A humble collection of case summaries and statutes is at the heart of a recent public showdown between two Virginia criminal lawyers.
A reference manual for prosecutors became the object of a courtroom tussle May 15, leading to a criminal charge against one lawyer and an accusation of assault against an elected chief prosecutor.
In the wake of the confrontation between Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony G. Spencer and Bowling Green defense lawyer Melissa E. Danjczek, one judge took possession of the disputed manual and another pulled Spencer off of cases where Danjczek is defense counsel.
District court dispute
The skirmish arose in a DWI case in general district court. Danjczek cited the DUI manual in making arguments before Judge Robert E. Reibach.
Earlier that day, Spencer had noticed that one of his office copies of the DUI manual was missing, he said in a pleading.
In court, Spencer asked where Danjczek had obtained the manual and she responded that she got it from Spencer’s office, according to Spencer’s account. Danjczek had once interned in the office.
Danjczek – through her attorney – denied saying she got the manual from Spencer’s office.
Danjczek also denied Spencer’s allegation that she lunged to grab the manual as he sought to remove it from a table.
Danjczek’s attorney, Vincent L. Robertson Sr. of Richmond, said it was Spencer who sought to yank the manual from papers that Danjczek was holding.
“He ripped it from her person,” Robertson said. “It was taken from her person, with force.”
After the confrontation, Reibach asked Spencer to give the manual to him, and Spencer complied, according to Spencer’s account.
The judge denied Danjczek’s motion to hold Spencer in contempt, Spencer said.
Reibach told Spencer to leave the courtroom, Robertson said.
Cross charges made
Both Spencer and Danjczek then sought to bring charges against one another. Spencer had a magistrate issue a warrant charging Danjczek with theft of the manual from his office.
For her part, Danjczek asked the local sheriff’s office to charge Spencer with assault and battery, larceny and disorderly conduct. The investigation of those allegations was turned over the Virginia State Police, according to both Spencer and Danjczek.
A State Police spokesperson said, because the allegations involve an elected official, the department could neither confirm nor deny any investigation. The spokesperson referred the inquiry about the investigation to the state attorney general’s office, which had not responded
by press time.
Spencer said investigators may have both video and audio recordings to review. He said in his court pleading that he expected the VSP will conclude that no charges should be brought against him.
A judge appointed the Henrico County commonwealth’s attorney’s office to handle the criminal charge against Danjczek.
Circuit court removes prosecutor from defense lawyer’s cases
Four days after the confrontation, Danjczek filed a motion in circuit court to have a special prosecutor appointed in place of Spencer’s office for Danjczek’s cases. Prosecution by the local office would “pose a clear conflict of interest or, alternatively, could create the appearance of an impropiety,” Danjczek wrote.
Spencer opposed the motion to disqualify his office.
“Mr. Spencer assures this Court that nothing that has happened with Ms. Danjczek has had an effect on the professional judgment of the prosecutors in his office in seeking fairly and impartially to see justice done,” Spencer wrote.
Nevertheless, Circuit Judge Patricia Kelly said May 19 that she would appoint a special prosecutor for cases where Danjczek is counsel.
Several cases were postponed to allow for substitution of a new prosecutor, Robertson said. At press time, it was not clear who would be appointed to handle prosecution of those cases.
Manual created to aid prosecutors
The manual itself – in its 2009 version – is a 140-page collection of short synopses of cases and statutes, arranged by topic. It was produced to assist state prosecutors.
“It was written with the assistance of a volunteer assistant commonwealth’s attorney and is intended for the sole use of Virginia prosecutors,” said Jane Sherman Chambers, director of the Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ Services Council, a state agency that supports prosecutors.
The DUI Manual is considered a training resource created by that office, Chambers said. State law exempts prosecutors’ training materials from public records disclosure requirements.
Spencer has record with state bar
Spencer, who has served as commonwealth’s attorney since 2007, has been twice publicly accused of overreaching as a prosecutor.
He agreed to a Virginia State Bar public reprimand in 2013 after admitting he used an office paralegal to gather information from an adversary’s law office under the ruse that the paralegal was a student conducting a survey for a class.
Spencer was publicly admonished by the bar in 2011 for allegedly talking to a criminal defendant without his lawyer present. That penalty was reversed and the complaint dismissed on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Attorney describes similar incident
A lawyer who worked under Spencer when he was a prosecutor in Richmond related an incident remarkably similar to the allegations leveled by Danjczek.
In the 2004 alleged confrontation, Spencer accused attorney Debra D. Corcoran of taking documents that belonged to the prosecutor’s office and tried to grab the papers from her, Corcoran said in an interview.
Corcoran, now in private practice in Richmond, said Spencer intervened as she was carrying materials from her desk after being terminated from the city commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
Spencer, her former supervisor, spotted docket sheets for the cases Corcoran had worked on. Insisting those papers were office property, Spencer demanded that court bailiffs stop her, Corcoran said. He then sought to grab the documents from her, she said.
Spencer backed down after a more senior member of the prosecutor’s office arrived and said the papers were not office property, Corcoran said.
Corcoran said she was “humiliated” and considered bringing charges against Spencer, but did not.