PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Jamal Cannon was arrested and faced first-degree murder and other charges in connection with a deadly shooting in Feb. 2022. The case went to trial, but the charges were dropped because the judge ruled the Portsmouth Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney failed to include the address of a key witness.
Cannon’s attorney was Michael Massie, “In this case, they did not indicate the witness was confidential. They did not provide his address at all, so the case ended up being dismissed, again, because that was their star witness, and he couldn’t testify, so the case fell.”
Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales disagreed with the judge’s decision.
In an interview with WAVY on Monday, Nov. 13, we asked her if there is a process. Like she said, her office has to handle discovery, so why do judges rule against her so often? “Well, this office does not have a problem with discovery,” she told WAVY.
Another recent case that was dismissed at trial involved 19 child abuse/neglect charges against Dewanna Seward, who ran a childcare that caught fire.
Michael Massie was also Seward’s attorney. He claimed he never received a witness list prior to trial, which is a major failure in the rules of discovery.
“I do not know why they didn’t provide a witness list. They tried to get medical records introduced, (but) there were no doctors subpoenaed, no custodial of records subpoenaed, so there was no way those records were going to come in as evidence,” Massie said.
WAVY’s Andy Fox read to Morales what Judge Brenda Spry said to her Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney before dismissing the case with prejudice, and it’s not just this case.
“I will say, within a month, we’ve had four or five cases that have dealt with this. Your actions are gross negligence…The prosecutor acknowledged his office had not met the burden of care when producing the witness list.”
In response, Morales said, “Again, we have judges that make decisions upon their discretion. They have their opinion, and we have our opinions. We have our facts.”
The fact is in recent high profile cases judges are ruling against Morales’ office. “I kindly disagree to any assertation that this entire office as a whole is not working as it should,” Morales said.
Morales also said judges are making mistakes too, “And there are times when these judges are not paying attention to what the law has indicated, and there are times when my attorneys are going to do everything they can be clear about what is supposed to happen.”
Then she spoke about misinformation, “We have had instances of defense attorneys misstating the law, then judges allowing that misinformation, and we find out after the fact that that is incorrect.”
Andy pointed out it looks like she is blaming the judges. “What I am doing is being very clear who has the opportunity to decide,” she said.
We then presented her with a letter from State Attorney General Jason Miyares he wrote to her concerning the management of her office.
Morales made it clear she did not appreciate our doing that. We read to her part of the letter from Miyares:
“In light of recent news reports about serious felony cases involving murders and child abuse in Portsmouth being dismissed due to mistakes from your office and rules not being followed, I’m writing to offer the resources of the Office of the Attorney General to help prosecute violent crime in the City of Portsmouth.”
Through the reading of that paragraph Morales continually tried to get us to stop reading. “No let me stop you,” she said a few times.
She then said, “Do you have my response letter?”
We did not have her response letter because we did not know it existed. We only had Miyares’ letter, which we obtained from another source. We did not get it from the State Attorney General’s Office.
“It seems you are unprepared. You are unprepared because you asked us to speak about certain things, and you have brought forward information that you do not have a response for,” Morales said.
We did not tell her about the letter from Miyares, but we were prepared with the letter, and Morales was prepared not to talk about it, and prepared not to give us a copy of her response letter.
After the interview on Nov. 13 we asked her office to send us a copy. The email with her response letter attached arrived on Nov. 20 at 1:31 p.m., just a few hours before the report, which was completed last Friday, was to air on WAVY.
In that response letter to Miyares, dated Sept. 25, she defends her office.
“This office has directives in place that require adherence to all court rules, and while no one is perfect and variances happen, this office overwhelmingly takes seriously the rules of court and governing law.”
The State Attorney General offered Morales “resources…to help prosecute violent crime in the City of Portsmouth.”
We asked her about that, “The Attorney General’s Office has not offered any attorneys as of yet. I will be meeting with the Attorney General at my request to see what we can utilize based on what they have.”
Her response letter requests an in person meeting with AG Miyares. Late Monday (Nov. 20), WAVY learned from Morales’ office that the State Attorney General will meet with her next week.
There is another matter, and it deals with a FOIA request.
On Oct. 16, WAVY’s investigative producer sent Morales’ office a request for information concerning the number of employees in her office, their positions, and salaries, including the money the office receives from the city and state.
After a five-day period, on October 23, the office asked for a 7-day extension which would have been until Nov. 1.
The reason this information is important is because critics of her office think there are issues in court because the office is greatly understaffed.
After repeated requests and emails from the producer and from reporter Andy Fox, we had yet to receive what we have requested from a public office paid for by taxpayers.
In the same Nov. 20 email from her office, they finally responded to the FOIA request. Regarding staffing, the email states, “There are currently 10 licensed attorneys, 11 licensed attorneys as of November 27, 2023, and there are a total of 16 attorney positions.”
That means 30% of the positions are not filled.
This past Friday, WAVY reported that many Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Offices across Virginia have vacant positions due to attorney shortages. A recent report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) found 6.5% of Virginia CA positions currently sit vacant.
In the end, though, no one argues there are also successes in Morales’ office, but critics are concerned with how her office handles issues of discovery, even in cases they win.
Morales told us, “There was a first-degree murder conviction last week. There was a first-degree murder the week before, a homicide conviction not even a month prior to that. My attorneys are in court every single day, working hard, and getting justice for victims.”