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Three years after the state abolished the death penalty, new allegations of misconduct emerge in the Virginia Capital Case

Prince William County, Virginia Courthouse

A June 2024 petition filed in the Prince William County, Virginia Circuit Court accuses former Commonwealth Attorney (CA) Paul Ebert of withholding exculpatory evidence during the trial of Louis Jefferson Dukes Jr., who along with his cousin Lonnie Weeks Jr. convicted of the 1994 murder of a state trooper during a traffic stop. Mr. Dukes was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, while Mr. Weeks was found guilty, given the death penalty and executed in 2000. In the petition filed with the court, Mr. Dukes’ attorney alleges that CA Ebert made “material misrepresentations” in court when the prosecutor alleged that serology reports showed Mr. Dukes’ proximity to the state trooper when he was killed. The petition states that “the Commonwealth’s Attorney knew this was not the victim’s blood on (Mr. Dukes’) jacket,” despite his arguments about proximity. Richard MacDowell, a lawyer for Mr. Dukes, claims that CA Ebert also made a deal with Mr. Dukes’ cellmate that included a promise to seek a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony in Mr. Dukes’ case.

During his more than 50 years in office, CA Ebert has secured 13 death sentences, placing Prince William County, Virginia, on the list of top death penalty jurisdictions. Despite his success in obtaining death sentences, courts have found several other cases in which CA Ebert and his office withheld exculpatory material in capital cases. In 2009, CA Ebert was criticized for withholding evidence in the case of John Allen Muhammad, but the Court decided that the evidence would not have changed the outcome of the trial. Just two years later, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, based on evidence that CA Ebert’s office once again withheld evidence, overturned Justin Wolfe’s headlong conviction, arguing that crucial evidence for impeachment had been withheld from the defense. The appeals court upheld Jude Jackson’s ruling, writing that because of the prior ruling in Mr. Muhammad’s case, CA Ebert’s office “should err on the side of disclosure, especially when a suspect faces the specter of execution is confronted.”

While C.A. Ebert tirelessly pursued the death penalty, his success ultimately waned as public opinion in Virginia on the death penalty changed. In 2018, CA Ebert failed to secure a death sentence in his latest murder trial, telling the Washington Post that Prince William County had changed since he first took office. “Prince William’s demographics have been relatively conservative and much more pro-death all these years,” said CA Ebert. “And I always knew someone on the jury. Now I rarely know anyone on the jury.” CA Ebert was a strong supporter of the death penalty and discredited the idea that life in prison without parole is worse than a death sentence. In response to criticism of the withholding of evidence, CA Ebert said his office “always followed the law and the rules of the court as (he understood) them.” He added that he “would not apologize for being tough on crime.”

In 2019, CA Ebert retired and was succeeded by Amy Ashworth, who said in the run-up to her election that she supported the idea of ​​repealing the death penalty but would be open to seeking the punishment as long as it was available . Ms Ashworth told The Appeal that she “did not believe that the death penalty is appropriate in most cases” and that ultimately “the bottom line is that the death penalty should be exceedingly rare.” CA Ashworth won election in 2019 and just two years later, in March 2021, then-Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation formally abolishing the death penalty in Virginia.

Sources

Joan Hennessy, high-profile Virginia prosecutor accused of withholding evidence in murder case, Courthouse News Service, June 6, 2024; Liliana Segura, The Long Shadow of Virginia’s Death Penalty, The Intercept, April 11, 2021; Ian Shapira, he’s sent more murderers to death row than any prosecutor. But not this time., The Washington Post, November 5, 2018.

See here Mr. Dukes’ request to set aside and vacate.

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