New Commonwealth’s Attorney takes office, fires seven lawyers

Posted at 11:31 PM, Jan 06, 2012
and last updated 2012-02-23 15:05:42-05

HENRICO, VA (WTVR) - A change in power sets several other changes in motion.

Owen Conway is a stay-at-home mom for the first time in her 20-year career as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

While she said she‘s enjoying her new role, she also said she misses the courtroom.  “I loved it. It was my passion,” Conway said.

Conway, known as a tough but fair prosecutor, has handled several high profile cases, including the Piper Roundtree murder trial.

But in early December, Conway and six other esteemed prosecutors in Henrico County got pink slips from newly elected Commonwealth’s Attorney, Shannon Taylor.

Conway said she was left “devastated” and “shocked.”

“All of the seven of us who were not re-appointed had many, many years of experience,” she said.  “I had very serious cases that were pending.”

Heidi Barshinger, a Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney with more than 25 years experience, said many of the fired prosecutors feel they were victims of politics, even though they held non -political positions.

Barshinger said the attorneys met with Taylor for a 10-minute interview in late November. Four days later, Barshinger said they each received a phone call from one of Taylor’s supervisors.

“After we received our phone calls, there was a lot of crying in the hallway, a lot of shock and disbelief,” Barshinger said.

She said that they all took great pride in their jobs.  “We worked hard, had good reputations amongst law enforcement and the defense bar, so it was definitely a shock.”

In a Nov. 9 interview with CBS 6, Shannon Taylor was candid in that she wanted change in the commonwealth attorney’s office that she hoped would better reflect Henrico’s changing demographics.

“I stated publically that the office needs to have more diversity and I’m going to keep to that public statement,” Taylor said.

Political analyst Bob Holsworth said that while new commonwealth’s attorneys usually bring in different supervisors, he said it’s very unusual to remove seven career prosecutors before even taking office. He said the move has surprised, even angered many in the community.

“The office is going to have to be very successful, very professional and very effective, just as effective as the previous office,” Holsworth said.  “If it isn’t, that’s going to tighten the tension on Shannon Taylor.”

Conway and Barshinger said they are working to find another prosecuting job, but said it’s been very difficult.

“Ultimately, maybe I’d like to run for commonwealth’s attorney in Henrico County,” Barshinger said with a smile.

Both said they are humbled by the outpouring of support from other prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state, as well as judges and former colleagues.

“None of us thought that there would be seven people who would not be reappointed,” said Conway.  “It’s just unprecedented.”