Commonwealth’s attorney Diana Wheeler O’Connell brings 16 years of experience and some high-profile victories as Orange County’s top prosecutor to her bid for reelection this fall.
But O’Connell said during an interview last week at her courthouse office that as much as she likes to win, that’s not what being a commonwealth’s attorney is all about.
“This position is considered a minister of justice, so it’s not as straightforward as representing a defendant where you want to get the best deal you can for your defendant” or, better still, get the charges dropped. She said the purpose of her job is to make sure justice is done.
During her current term in office, O’Connell convicted Cathy Rothgeb, a former volunteer Orange County High School softball coach, on multiple sexual offenses, and Anne Williams, head of a horse rescue operation in Somerset, on multiple counts of animal cruelty.
Although these two cases drew a great deal of attention, there are many others that few people are aware of. As of mid-September, her office had recorded about 450 circuit court criminal cases for 2019. There are two more term days, during which O’Connell and her assistants will present indictments to a grand jury. She said each of those term dates could result in an additional 25 to 75 new cases.
Orange County’s population has risen from about 26,000 in 2000 to 38,000 today, and the criminal case-load has risen along with it. Based on a state formula factoring in population and felony caseload, O’Connell has expanded the prosecutor’s staff from two attorneys to five.
Like her challenger, Page Higginbotham III, O’Connell sees drug-related crimes as a major problem in Orange County. She has begun working on plans to launch a drug court. If she is re-elected, she said the drug court probably would begin hearing cases in January. The idea behind drug courts is to take a holistic approach that involves helping offenders get treatment and hopefully cutting down on recidivism.
O’Connell, 62, is the daughter of a retired Air Force fighter pilot who later became a minister. She is a graduate of Hardin-Simmons University in Texas and the University of Richmond’s T. C. Williams School of Law. She said she enrolled in law school because she went through a difficult divorce from her first husband and wanted to be able to protect her children during custody hearings.
While in law school, she prepared for a career as a prosecutor by interning for a judge in a juvenile and domestic relations court and working for the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, also in juvenile and domestic relations.
In 1993, she and her second husband, Rick Wheeler, moved to Orange, where she served as assistant commonwealth’s attorney and later worked as a criminal defense and family law attorney for Somerville, Carter, Wilkinson and Wheeler, Ltd. In 2004, she began her career as the county’s top prosecutor. After Rick Wheeler died in 2014, O’Connell married Mark O’Connell, a writer and retired probation officer. They live in Somerset and each has three grown children.
Why are you running for
a fifth term?
I really like what I do. I enjoy it. It’s important work. As a retired judge used to say, ‘We are not important. What we do is.’ And I think that’s true—it’s important work.
What are the greatest
challenges of your job?
Managing the workload is a challenge. Trying to balance expectations of people who have been victimized versus what is actually available by law—that’s a challenge. Trying cases that involve very young children as victims, especially child sexual abuse victims—those are very, very difficult and they’re very challenging.
Then there are some cases that are more difficult to present. [With] financial crimes, you can get lost in the weeds. Embezzlements can be difficult. Child pornography charges are very difficult because there are great psychological costs to actually having to look at those kinds of things. When you see [an image of child pornography], you can’t un-see it.
What would you say are the one or two most pressing criminal justice issues facing this county?
The [police officers’] body-worn cameras and then, of course, there are patrol car cameras as well. There’s a tremendous amount of video now that must be viewed [including crime-scene footage provided by stores, banks and other sources]. You have to watch these videos, and you have to make it available to defense counsel. Now we’re required by the rules of the Supreme Court to look at it all and flag it if it’s important for defense counsel. So that’s a huge challenge; it’s a huge time-eater.
Do you see areas that you might want to change or improve upon if you’re re-elected?
Well, I’m always trying to look for ways to streamline how cases flow and to make sure nothing drops through the cracks. We’ve experimented with a couple of case management systems and they’re always tweaking them. We get them from bigger commonwealth attorneys’ offices.
So, anything that will help us manage our time, to be able to make sure we’re making all our deadlines. I’m [also] looking for ways to improve reaching out to our witnesses and our victims, to make sure that they know how to contact us and that we’re on top of it.
What do you think it takes for a commonwealth’s attorney
to have a strong and productive partnership with local law
I think it’s important to remember we’re on the same side, but we do not have the same role. We just don’t. And so there are reasons that we need things to put cases together that they don’t need to make their case—but we need to be able to present it in court. It is not calf roping. I can’t go out and rope the calf and go, ‘All right, make the arrest,’ and walk away. There needs to be teamwork.
[For example,] two of my assistants went to northern Virginia with an investigator from the sheriff’s office yesterday and spent several hours with a computer expert we have working with us on a child porn case that’s coming up, to be able to say when things were downloaded and where they came from.
[In addition to working together with experts,] it’s always helpful to take your investigator or have the investigator take you to the medical examiner to look at all the photos that the medical examiner took during an autopsy.
So it’s working together to get the case ready for trial. It’s remembering we’re on the same team, but we have very different roles—and respecting those roles.
Why should a voter
cast a ballot for you?
There’s a binary choice right now. It’s not who would be the ideal commonwealth’s attorney with perfect qualifications and a perfect temperament and work ethic. You’ve got me with the experience that I have—or not.
I’ve had the benefit of a lot of training. By the time I was elected [to commonwealth’s attorney in 2003], I had 10 years of experience and a lot of practical experience in trying cases as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney. And then of course, since then, I’ve attended a lot of specialized training for prosecutors.
It’s easy to make mistakes when it’s the first time you go through something, and those are really how you learn because you don’t want to repeat those. So that’s the benefit to the voter … that [I’ve] seen a lot of things happen—the value of cases, what your red flag areas are, what to be careful of. That helps [me] not to get swayed by public opinion.