Justice

Ex-Fairfax County Prosecutor Sounded Alarm on Handling Sex Crime Cases

“I’ve realized that I’m both incredibly overwhelmed and completely unprepared to handle 48 of the worst cases in our society,” a young prosecutor wrote

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A young prosecutor in the Office of the Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney sounded an alarm that he did not have enough training and experience to take on sex crimes cases, raising questions about how the office responded. 

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano blamed political adversaries for spotlighting a small number of challenging cases.

But News4 first learned of the issue with the young prosecutor — who just resigned — through a neutral source: a juror who heard a sex crimes case many thought would be a sure conviction. Instead, the defendant received a partial acquittal. 

When Jerrold Hinton was chosen as a juror in a sex crimes case involving a teacher, he was eager to evaluate the evidence. The military veteran once led a JROTC program at a high school and had strong feelings about boundaries between teachers and students.

“I wanted to see the evidence. I wanted to hear the evidence,” he said. 

The case involved former Thoreau Middle School teacher Matthew Snell, who was accused of sexually assaulting a student and multiple counts of carnal knowledge.

Hinton said jurors were frustrated by a lack of evidence they were presented. 

Northern Virginia

News4's Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey has been covering this side of the state since joining NBC4 in 1992. She's joined by reporter Drew Wilder.

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“We didn’t hear from anybody from the school system, the police department, no detectives, no federal law enforcement agencies, nobody,” he said. 

After several days of testimony in February, the jury acquitted Snell of one charge and was hung on the other two. Hinton blamed the poor performance of the prosecutor. 

“The prosecution — we all agreed he did not present his case well at all,” he said. 

News4 has learned that months earlier, that same prosecutor emailed his bosses and said he was in over his head. 

“I’ve realized that I’m both incredibly overwhelmed and completely unprepared to handle 48 of the worst cases in our society,” he wrote. 

He admitted he had been making mistakes and added, “I have reached the end of my mental rope handling this many serious sex cases with limited training and no idea how to handle them." 

Descano said he learned of the email the day it was written and his office took immediate action. 

“He kept that small number of cases. Not only that, we had him work hand in glove with our more experienced attorneys,” he said. “So while I think this was an aberration, we acted decisively and pretty much immediately after he sent this email.” 

The young prosecutor continued work on some sex crimes cases, including the Snell case. 

Juror Jerrold Hinton said he was surprised to learn the young prosecutor was allowed to handle the case after sending a cry for help to his bosses. 

“If someone came to me and said they couldn’t handle something, wow, I’m obligated. Either I need to take it over or find somebody else who can,” he said. 

But Descano said he stood by the decision to keep the prosecutor on some sex crimes cases. Once prosecutors develop a relationship with victims, it’s important to avoid making changes, he said. After the prosecutor pleaded for help, Descano restructured the sex crimes team, he said. 

“We have different senior leadership over that team at the moment than we did previously. Their charge is to take a much more proactive approach, a hands-on approach,” he said. 

The two remaining charges in the Snell case are set to be tried again, Descano said. 

The prosecutor who wrote the email resigned and left the office in mid-March. News4 contacted him by phone but he said he did not want to comment, as he has a new position in public service. 

The young prosecutor is among 29 prosecutors who have left the Office of the Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney since Descano was elected and took over in 2020. 

Descano said his positions are now full, and his staff is the largest it’s ever been, at 83 people.

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