Legal experts stunned by judge's reprimand of Chesterfield prosecutor, police chief over pastor sex case

Posted at 6:24 PM, Feb 16, 2023

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A Chesterfield County judge used words like "irresponsible" and "self-righteous" to describe how the county's top prosecutor and top cop have addressed each other and the public regarding the criminal case involving a Virginia Beach pastor.

In a ruling that appoints a special prosecutor out of Brunswick County to potentially reopen the sex crimes case, Judge David Johnson strongly criticized Commonwealth's Attorney Stacey Davenport and Police Chief Jeffrey Katz.

The two officials engaged in a months-long debate after Davenport set aside charges against John Blanchard, nearly a year after police arrested Blanchard for allegedly traveling to Chesterfield County to meet an underage prostitute.

Blanchard was one suspect out of 17 arrested in the sex sting operation. A majority of the suspects had their cases fully prosecuted, and Chief Katz said Blanchard's case was the only case in which he didn't understand why charges were dismissed.

When Blanchard's felony charges were nolle prossed in October 2022, Davenport said it was due to insufficient evidence. However, Katz said his department's investigation was thorough, and he publicly called on Davenport to explain her decision. Both officials went on to make statements about the case through outlets like social media, news interviews, and a press conference.

In his motion explaining why a special prosecutor should be appointed to review newly surfaced evidence against Blanchard, Judge Johnson called their public dispute "one of the worst menaces to our system of justice: the transformation of the sober and serious investigation of guilt into a grotesque media carnival."

“The comments that the judge made I think were appropriate and necessary to explain why there's a need for a special prosecutor," said CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone.

Johnson said that law enforcement leaders should "appreciate that trials should be conducted in courts of law, not in public courts of opinion."

He added, "The last thing that is needed in an already difficult decision-making process is the injection of gratuitous insults, self-righteous posturing, and finger-pointing."

Johnson said freedom of speech, particularly speech that questions or criticizes actions of the government, must be allowed but responsibly exercised.

"Such self-discipline should be exercised by all citizens, but even more so by those entrusted with public office, and to a compelling degree, by those entrusted with upholding and enforcing the law," Johnson wrote.

The judge said Katz's and Davenport's public disagreement showed disregard for the public's view of a serious matter, the public safety concerns of the community, the protection of minors, and the integrity of the judicial system.

"The public one-upmanship displayed by the Commonwealth's Attorney and the Chief of Police was as unbecoming as it was irresponsible," he said.

He added that Davenport and Katz degraded the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury by threatening Blanchard's right to an unbiased jury through public statements about the case.

Johnson said both officials "confused the public" about the standards for undertaking a prosecution and determining guilt or innocence.

Misty Whitehead, a defense attorney who practices law in localities across the region including Chesterfield, said Johnson's ruling was "remarkable" to read.

“I think a lot of us consider it to be a work of art," Whitehead said. “I think what Judge Johnson was careful to do was to remind them each of the accountability that their offices hold.”

Whitehead said Johnson was getting at the "bigger picture" which she described as "the tainting of the judicial process by both the Commonwealth's Attorney's actions as well as Chief Katz's."

She said usually a judge will approve a motion without making additional comments, but she's appreciative that Johnson took the time to do so.

"What happened was not the way that it should have happened, and it rightfully undermined the credibility of the public in thinking that the justice system is fair," Whitehead said. "It was an overt reprimand."

Speaking specifically about Katz, Johnson said it was shocking to see him direct discontent at Davenport's office.

"This inappropriate - some might say reckless - language is subject to potentially dangerous interpretation. Certainly, the Commonwealth's Attorney's public comment sparked the Chief's response, but words have meaning," Johnson said.

Ultimately, Johnson concluded that it was necessary to appoint a special prosecutor to Blanchard's case but not for the same reasons Davenport asked for one when she announced in January she was being politically attacked by Chief Katz.

"What the Commonwealth's Attorney asserts is an ethical bar to her making a prosecutorial decision appears to this Court to be the Commonwealth's Attorney's unwillingness to make a controversial prosecutorial decision," Johnson wrote.

Johnson pointed out that if Davenport and Katz refrained from making public comments, Davenport would've been able to make a prosecutorial decision about the case when Katz presented new evidence involving Blanchard back in January.

Asked if there's a lesson the public, police, and CA's office can learn from Johnson's remarks, Stone said, "One is you see that a judge sort of served as a check and balance of the system a little bit. The judge was able to kind of correct the ship and get it going in the right direction."

Stone added, "Stay in your lane, do your job, and let the bigger machine work. That machine works best when each part is doing its own job the right way."

Davenport did not respond to CBS 6's request for comment Thursday.

Chief Katz responded in part, "The sad irony is not lost on me that the public nature of this debate - while unfortunate - is the very thing that ultimately put this matter before Judge Johnson to remedy. He did the right thing, the just thing, and I’m thankful."

In his ruling, Johnson gave a reminder that Davenport, as an elected official, is accountable to the voters. He said Katz, as an appointed official, is accountable to the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, which is accountable to voters.

When asked for a response, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors said it did not want to comment.

Of note, Judge Johnson is the same judge that Katz and Davenport publicly criticized during a 2021 press conference for his decision to overturn a guilty verdict in a murder case.