Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Editors' Picks / Fairfax cruelty prosecutions questioned

Fairfax cruelty prosecutions questioned

A Fairfax lawyer is questioning a promise by Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano to continue prosecuting animal cruelty cases.

On Aug. 19, WDVM-TV reported that the Fairfax commonwealth’s attorney’s office was no longer prosecuting animal misdemeanor charges and was cutting the use of prosecutors for other cases, as well.

Descano said the changes, which went into effect in July, were needed due to an overwhelming amount of body-worn camera footage to be reviewed as well as a backlog of cases due to COVID-19.

But in an Aug. 20 statement, he assured that violators of animal cruelty will continue to be prosecuted.

“Animal cruelty is a disturbing and pernicious act that is unacceptable and sadly present at times in any community,” Descano wrote. “Perpetrators of animal cruelty should always be held accountable and I would never do anything to jeopardize the process to bring them to justice.”

The press release seemed to resolve the purported “misinformation” Descano noted regarding the prosecution of animal cruelty cases in Fairfax.

But Fairfax traffic attorney Andrew Kersey said this statement was Descano’s way of “evading” the question.

“To the layperson reading that statement, it sounds like [Descano] is going to prosecute these cases. But what that says to me is ‘No no, the judges will still decide these cases, but the animal control officer will prosecute,” Kersey said. “Animal cruelty officers have told me that [prosectuors] are still not getting involved in such cases.”

In an Aug. 27 tweet, Kersey shared an email from chief deputy Terry Adams to animal protection police sergeant Siobhan Chase stating that the commonwealth’s attorney’s office will not be prosecuting “animal cases.”

“Unfortunately, until we get additional resources we [will] not be able to assist these cases,” Adams wrote in the Aug. 11 email.

Chase did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t know if he’s trying to play both sides at once; but from what I’m hearing, his office is still not involved,” Kersey said.

Antonio Peronace, Descano’s chief of staff, confirmed in an interview with Virginia Lawyers Weekly that animal cruelty cases will continue to be prosecuted in Fairfax “regardless of if prosecutors are involved or not.”

“Mr. Descano is reviewing cases and has spoken with animal cruelty advocates, who are comfortable with our approach to it,” Peronace said. “We’re making sure serious cases are not falling through the cracks.”

Though animal cruelty violations are not listed as a case that Fairfax County prosecutors will pursue under the office’s current caseload capacity, Peronace emphasized the bulletin which states that “any case of significance or public importance” determined by the Commonwealth’s Attorney will continue to be prosecuted.

“We are [prosecuting animal cruelty cases], but I can’t tell you blanket wise in their totality. There are some we’re obligated to prosecute and we’re reviewing all others,” Peronance said. “Quite frankly, I think this has always been the case but it’s never been vocalized this way.”

Former Fairfax County prosecutor Raymond F. Morrogh said that all animal cruelty cases were prosectued throughout his 36 years in the commonwealth’s attorneys office.

“I can’t imagine why they don’t have time to prosecute those cases. Since they don’t do most misdemeanor cases anymore, they should have about a dozen people free every day for cases like animal cruelty,” Morrogh said. “We did it all, we got it done. It’s a busy place… But seasoned prosecutors can accomplish it.”

In a Sept. 22 meeting with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Descano said his office, which has a staff of 45, will need an additional 20 staff members to begin prosecuting more misdemeanor cases, including “all animal cruelty cases.”

He said an additional 22 staff members are necessary to pursue the remainder of traffic cases, full body-worn camera implementation, thefts and property crimes.

“A failure to provide the additional 22 would result in an unavoidable reduction of casework,” according to Descano’s presentation to the board.

Chairman Jeff C. McKay, D-At Large, told The Washington Post that the amount of additional staff that Descano is requesting is “unprecedented.”

“We’re in a building where we have more judges than we have prosecutors,” Peronance said. This [shortage] is the crisis that Mr. Descano is trying to manage actively every day.”

Morrogh said he “doesn’t understand” the need for additional staff.

“Yes, we were busy. Yes, Virginia has done some prosecutions on the cheap…But the county was good to me, we worked with the board… We got things done. But this is a new regime,” Morrogh said. “It saddens me they’re not prosecuting as vigorously as perhaps they should.”