Law of the land series: the Rockingham 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 fourth report in a five-part series. Please note that much of this story focuses on violent crimes.
In our penultimate installment of this series, we're taking a look at the Commonwealth's Attorney for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County – Marsha Garst. She's one of just seven prosecutors in Virginia who have overseen their jurisdiction, unchallenged, for two decades. And she remains unchallenged in this fall’s election.
While that length of tenure is impressive, it's not uncommon for a prosecutor to run unopposed. WMRA reviewed elections in 11 counties in our broadcast region over the past 20 years, and found that Commonwealth's Attorneys were nearly twice as likely to run unopposed as they were to be challenged.
Garst started out working as an assistant Commonwealth's Attorney for two years, before going into private practice. Then, the Simmons case happened.
MARSHA GARST: Once I left the office, there was a major homicide.
The Daily News-Record covered the case extensively. In October of 1996, two James Madison University students – 25-year-old Ann Olson and 23-year-old Keith O'Connell – were shot and killed in O'Connell's apartment. Olson's ex-boyfriend, 24-year-old Brent Simmons, was arrested for the murders. Simmons had a history of threatening behavior towards his ex. He owned a 9-millimeter handgun that he claimed had been stolen, and he admitted on a taped call that he didn't have an alibi. However, the state only had circumstantial evidence against him.
Put simply, the prosecutor fumbled the case. Commonwealth's Attorney Douglas Stark gave incorrect information to the defense about a witness's testimony. Another witness expressed doubts on the stand as to whether he saw Simmons at the crime scene.
The jury deadlocked. Stark asked the judge to let more experienced prosecutors retry the case, which the judge refused. Then, Stark blindsided the victims' families by working out an Alford plea agreement with Simmons on reduced charges of second-degree murder. Simmons was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
"There's no justice in your town," Olson's father told a reporter.
GARST: It's most important to talk to the victims about what's going to happen with their case, and to make sure that it's something that they approve and something that they are comfortable with, and also to let law enforcement know. … I decided that instead of complaining I should come back and try to fight to make the process better and fairer.
Simmons was later convicted in federal court and sentenced to life in prison, after the purportedly-stolen handgun was found in a lake near his hometown. But Stark's handling of the first case spelled his end as Rockingham County's prosecutor.
This local court system is somewhat unique in that it encompasses both a county and an independent city. And while Harrisonburg's 25,000 registered voters lean blue, Rockingham has more than double that number, and they're strongly Republican. Garst won the GOP nomination in 1999 and has held the seat ever since. After 24 years, she still argues the biggest cases herself. One corner of her office is stacked with large boxes full of homicide case files.
GARST: I just feel like I have that personal obligation, that if I'm asking for somebody to vote for me, that I'm the one trying these cases.
I asked Garst what changes she's seen in the area over her career.
GARST: Sadly, I think one of the biggest changes is that we have a lot of folks moving into the area, and some of the folks are involved with gangs and violent ties to that. We saw that in the Dry River killing.
The News Leader reported that a Waynesboro man who was part of the Mad Stone Bloods shot and killed one person and injured another during a 2014 robbery at the Dry River convenience store.
GARST: I think a lot of, in the past, there used to be pushing, shoving, fighting, and unfortunately we see a lot of just violence from the get go, whether it be knives, guns, it's just a lot of anger.
Garst's historically "tough on crime" approach towards young people supposedly involved in gangs did prompt criticism during the racial justice rallies of 2020. On hearing from those community members, she said –
GARST: It may not always be what you want to hear or what you like, and it may not always be kind, but it's important to listen. And I think that as the gangs grow, we are using the same template, where people are getting kids in schools … and it may not be necessarily that you're sworn into the gang, but the gang is made glorified to you. … There needs to be a tough approach. I mean, I look at the Vasquez case – that was the gang rape of a JMU student.
The two offenders in that case were 16 years old.
GARST: I'll never forget that case. So I don't regret my tough approach on that for the victim in that case, and I stand by that.
A current public safety issue here, as in many localities, is fentanyl.
GARST: If you're buying drugs, you can get free test strips. I don't want you to buy drugs. I don't want that to be your choice, but anybody that's around drugs should have Narcan. You know, you've got to have it on hand. Fentanyl is in everything now.
She oversaw the introduction of the county's drug court treatment program in 2017.
GARST: We have people that have jobs, have their families back, and have this addiction under control. … It's a fight they've taken on versus giving up and just saying, "I'm going to go to jail. I'll just do my time." I don't want them to have that defeatist attitude, because any of us can have a drug problem. Any of us can have a family member with a drug problem.
Part of Garst's seventh term will be defined by two major homicide cases. The suspect in the Bridgewater College shooting goes to trial in April, and the alleged 'Shopping Cart Killer' has trials scheduled for next September and the following January.
Editor's note, Oct. 20: a previous version of this story incorrectly identified this upcoming term as Garst's sixth. It has been corrected.