HOTSEAT- Prosecutorial discretion: Chapman opens up-- a little

Dave Chapman

Dave Chapman takes being a constitutional officer pretty literally. As a poli sci major at UVA with an interest in constitutional history and law– which his father taught at Indiana University– he came to that inevitable crossroads: PhD or juris doctor? And like many before him, Chapman turned to the practice of law. 

"Criminal law presents the most interesting and immediate access to constitutional law," says the man who's been Charlottesville's commonwealth's attorney since 1994. Search and seizure, probable cause, freedom of speech– these issues play out every day in local courtrooms.

Though he grew up an Indiana boy, both Chapman's parents were transplanted Virginians, and he remembers trips here when West Main was the main thoroughfare, when the Vinegar Hill neighborhood still existed, and when the drive-in theater at Emmet and Hydraulic (today site of a Kroger) was the "extent of civilization."

Chapman attended the University of Virginia during a transitional time. The year he started– 1971– was the second year women were admitted. "I lived in new dorms designed for all males," he recalls. "They had urinals on the floors reserved for women." And while some students looked like typical '60s counter-culture fans, others still wore coats and ties to class.

Before becoming a prosecutor, Chapman was in private practice and worked part time in student legal services doing criminal defense for embattled students. "I did a great deal of criminal defense work," he points out.

But in 1988, he changed teams and went to work as assistant prosecutor for Albemarle County. "A commonwealth's attorney can accomplish more than a defense lawyer," he believes.

He'd moved up to deputy commonwealth's attorney in the county when the election for the top prosecutor's job in Charlottesville came around in 1993. "The city commonwealth's attorney was not doing the job appropriately," states Chapman. "I was the most qualified person to take him."

Apparently, voters still think so, and he's comfortably into his fourth term, having run unopposed since that first election. And in a comfortably Democratic town like Charlottesville, conceivably a Democrat like Chapman could prosecute for decades to come.

Unless he blows a really big case in a really big way. And the biggest trial coming up is of the man accused of being the serial rapist who's attacked women since 1997: Nathan Antonio Washington. "Something like the Washington case was mine from the word go," says Chapman.

Reporters who badger Chapman for details in upcoming criminal cases are very familiar with his, "I'm not going to comment on that." And the Washington case is no exception, although Chapman says that in his office, "There are a number of people well qualified to prosecute the case.  But I have a lot of years invested in this, and I want to see it through."

Across the county line, the commonwealth's attorney race is under way. Chapman declines to comment on the Jim Camblos v. Denise Lunsford contest.

About prosecutors in general, he says that "hard-core law-and-order advocates" or "lock 'em up and throw away the key" prosecutors give themselves a bad name.

 "That will never be the case here," he says. "We have have the opportunity to help people get on the right path, as well as incapacitation for those who can't behave."

The most difficult cases for a prosecutor are circumstantial cases, the ones "you might not have enough evidence to convince 12 people this is the person, and you know that going in," he says.

What's the definition of prosecutorial angst? Chapman says it's "the reality of someone who's done something horrible being out in the community" if you're not successful.

Age: 54

Why here? Like many, I came here as a student and never left. I've lived here since 1971. Small college towns are the greatest.

What's worst about living here? The growing gulf between the wealthy and the poor. Charlottesville's size makes this national trend especially noticeable and a source of division.

Favorite hangout? Any soccer pitch on which my son plays

Most overrated virtue? Intelligence. Hard work and seriousness of purpose are great equalizers.

People would be surprised to know: I was formerly a nationally competitive yacht racer.

What would you change about yourself? Relax more

Proudest accomplishment? Being admitted to the University of Virginia School of Law

People find most annoying about you: I'm blunt to a fault.

Whom do you admire? James Madison

Favorite book? Max Farrand's Records of the Federal Convention of 1787

Subject that causes you to rant? The prevalence of child abuse and neglect 

Biggest 21st-century thrill? The discrediting of Dick Cheney and his cabal 

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Reaching slightly backwards.... Bill Clinton's personal indiscretions as President

What do you drive? 1993 Isuzu Trooper

In your car CD player right now: Oops! I don't own one. I wish I could remember the last tape cassette I listened to while driving.  Probably Stan Rodgers.

Next journey? After fall soccer season, sea kayaking on the Eastern shore

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Judge Peatross' $100 club 

Regret: Soccer wasn't played where I grew up. 

Favorite comfort food: Almost anything Indian

Always in your refrigerator: Fresh foods

Must-see TV: Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations (when I get the chance)

Describe a perfect day. Kayaking with my wife and son

Walter Mitty fantasy: I wish I had been there at the founding.

Who'd play you in the movie? Robert Duvall or Ned Beatty

Most embarrassing moment? Having a witness start testifying about being held at knife-point, a recollection he hadn't shared with me before  

Best advice you ever got? Don't be afraid to be the turtle.

Favorite bumper sticker? Has It Been Four Years Yet?