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Progress slows for Virginia justice reform

Recent years have brought major strides forward for the rights of Virginians accused of crimes. They have also brought setbacks and delays, concerning advocates for the rights of defendants.

For example, this year prosecutors were supposed to begin sharing much more information with accused Virginians and their attorneys before their trial begins, a change expected to help safeguard defendants’ rights. However, that reform was delayed mostly because, police and prosecutors say, evidence from body cameras have made it too difficult to implement so soon.

High court orders sharing of information with defense

A task force formed by Virginia’s State Bar (its professional association of lawyers) recommended reforms to Virginia’s very restrictive rules for sharing evidence with defense attorneys before trial. Such information can help attorneys give their defendants a better chance for a fair trial.

Over a year ago, the Virginia Supreme Court accepted the bar’s recommendations, ordering that the reforms be implemented. It was a watershed moment that advocates for the rights of the accused had been working toward since 1972, when the current rules were largely set.

Among the changes the state Supreme Court required was the exchange of witness lists, scientific lab results, the reports of experts and, crucially, witness statements. The change was slated for this past July 1.

Justice delayed in Virginia courts

Late last year, prosecutors approached Virginia legislators to raise various concerns, particularly about how evidence from body cameras would be handled in the planned evidence procedures.

Police departments around the country have recently begun using, and have often been made to use, body cameras to document policework.

This rapid change has created an avalanche of footage and other information of almost every kind. Police departments cite, for example, images of victims and uninvolved bystanders, potentially raising privacy concerns. Nationwide, departments have struggled to process and release this data in ways, and according to schedules, that satisfy the people who expect to receive it.

Virginia law enforcement will not implement the state Supreme Court’s order until sometime next year. Some defense attorneys and advocates for justice reform argue that turning over the information “as is” has significant advantages that all sides would be able to appreciate if the changes were simply implemented as ordered by the high court.