Law of the land series: the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney
This year, the top criminal justice positions of every county in Virginia are on the ballot – prosecutors and sheriffs. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reviewed several of those races in our broadcast region, and spoke with incumbents and challengers. This is the second report in a five-part series.
In this series, we're taking a look at five different sheriff and Commonwealth's Attorney seats in our broadcast region, and the ways in which the people we elect to those roles shape our communities.
Jim Hingeley is entering his second term as Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney. He's the only candidate on the ballot this year. Prosecutor's races in our area go uncontested surprisingly often – but, more on that next week. Hingeley won the 2019 election after a career as a public defender, having opened the public defender offices in both Lynchburg and Charlottesville-Albemarle. He's also taught at the University of Virginia School of Law and served on the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission.
One of the watershed moments of his first term has been charging the tiki torch marchers – the white supremacists who swarmed UVa's campus the night before the Unite the Right rally – with felonies earlier this year.
JIM HINGELEY: The people that committed those crimes need to be held accountable. White supremacy, as it was evidenced in the tiki torch march and the next day in the Unite the Right rally, is something that deserves punishment. … But I think it's something also that has a broader impact, and that is – we need to be constantly vigilant about white supremacy and what the federal authorities are calling domestic terrorism, and that's what this amounts to.
So far, eight men have been charged under a felony statute that prohibits the act of burning objects with the intent of intimidation. Three have pled guilty, and two have trials set for December and March, respectively. The Daily Progress reported that a ninth man has also been charged, but that indictment has not yet been unsealed.
More indictments could follow – Hingeley said the investigation is ongoing. Much of the evidence in these cases overlaps with the federal lawsuit Sines v. Kessler, in which nine people who were present at the rallies successfully sued two dozen white supremacists and hate groups that planned and executed the events of August 11th and 12th, 2017. Some of the plaintiffs were severely injured in the terrorist car attack that killed Heather Heyer.
HINGELEY: And so marshaling all that evidence, and a lot of it's digital evidence, and putting cases together, takes an enormous amount of time. So that is by way of explaining that we're still working. … It's a huge effort, and I don't see an end in sight right now.
This decision, to prosecute the racist torch carriers, is a direct break from Hingeley's predecessor, Robert Tracci. Tracci won the seat in 2015, and served one term. Before being unseated in 2019, Tracci wrote an opinion piece in C-VILLE Weekly that questioned whether carrying a torch rose to the legal threshold of the burning statute as written.
Hingeley noted that the issue came up in debates.
HINGELEY: If my predecessor was right – and I think it's turning out that he wasn't – but even if he was right, I think the community that was harmed by the burning objects march, the tiki torch march, deserves to have a definitive answer to the question of whether prosecutions were allowed for this kind of conduct. … I believed that they would be successful. I believed that the evidence was sufficient and the law was constructed in such a way that people could be convicted of this conduct.
He was also motivated to run for Commonwealth's Attorney by a desire to see jail and prison sentences used more sparingly.
HINGELEY: You know, we talk about the term "mass incarceration," and I think mass incarceration really represents two different things – one, that we put people in jail who shouldn't be in jail, or we put people in jail who should be in jail for a lot longer than is necessary.
He's worked with the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney, Joe Platania, to expand alternative court programs like drug court, restorative justice, and a therapeutic docket, which gets people with mental illnesses into treatment. Meeting minutes from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Authority show that, in the years leading up to Hingeley's election, the jail's average daily population had been between 450 and 500 people. Last fiscal year, it fell below 300.
HINGELEY: The community is better served if we can take an offender and help that person get back on track so that they can then be at less risk of committing future crimes.
I asked him about another public safety issue – gun violence. Including the UVa shooting, 14 people have been killed by gunfire in Charlottesville and Albemarle County since last October, and 19 have been injured. That's according to a WMRA review of news reports and press releases from law enforcement.
Hingeley noted that prosecutors, by nature, have a primarily responsive role to crime, but he did highlight the "Project Safe Neighborhoods" initiative, which brings together federal, state, and local law enforcement, prosecutors, and community partners to collaborate on solutions to violent crime.
HINGELEY: That is a project that is aimed at both responding to the violence in our community and working to prevent the violence that's in our community.
After this next term, Hingeley said he'll be 80 years old, and plans to pass the baton. He added that he's worked hard to represent the values of the community and how they want to see prosecutions conducted, and has been grateful for the opportunity.