A judge rejected a subpoena calling Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales to testify in the Lucas case Monday. As a result, the case goes to Morales’ office and she will take the lead on the prosecution. Lucas and 18 others charged by the Portsmouth Police Department (PPD) will have their next hearing on November 19.
Judge Claire Cardwell ruled that the Portsmouth Police can not call Morales as a witness; some of Lucas’ supporters viewed the subpoena as an attempt to keep Morales out of the prosecution. In a statement, Morales’ lawyer said, “The judge said that the police department is to transmit its investigative file to Ms. Morales. Ms. Morales will prosecute all of the matters under her constitutional authority as the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney.”
Lucas’ attorney Delegate Don Scott (D-Norfolk) told Wavy.com, “The judge saw it for what it was. The commonwealth’s attorney should never have been subpoenaed in this matter.”
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Lucas’ Political Action Committee gave $3,000 to the Morales campaign, $1,000 in 2014 and $1,500 in 2017. Local tea party leader and lawyer Tim Anderson commented on the donations on Facebook. Anderson asked his followers, “I am curious if you think there is a conflict?” Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond), who used to be a prosecutor said that attorneys can recuse themselves even if there is no conflict of interest. “Given that [Morales has] been subpoenaed as a witness, given that she may know Lucas, the better course of action could be to recuse herself. Now I’m not saying that she has to do that, but I’m saying it’s something she should consider.”
“When you recuse yourself, it may not be because you have a conflict of interest but rather because there’s an appearance of a conflict, or what is known as an appearance of impropriety. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, the best course of action is often to recuse oneself.”
Anderson is himself facing a lawsuit for allegedly defaming Lucas.
After the June 10 protest where a Confederate monument was damaged and a man was injured, the PPD announced felony charges against 19 people for damaging the monument, including Lucas. At the same time, the PPD listed Morales as a witness. Morales’ office responded with a press release, saying that if Morales was subpoenaed, “it removes the ability of this Commonwealth Attorney from acting and places the matters in the hands of a special prosecutor who is not accountable to this city.”
In the ongoing aftermath of the case, Lucas’ daughter, Vice-Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke, was charged with a misdemeanor for calling for Police Chief Angela Greene to be fired. City Manager Lydia Pettis-Patton resigned one day after placing Greene on administrative leave, and City Attorney Solomon Ashby was fired by the city council in a vote split along racial lines. Lucas-Burke, Greene, Pettis-Patton, and Ashby are all Black. Local NAACP leaders have repeatedly tried to charge White city councilmembers Bill Moody and Elisabeth Psimas with misdemeanors alleging that they both violated city charter by calling for Greene to prosecute Lucas.
The case has highlighted division in Portsmouth’s government and civic leadership; it has also attracted attention from high-profile Virginia politicians. Democrats have sided with Lucas, while Republicans have criticized her and called for Greene to be re-instated as police chief. The Portsmouth Tea Party has held rallies supporting Greene.
“I’ve seen the police footage,” Senator Amanda Chase said in August, “I saw for myself what [Lucas] did, and she clearly overstepped her bounds as a legislator. You know, we don’t have the ability to tell law enforcement to stand back, that’s not in our purview.“
In August, Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chairman, Delegate Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), said, “We are confident that justice will be served and that she will be exonerated of these charges. She was there fighting for justice. These charges against her are simply outrageous.”
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this report incorrectly asserted Judge Claire Cardwell denied a motion to dismiss Lucas’ case. The motion is still pending, and a decision on the matter is expected in November. The Virginia Star regrets the error in the original story, which is now corrected in the current version.