Henrico family left broken after tragedy on the water; Melissa Hipolit questions prosecutor

Posted at 8:00 AM, Jul 25, 2019

LANCASTER COUNTY, Va. -- A tragedy on the water has left the family of Graham McCormick, who was killed in a boating crash in Lancaster County, broken and angry.

"The past two years have really been a living hell," Gordon McCormick said. "My brother’s soul still doesn’t rest in peace."

And, feeling betrayed by the justice system.

"I feel small and insignificant," McCormick said. "They are kings of the county when they are elected."

Specifically, a prosecutor who they said has hung them out to dry. And, in this small riverfront community they aren't the only ones who are frustrated.

"There seems to be a little disconnect," Lancaster County Sheriff Patrick McCranie said.

Sheriff McCranie's office is located right next door to the office of Lancaster County Commonwealth's Attorney Jan Smith.

But, it sometimes seems like they are miles apart.

The sheriff said Smith has far too often refused to take cases to trial, either setting criminal charges aside, negotiating plea deals favorable to the defense, or dismissing cases altogether.

"There has been some disappoint, quite a bit, hurt, frustration," McCranie said.

Case in a point, an article in the Rappahannock Record from May 16 where Smith claimed he had to dismiss a murder case because there was "information that law enforcement knew or should have known concerning evidence that could have created doubt in the Commonwealth's case."

That quote led to four detectives from the Sheriff's office penning this letter to the editor disputing Smith's claim.

"I like him, he's a nice guy, he just doesn't have a handle on his job here, in my opinion," veteran detective Steve Sorenson, who signed the letter, said.

"He's blamed us before, or we've been blamed before, that we couldn't proceed because there was not enough evidence. It can't happen that way all the time," Sorenson said.

"What kind of precedent does that set in a community when what you're perceiving here is justice not being carried through?" CBS 6 reporter Melissa Hipolit asked Sorenson.

"That you can get away with just about anything," Sorenson replied.

One recent case in Lancaster County was the death of 31-year-old Graham McCormick, who was killed in boating accident on the Rappahannock River in August 2017.

McCormick's friend, Rand Hooper, is charged with involuntary manslaughter.

According to investigators, Hooper was piloting the boat drunk when it crashed into a bulkhead, throwing McCormick overboard.

They said Hooper then left the scene without trying to find and help his friend.

A civil lawsuit was settled, but the criminal case was supposed to go to trial on June 19.

According to McCormick's family, Smith negotiated a plea deal with Hooper's attorneys where Hooper would plead guilty to two felonies in exchange for one year in a local jail. It's a deal the McCormick family does not support.

"I would really like to see somebody take this to trial and give it the trial that it deserves," Gordon McCormick said.

In a court filing, an attorney for the McCormick family said that Smith appeared unprepared for the trial, and had not even visited the crash scene until more than a year and a half after the crash, and only did so after Chip Woodson, the man who owns the property where McCormick's body was found, urged him to do so.

The lawyer also claims Smith told both Woodson and McCormick's father that the judge had some doubts to him about the Commonwealth's case.

Woodson was so outraged by that apparent breach of legal ethics that he wrote the judge.

"I just want justice to be done. That's what I wanted, and I couldn't tell what was going to happen, so when I had to chance to say how it impacted me, I wrote the letter," Woodson said.

On June 19, Lancaster County Judge Michael McKenney recused himself from the case, telling a stunned courtroom that he never spoke to Smith about the case and wanted to restore integrity.

The McCormick family now wants Smith removed from the case, and for a special prosecutor to take over, while Hooper's attorneys want Smith to remain.

In a recent legal filing, they argued McCormick's parents have no legal standing to pursue their motion for a special prosecutor.

Over the last few weeks, CBS 6 reached out to Smith several times in several ways, but received no response.

Melissa Hipolit eventually caught up with him outside of his office.

When she informed him she had been trying to reach him to ask him a few questions he responded, "No, thank you."

When she said that since he's an elected official she thought he might want to answer questions, he responded "goodbye" and walked into the courthouse.

Detective Sorenson said he was also left wanting answers, as well as a prosecutor who is more willing to work with law enforcement.

"Is he cut out for the job?" Hipolit asked Sorenson.

"I wouldn't vote for him again if that answers your question." Sorenson replied.

Jan Smith is up for re-election this November.

We found the Virginia State Bar has disciplined him twice in the past, once in 2010 and again in 2012, for violating disciplinary rules that govern competence, diligence, communication, and failure to respond to a lawful demand for information from a disciplinary authority.



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