As voters head to the polls Tuesday for Election Day, they’ll choose more than just president. In Nelson County, in addition to casting a vote for the 5th Congressional District representative, residents have three choices for the county’s commonwealth’s attorney.
The three running to become Nelson’s next chief prosecutor are Acting Commonwealth’s Attorney Jerry Gress, a Democrat; and Nelson attorneys Daniel Rutherford, a Republican; and Heather Goodwin, who’s running as an independent.
The commonwealth’s attorney prosecutes both misdemeanor and felony cases for the county and the commonwealth in Juvenile & Domestic Relations District, General District and Circuit Courts.
The special election for commonwealth’s attorney marks the most competitive race in more than 25 years.
The last year three candidates sought the office of Nelson commonwealth’s attorney was 2011 but was less competitive because one of the candidates dropped out. That year, current county attorney Phil Payne ran against Rutherford and Anthony Martin but Payne withdrew before qualifying. Martin went on to win.
After running unopposed and winning the 2015 election, Martin held the office until the end of this past February, when he resigned. Martin, who now works for a Charlottesville law firm, prosecuted the well-known case against Randy Allen Taylor, who was convicted in 2014 of the murder and kidnapping of missing Shipman teen Alexis Murphy. Taylor, who has maintained his innocence, is serving two life sentences.
Gress, who was assistant commonwealth’s attorney under Martin, is seeking to earn the permanent title of commonwealth’s attorney after acting in that capacity since
Rutherford is trying for the second time to become
commonwealth’s attorney, and Goodwin is seeking to make history by becoming the first woman to serve in the office in Nelson.
Q: If elected, what will be your top priority as commonwealth’s attorney?
Goodwin: “As your commonwealth’s attorney, I will always make the integrity and reputation of this office my top priority. The protection of our community requires a level of honesty and trust both with citizens and those working in the court system. Serious crimes have gone unpunished due to the dishonest actions of overzealous attorneys who bend the rules on one end or another. The crimes of domestic violence, offenses against children and the elderly, and drug distribution in our community should rank high on any commonwealth’s attorney’s list. However, war cannot be waged on those issues if the person leading the charge is busy covering up a dishonest act or focused on their personal goals rather than the needs of this community.”
Gress: “My top priority if elected will be to continue to do the job that I have been doing since March of this year: serving the people of Nelson County as commonwealth’s attorney. I believe that in any organization, even a small one such as my office, there is room for improvement. I will see to it that my assistant commonwealth’s attorney Sarah Childress and my victim’s advocate Beth Cunningham are able take advantage of additional training opportunities. I will seek ways to improve our assistance to victims, particularly victims of domestic violence who are often reluctant to testify against their abusers, so that their voices are heard. I will continue to work closely with the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office, the Virginia State Police, and the Wintergreen Police Department. My door will always be open to the citizens of Nelson County.”
Rutherford: “I will vigorously prosecute those who distribute illegal drugs. Those drugs are destroying lives and ruining families in our county; without tough prosecution we will be unable to successfully combat this unfortunate phenomenon. I will work alongside the [Nelson County] Sheriff’s Department and the Law Enforcement Community to make it clear that distribution of illegal drugs within Nelson County will bring stiff punishments.”
Q: What makes you the best-qualified candidate/what makes you qualified to be commonwealth’s attorney in Nelson County?
Goodwin: “The most important quality of a commonwealth’s attorney is the ability to communicate effectively and connect with people. I have known several good attorneys who can argue the law but are unable to connect with the Judge or jury they are trying to reach. A commonwealth’s attorney must be able to speak comfortably with victims from all backgrounds and experiences. She must help them to understand the process and encourage them to play an active role in their case. As your commonwealth’s attorney, what makes me best-qualified to serve is not the legal education and experience I have obtained but a true understanding of the personal impact of every case on the lives of those involved and the community of Nelson as a whole.”
Gress: “I have by far the most experience of any candidate in this race. For the past 4½ years — first as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, and since March 1 as commonwealth’s attorney — I have been in Nelson County courts every week prosecuting cases — from minor misdemeanors to the most serious felonies. I supervise a five-person office. I have taken advantage of numerous training opportunities available to Virginia prosecutors. I have received training in drug investigations, insurance fraud, “shaken baby” prosecution, and domestic violence, to name a few. The role of commonwealth’s attorney is to seek justice for victims and society. It requires an appreciation of the immense power of prosecutorial discretion placed in the hands of the person who holds that position. It requires humility and a sense of fair play. It is not about winning cases. It is about seeking the truth and doing the right thing.”
Rutherford: “I have the experience to handle complex criminal cases. For the past three years, I have served as the Chief of Military Justice (lead prosecutor) in the U.S. Army Reserves, where I regularly handle serious cases. I have spent over nine years as a defense attorney, representing over 3,000 individuals. In both roles I’ve been willing and able to take difficult cases to trial and succeed. I have dealt with cases involving murder, rape, armed robbery, serious drug charges and crimes of violence against the elderly and children. I also have extensive experience with jury trials. I am ready to take on any case necessary to achieve justice for Nelson County.”