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Alums step up as top prosecutors

The November 2011 commonwealth's attorney elections swept a new wave of ASL alumni into office in southwestern Virginia. At least four ASL grads - Gerald Arrington '04, Erin DeHart '06, Nathan Lyons '01 and Joshua Newberry '08 - join recently re-elected Marcus McClung '00 as the top prosecutors in their respective counties. The five alums agreed to participate in the following question-and-answer session.

What made you decide to run for the office of commonwealth's attorney?

GA: When I look at the Buchanan County of today, I realize that it is far different from the community that I grew up in. I remember a time when we didn't lock our doors at night, and when we didn't worry about coming home from church or from work to find our homes broken into and our property stolen. ... I realized that if I work to make our community a safer place for us all to live in, I have made a better community for my two sons to grow up in.

JN: Raising a family in Dickenson County, I was concerned about the rise in violent crime and home invasions. I decided to do something about it.

ED: I'd been working as an assistant (commonwealth's attorney) for five years, and when I was told the current commonwealth's attorney would not seek re-election, I thought it was the perfect time to begin serving my community.

NL: I decided to run for commonwealth's attorney out of a sense of service to my community. I believe that by running ... I could make a difference in my community and in the lives of others.

MM: It was the winter of 2003 and the local law-enforcement approached me. At the time, four other candidates had announced their candidacy for the Republican nomination. After a hard-fought nomination, I ran against a very difficult and well-liked opponent for the election, where I was able to win in a tight race.

Have you always sought public office?

GA: My parents instilled in me the importance of community service ... They taught me that I should always stand up and fight for my beliefs, and that I should also stand up and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

JN: I never had a desire to run for public office before this year. I felt like the best way to make meaningful change was direct action.

MM: I have wanted to be a prosecutor from the start. It is a dream come true.

Why did you decide to go to ASL and pursue a career in law?

GA: I love the legal field and its challenges. I have a strong desire to serve my community and to help others. ASL was my first choice because of their mission of service.

JN: ASL provides a unique opportunity for people in the mountains to pursue one of the most rewarding careers I know of without leaving the region.

NL: I made the decision to go to ASL because the school was located in southwest Virginia and provided me with the opportunity to go to law school while still being close to home.

Describe your career path since ASL.

GA: I began working for a law office in Lebanon, Va., practicing personal injury litigation and criminal defense. I was later hired as the deputy commonwealth's attorney for Buchanan County, where I served for more than two years as a prosecutor. I also worked part-time for ASL as an adjunct professor for several semesters. In 2008, I opened my own law office in Grundy and primarily focused on criminal defense.

JN: I worked for an established solo practitioner and was exposed to criminal defense, civil litigation, estate planning, and real-estate practice. I then took a position as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Wise County.

ED: After receiving my bar results and being officially sworn in to practice law in Virginia, I began serving Wythe County as an assistant commonwealth's attorney. I left Wythe County and began working for Pulaski County commonwealth's attorney's office in 2008.

NL: I worked one year as a clerk to the Hon. Thomas H. Keadle, circuit court judge. After that, I worked for four years as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Carroll County, Va. Then I began working with my wife, and we started Lyons and Lyons PC in Hillsville, Va., where I have been working for the past six years.

MM: In 2000, Ward, Bishop, and Rasnic, an insurance defense firm in Bristol, Va., gave me my first job. I still feel very lucky to have been given that opportunity. I was fortunate to learn from attorneys with such an outstanding knowledge, work ethic and ethics in the law. I met my future employer during my internship in the summer between my first and second year at ASL. I worked for them for three years, when I ran for commonwealth's attorney.

Were you interested in criminal law at ASL, or has that evolved in time?

GA: Even as a student, I found criminal law to be interesting, but to be honest, I was most interested in becoming a trial attorney and wasn't as concerned with the area of law that I would be practicing in. My first job as an attorney was with a small firm that primarily handled personal injury cases. I soon realized that most of this work was done in an office setting with only a few court hearings scheduled here and there. Luckily for me, a few months later, the senior partner suggested that I start accepting criminal defense cases. After handling just a couple cases, I was hooked.

JN: Criminal law revolves around the closest and most frequent interaction citizens have with government, which has always interested me.

NL: Some of my favorite courses at ASL were Criminal Law and Procedure and Virginia Procedure. I have always had an interest in criminal law, even prior to entering law school.

What's your fondest memory from ASL?

GA: I will never forget my graduation ceremony. All of my family and my closest friends were there to support me, and unbeknownst to me, they had arrived early to make sure that they had seats on the front row.  ... I looked over and saw my oldest son, who was 3 at the time, and he reached his arms out toward me wanting to be held ... I picked him up and proudly marched out of the auditorium with him in my arms.

MM: The experience of law school and being able to look back at it now is the best part for me. We were the first class to come through those doors. A lot of us gave up jobs and put families on hold to take a chance on this new school in Grundy, and the school took chances on us. ... Seeing how we helped start the school gives me great pride.

What issues did you make central to your campaign?

GA: When I met someone, I tried to be myself: nothing more, nothing less. I shared my beliefs and values with them and explained why I was deserving of their vote. I strived to listen to their problems and concerns, and always tried to be considerate and compassionate. The people of Buchanan County simply want to be treated fairly and want their leaders to genuinely have the community's best interests in mind when making decisions.

