HOTSEAT- Switching teams: Defense attorney wants to prosecute

Denise Lunsford is a familiar figure in local courtrooms: over the past 17 years, she's defended clients accused of crimes from mundane to heinous. But now she's hoping to switch sides. Lunsford recently announced that she's running as a Democrat for Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney, a position held for more than 15 years by Republican Jim Camblos. 

It's not as big a leap as one might imagine.

"It's still criminal law and litigation," she says. "Those are two things I know and do well."

Indeed, Lunsford joined the law firm of Michie, Hamlett, Lowry, Rasmussen, and Tweel in 1991, soon after her graduation from law school at Washington & Lee, and she's handled scores of cases– many of them high profile.

In 1994, Lunsford took her first big solo case, defending a man accused in a shooting on Ridge Street, and winning an acquittal. "I got to walk out of the court with him," Lunsford recalls. 

Then in 2001, Lunsford successfully defended Greene County resident Jesse Sheckler against drug charges, paving the way for his record-breaking $10 million civil award (later reduced to $1 million) against Channel 29.

More recently, Lunsford– who launched her own law practice in 1997– defended Anthony Dale Crawford, charged with capital murder in February for the 2004 slaying of his wife. 

Although that case resulted in Crawford's conviction (as detailed in the Hook's February 15 cover story, "Capital offense: Jury sends a message," Lunsford and co-counsel, Rhonda Quagliana won praise from Judge Edward Hogshire for their professionalism and impassioned defense. "This is our system at its best," he told both legal teams after the jury delivered its verdict.

A mother of three children– ages 3, 5 and 7– Lunsford says she has periodically considered pursuing a position as prosecutor, but "it didn't feel right at the time."

Then, while on sabbatical in December 2005, she decided she was ready to make the switch because

"I'll be able to affect many more lives." Anyone who believes her past as a defense attorney means she can't be successful as a prosecutor, she says, is simply wrong.

"I don't like preconceived notions or prejudgments, whether about me or my clients," says Lunsford, pointing out that other Commonwealth's Attorneys– including Camblos– started out as criminal defense attorneys. Recently appointed Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins is also a former defense attorney.

If Lunsford wins the election, it will be the first time in history that two positions in the local judicial system– one appointed, one elected– will be held by women. What might that mean?

"A more fashionable courtroom?" laughs Lunsford, who has exhibited an occasionally daring fashion sense, including a form-fitting red blouse and leopard-print stilletos.

Although Albemarle voters have tilted to the left over the past 10 years, Lunsford still may face a tough battle against Camblos, a Republican who has held the seat since 1991 and who ran unopposed the last two elections.

Although he won't comment specifically on Lunsford's challenge, Camblos says he's ready for a fight.

"I have tried to do the job firmly, aggressively, and fairly for all the citizens of Albemarle County for the last 15 years." he says. "I look forward to getting that message out to the voters of the county during this election."

At her March 13 press conference where a Republican attorney and a retired Albemarle Police detective introduced her and announced their support for her campaign, Lunsford also revealed her personal experience with the legal system after her father was killed years ago.

"Victims need to have a voice," she said. "I can be the voice for them."

Age: 42

Why here? I got a job with a great firm after law school. I stayed because I grew to love this area and its people.

What's worst about living here? Sometimes the traffic

Favorite hangout? Dancing with my friends

Most overrated virtue? Patience

People would be surprised to know: I make quilts.

What would you change about yourself? I would worry less.

Proudest accomplishment? Representing my clients well and to the best of my ability while maintaining a good reputation

People find most annoying about you: I can be a slob.

Whom do you admire? Anyone who stands up for what they believe without concern for what others will think.

Favorite book? To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it once a year.

Subject that causes you to rant? Intolerance

Biggest 21st-century thrill? The Internet

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The Internet

What do you drive? 1999 Saab 9-5

In your car CD player right now: Bob Marley's Natural Mystic

Next journey? Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Smoking cigarettes on an eighth-grade school trip

Regret: I really do not look at events in my past with regret because those things helped shape who I am, and I like the person I am.

Favorite comfort food: My grandmother's chicken and dumplings, but I don't know how to make them.

Always in your refrigerator: Cheese

Must-see TV: Grey's Anatomy

Favorite cartoon: For Better or Worse

Describe a perfect day. I wake up on a boat in the Caribbean with Richard, our children (who are in really good moods), and a few friends. We have a big breakfast and then go to the beach where we spend the day reading and playing in the water. After a nap, we go to a little beach restaurant where we have a great meal, listen to a reggae band, dance, and watch the children play. Then we go back to the boat where we put the children to bed then listen to music and watch the stars from the deck.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Working as a profiler, like in Criminal Minds

Who'd play you in the movie? Julia Roberts, the way she played Erin Brockovich

Most embarrassing moment? When I was pregnant with our oldest child, I asked someone at a birthing class how old babies are when they open their eyes– the only babies I had experience with were puppies and kittens!

Best advice you ever got? My mom always said "You catch more flies with honey."

Favorite bumper sticker? "Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History"

Denise Lunsford