Allison Brophy Champion
Interim Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney for eight months, Republican nominee Paul Walther earned broad support from the establishment in his bid Tuesday night for the permanent post of top prosecutor.
The people chose otherwise, however, selecting by more than 800 votes opponent Megan Frederick – Culpeper’s first female commonwealth’s attorney – in what is being called the county’s biggest political upset.
Approached election night for a comment, the ousted public prosecutor stoically declined, visibly shocked at losing after having spent more than two decades trying all manner of cases as part of the Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Office.
In a statement Wednesday, Walther did not concede the position lightly, starting with a legal comparison to drive home his displeasure.
“The electorate is similar to a jury and I can’t help but see the irony in the role played in the election by what I know to be gross misrepresentations,” he wrote via email on Wednesday. “For better or for worse though, the voters have made a decision based on the information that was presented to them. I wish Mrs. Frederick success as Commonwealth’s Attorney.”
Walther, in the statement, said he “was pleased” Frederick indicated she would consider retaining members of “my team” in the ongoing transition process, “as I know she will find them to be very talented and dedicated men and women whose knowledge and experience will be invaluable to her as she finds her way in that office.”
Walther, 58, thanked those who voted for him (9,204 voters) as well as campaign workers and supporters “for their substantial efforts and encouragement in this hard fought battle.”
At the apparent heart of Tuesday’s shift in power was the wrongful conviction in 2001 of Michael Wayne Hash, a controversial case on which Walther served as second seat prosecutor. U.S. District Court Judge James Turk’s blistering written conviction reversal in February not only freed Hash, but scrutinized and chastised the way local authorities handled the case.
Frederick, 41, made Hash the center of her campaign, promising to restore integrity in the local legal system after Culpeper officials put the then 19-year-old seemingly innocent man behind bars for nearly 12 years on a case apparently built on lies and deception.
Walther extensively addressed his role in the case prior to the election, saying he knew nothing of the wrongdoing. Former child protective services criminal investigator and relatively new attorney Frederick, meanwhile, pounded the incumbent with support from the Hash family, saying Walther, as second seat, knew all the ins and outs of the case prosecuted with former boss Gary Close, another prominent local Republican with 20 years in the CA office.
Close resigned in March amid the Hash controversy sparked by Turk’s ruling detailing how the case was mishandled by Close and former sheriff Lee Hart along with lead investigator at the time, current Culpeper Sheriff Scott Jenkins, and others. Turk did not specifically name Walther in clearing Hash in the 1996 murder of Thelma Scroggins, an elderly mail carrier shot in the head in her Lignum home in a still-unsolved brutal homicide. Walther maintained that because his name was not in Turk’s ruling that should be enough for people to know he was not intimately familiar with the case.
But Frederick persisted in talking about it, reviewing the voluminous court record of the Hash case, as did the Star-Exponent, to pinpoint Walther’s involvement. In addition to cross-examining four key alibi witnesses for the defense, Walther argued jury instructions with the judge, according to court transcripts.
Throughout the 2012 election, he distanced himself from the case and along with many in the local legal profession said Frederick was inexperienced, criticizing her for her position and the media for its interpretation of Turk’s ruling. Walther and others implied the ruling left many questions not easily discerned or understood by those outside the legal profession, and that Turk did not have all the information he needed to make the decision overturning Hash’s conviction.
Walther supporters also pointed to previous appeal denials of the Hash conviction at the local and state level, albeit by courts not privy to all the information uncovered during Turk’s investigation of the Culpeper investigation he said employed methods “offending a sense of justice.”
Behind the scenes the past few months, the race between Walther and Frederick turned increasingly nasty with both sides attempting to dig up dirt on the other and pointed letters to the editor pouring in for either candidate. In the end, the electorate decided.
“The silent majority,” noted a Culpeper County supervisor Tuesday night in the registrar’s office on Main Street as the election results came in.
Michael Wayne Hash, in a statement Monday supporting Frederick, said Walther was “heavily involved” in prosecuting him 11 years ago, saying it was impossible for Walther to try to distance himself from the case.
“Moreover, it is worth noting that I have not received any type of apology from this man nor do I expect to as I understand silence as a [conceding] of guilt!” Hash wrote. “If you value your rights as a Culpeper citizen or if you simply cannot condone what was done to me, than I would ask you not to vote for this man and instead support someone who has personally supported my cause and someone who has publicly criticized these people for exactly what they are!” Hash said corruption runs deep in Culpeper County law enforcement.
His lawyer previously indicated a civil suit in the mistrial was possible.
Frederick will assume office over the next few days after she is sworn in and begins implementing staffing decisions.