“Put Justice Back In Criminal Justice System’ Two Challengers Oust Prosecutors Who Showed Little Concern For Mentally Ill Defendants

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) Steve Descano defeated Raymond F. Morrogh, the incumbent commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County, Va. Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos was defeated by defense lawyer Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. 

(6-12-19) Northern Virginia voters yesterday ousted two long-time county prosecutors who had shown little concern for persons caught in the criminal justice system primarily because of their mental illnesses and/or addictions.

It is unclear whether the results are a reflection of a growing shift nationally toward a better understanding about mental illnesses/addictions or simply a local reaction to two “old school” prosecutors.

Arlington voters chose Parisa Dehghani-Tafti to replace incumbent Theo Stamos. In Fairfax, Steve T. Descano unseated Raymond F. Morrogh. Dehghani-Tafti won by 500 votes, Descano by 1,434. Tuesday’s election was a Democratic primary but neither has drawn a Republican challenger for Virginia’s general election in November.

Both winners are progressive liberal candidates who have promised to use local prosecutor posts to remake criminal justice policy on issues including mental illness, racial disparities in sentencing, marijuana prosecutions and the death penalty. Both widely discussed the need to stop the inappropriate incarceration of persons with serious mental illnesses

In a Monday blog post, I urged voters in Arlington to defeat Stamos, explaining that she had participated in one of the most egregious cases in Virginia involving a defendant with a serious mental illness. As a teen, Christopher Sharikas was sentenced to two life sentences plus 30 years after pleading guilty to a carjacking – even though the state’s guidelines recommended seven to a maximum of eleven years. Sharikas, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was hearing voices telling him to drive to New York City.  Sharikas has served 22 years and remains incarcerated.

Morrogh blamed  Natasha McKenna for her own death after she was repeatedly stunned with a taser by deputies in the Fairfax Detention Center.  Morrogh insisted McKenna had died from “excited delirium” – a questionable syndrome not recognized as real by the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-9) of the World Health Organization.

McKenna, who suffered from a serious mental illness, was being held on a minor charge after being turned away from a local hospital where she had gone seeking help. In his report about the incident, Morrogh suggested prisoners in an excited state are “hyper-aggressive, impervious to pain, and demonstrate unusual, “superhuman,” strength. They engage in a lengthy period of struggle, followed by a period of quiet and sudden death.” He quoted deputies claiming McKenna exhibited “demonic possession because she was growling the whole time.”  Footage later released of McKenna being subdued did not mesh with the violent behavior that Morrogh described. Before the primary, his 51 page report about McKenna’s death disappeared from the county’s website. Fairfax County ultimately paid $750,000 in a wrongful death suit filed by McKenna’s family.

The Washington Post quoted Fairfax’s Descano after his victory stating:

“The people in Fairfax County want progressive criminal justice reform. It’s come through loud and clear. I think the time for reform is now.”

The paper quoted Dehghani-Tafti stating:

“Arlington and the City of Falls Church stand ready to show the Commonwealth and the country what it means to put justice back in the criminal justice system.”

It will be up to mental health advocates to insure that their campaign promises and words are backed up by meaningful actions.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.