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Murder School

Faster convictions and higher clearance rates in murder cases? Thank the prosecutors.



Fifteen years ago, when Richmond was known as the murder capital of Virginia, the commonwealth's attorney's office here was barely beating out the criminals in the courtroom. In 1994, the city's homicides topped out at an all-time high of 161. With a 62-percent conviction rate, the good guys were almost neck-and-neck with the accused murderers.

In a dramatic turnaround, the conviction rate has reached 90 percent.

The Richmond Police Department has received much of the credit for the city's ever-dwindling homicide rate - dropping to a 25-year low of 55 slayings in 2007 and just 22 killings through July of this year. But the city's prosecutors have played an equally important role in the city's policing strategy, which is namely to get the bad guys in custody quickly. The prosecutors' job is to keep them in jail. 

The recent success of Richmond's prosecutors has garnered the attention of their colleagues across the state.

"We're now viewed as the experts on murders,?VbCrLf says Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Learned Barry, Richmond's senior murder prosecutor. They're teachers, too. This year the Richmond office led the instruction of Homicide One, an annual week-long course offered by the Commonwealth's Attorneys Services Council that teaches Virginia prosecutors how to better investigate and try murder cases.

"Before, the notion of Richmond prosecutors serving as faculty was laughable,?VbCrLf Barry says. The office as a whole got about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

"People thought we were an example of a mistake, not of competence,?VbCrLf says Stephanie Merritt, 33, one of Barry's primary protA©gA©s with 12 murder trials under her young belt.

Merritt, along with Barry, and Elizabeth Hobbs, 31, led the course in June at the College of William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law. Both Merritt and Hobbs are supervising assistants in the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office.

In the past, Homicide One was taught by a melange of law enforcement officials from a variety of jurisdictions. This time Richmond dominated, with Barry, Merritt and Hobbs doing the primary instruction, assisted by investigators in the police department.

"It is unusual to have that much help from any one jurisdiction,?VbCrLf says Bob Harris, director of Virginia's Commonwealth's Attorneys Services Council. "This year, we were big time Richmond.?VbCrLf Harris said he hopes the Richmond team will serve again next year.

It isn't a complicated formula, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring says: First, school every prosecutor, no matter how green or how young, in the finer points of trying a murder case. Then identify the suspects, and use any and all resources - including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration - available to take them off the streets.

"If we can't get them for murder, we'll get them on drugs,?VbCrLf Herring says. "If we can't get them on drugs, we'll get them for spitting on the street.?VbCrLf Herring developed the all-inclusive approach along with Major John Venuti, who heads the Richmond Police Department's homicide unit.

"Once you get a suspect off the street,?VbCrLf Herring says, "witnesses come forward.?VbCrLf The rest is strategy and brinksmanship.

After the June conference, Herring and Barry received plaudits from attorneys who attended. While assessments were glowing, Herring says, there's been some carping about the youthfulness and presumed inexperience of the teachers.

"What's different about this is that [Murder One], like most advanced education in Virginia, is taught traditionally by men who have been in the system for a while,?VbCrLf Herring says. "The people we're sending to participate are much younger than the typical faculty.?VbCrLf

Not an issue, says Hobbs who, at 31, has prosecuted 28 homicides. "[Richmond] has so many more murders than other jurisdictions. We get plenty of experience.?VbCrLf
Merritt, whose second trial was a murder case, concurs. "There's a learning curve that isn't available in other offices,?VbCrLf he says. "Six years in Richmond is like dog years.?VbCrLf S

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