ED: My focus was my experience in prosecution and my willingness to serve Bland County as a full-time prosecutor. Our county is one of only a handful of offices left in the state with a part-time commonwealth's attorney. I committed not to engage in the private practice of law while serving as commonwealth's attorney, regardless of the office's part-time status.

NL: I always told people about myself, my career, and what abilities I had to perform the job as it is required. I pledged to have an office that was open to the public, to be accessible to the public, and to be accountable both for my actions and actions of the assistant commonwealth's attorneys who work for me.

MM: Issues are important, of course, but in a small area like we have, I think your record is more important. We ran on what we have done and I think people saw our office's track record and liked our aggressive and fair style.

Did you enjoy stumping for votes, or was it just a necessary evil?

GA: At first, I was a little apprehensive about going from door to door asking people for their votes, but it quickly became one of my favorite parts of campaigning. I really enjoy going throughout our county meeting with my neighbors, getting to know them better, and listening to their problems and points of view.

JN: I dreaded campaigning at first, but after beginning I really enjoyed meeting so many good people.

ED: I ran opposed, and it was a lot of hard work. I enjoyed getting out in my community and being able to reconnect with the people here. I've always lived here, but I've always been employed outside of the county, which made it difficult to keep in touch with many of the citizens here. It was nice to be able to participate in community functions, and I was surprised by how welcoming people were when I knocked on their doors.

NL: I enjoyed actively campaigning and meeting a lot of members of my community at various events and festivals. I enjoyed talking with individuals about things and issues that were important to them and their families.

Describe campaigning - did anything surprise you about it?

GA: ... I was surprised that despite how simple campaigning is at its most basic levels, how complex and rigorous it can be at times. The greatest moment was sharing my victory on election night with my family and the people of Buchanan County.  The biggest lows were constantly being away from my family and missing out on some of the special moments.

JN: I was surprised by how the vast majority of the people I met are genuinely nice and really do appreciate straight talk.

ED: I've been active in politics for several years, so there were no big surprises. I ran a campaign based on my experience and dedication, and refused to participate in any negativity. I was surprised at the cost of a campaign, but was also overwhelmed by the financial support I received.

NL: Obviously, the highs of campaigning were meeting a lot of individuals on the campaign trail and attending so many great events. The lows were the general negativity at times by the other side, overall gossip that comes along with any campaign, and the exposure to public scrutiny.

MM: Campaigning is always full of surprises. Going door to door, I found a house with two pet skunks on the front porch.

How do you feel ASL and previous law experience prepared you for the job?

GA: You can read all the textbooks, ask all the questions, and solicit the advice of others, but in the end, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. By placing great emphasis on practical experience, ASL did an excellent job of preparing me for the future. I also found my time as an assistant prosecutor to be invaluable.

JN: The practical rather than theoretical curriculum I experienced at ASL prepared me well for the general practice of law as well as prosecuting.

ED: My time at ASL prepared me well for this position. The focus on community service, along with the skills I learned through arbitration and mediation, has given me a good foundation for a career in public service. In addition, I've been fortunate to serve in two jurisdictions as an assistant, which has given me a broad range of experience. I'm active in the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children task force, and am very proud of the cases I've handled combatting the exploitation of children.

NL: ASL provided me with a vast array of experiences to prepare me for the demands of being the elected commonwealth's attorney.  The school provided a great trial advocacy program and had multiple courses in criminal law providing me with the skills necessary to perform the job.  Through the summer externship program, ASL provided the opportunity to be exposed to several different offices dedicated to public service.

What do you hope to accomplish during your term, or what are you most proud of so far?

GA: I hope to improve my office's relationship with law enforcement and better assist those agencies to arrest and prosecute our county's biggest drug dealers and most violent offenders. I would also like to work with our youth and educate them about the dangers of drug use.

JN: I want to restore the citizens' confidence and accountability in the office of commonwealth's attorney by aggressively prosecuting drug dealers, repeat offenders and criminals who harm real victims.

ED: I hope to bring respect to the office of commonwealth's attorney in my community. I plan to work closely with law enforcement in order to facilitate better investigation and prosecution. I also hope to organize and participate in educational programs and community outreach programs for the citizens of the county.

NL: I hope to transform the office ... into a professional office that will assist and aid the victims of crime in the successful prosecution of criminals. I hope to provide resources and training opportunities for local law enforcement within my jurisdiction.

MM: Our reputation is to be tough but fair. High-profile cases are part of the job. We all have them and the important thing to remember is the same for every case: You represent the Commonwealth and the victims first. The amount of time it takes to get a case concluded is often very frustrating for the victims and us.

What advice would you give a student who is interested in public service?

GA: Get involved in your community.  Get involved in a political party. If possible, help with a political campaign or two.  The insight and experience you will gain will be invaluable.

JN: One, work hard. Two, don't compromise your beliefs. Three, treat people with respect.

ED: ... You have to take the good with the bad, and always keep sight of the ultimate goal - helping those in your community, and doing everything you can to make your part of the world a better place. Public service opens you up to criticism, and you have to be prepared for that. ... Criticism often comes from a lack of understanding, and if you can explain your position to your critics with respect, you can often help them understand your reasoning. This is not a job you do to become wealthy or get pats on the back for a job well done. It is service, and it takes a great deal of dedication.

NL: I would encourage anyone interested in public service to volunteer their time to those organizations while in law school so they can see how rich and fulfilling a career in public service can be. I would also encourage anyone to volunteer at multiple offices so they can be exposed to a number of different service organizations.

MM: Learn to listen first.