Defense attorneys ask judge to remove Portsmouth prosecutors from officer-involved shooting case

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A judge will decide if Portsmouth prosecutors can try the case against a police officer accused of unjustly shooting an armed burglary suspect after his defense attorney raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest within the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

Portsmouth police officer Jeremy Durocher shot 18-year-old Deontrace Ward during an armed burglary on Oct. 29, 2017. The shooting was captured on Durocher’s body camera. The officer can be heard yelling, “He has a gun! He has a gun!” before firing multiple shots.

Ward survived the shooting and pleaded guilty to five felonies stemming from the armed burglary in June 2018. Durocher was criminally charged in connection to the on-duty shooting in November 2018. He’s scheduled to appear before a jury in July on charges of aggravated malicious wounding and use of a firearm.

Although the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office brought Durocher’s case before the grand jury that indicted him, defense attorneys Nick Renninger and Don Scott don’t believe the city’s prosecutors should be the ones to try the case. They filed a motion in November asking a judge to remove the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office from the case. The motion, which was heard by a Portsmouth Circuit Court judge on Monday, focuses on one particular prosecutor, a new hire named Chris Warman, who is assigned to Durocher’s case.

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Warman used to work for the Portsmouth Public Defender’s Office, and one of his colleagues represented Ward in the criminal case associated with the shooting. Warman wasn’t Ward’s attorney and told a judge that he does not have any insider knowledge on the armed burglary case as a result of his employment as a public defender. Renninger argued that Warman’s previous employment with the public defender’s office creates a conflict of interest that could stop Durocher from getting a fair trial.

Warman declined to comment on the defense attorney’s motion.

10 On Your Side reached out to Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales, and heard back after publication of this story Monday night. She said her office will refrain from making any “extra judicial” statements due to “our ethical obligations, since this is active litigation.”

“We want the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to do what they’re supposed to do, and that is ethically and justly prosecute defendants,” Renninger told 10 On Your Side.

“There’s no way that an employee of that office could now responsibly and ethically and fairly prosecutor officer Durocher with that kind of knowledge,” Renninger continued.

In the motion, Renninger and Scott also accused Warman of having a conversation about the shooting with Durocher when they ran into each other at Longboard’s in January 2018. At the time of the alleged conversation, Warman wasn’t a prosecutor and Durocher wasn’t charged with any crimes.

Renninger told the judge that Warman told Durocher he would be “fine” because the shooting was “good.” He also called a witness, a longtime friend of Durocher’s who testified to witnessing the conversation at the bar, but said he could not hear what the men spoke about. Warman emphatically denied making the alleged comments to Durocher.

Renninger and Scott are asking the judge to remove not just Warman, but the entire Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office from Durocher’s case on the basis of their motion. The judge took the motion under advisement and will issue a decision on it in the future.

Correction: An original version of this story said the officer was formerly employed by Portsmouth. He is still employed in the city. WAVY regrets the error.

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