community and City Hall, calling them to task when necessary in a way that's constructive."

But all three candidates recognize, when it comes to crime, first things first. A year and a half ago, Nicholson read an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting six homicides in one weekend. And he couldn't help thinking: "No, we can't accept this." S

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