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How One Progressive Prosecutor Paved the Way for an East Coast Shooting Spree

Fairfax County, Va., commonwealth's attorney Steve Descano (D.) / Twitter
• March 29, 2022 5:00 am

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A gunman suspected of killing two homeless men and wounding others in two East Coast cities in March would have been in prison at the time of the shootings if not for the work of one progressive Virginia prosecutor.

The office of Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney Steve Descano (D.) in December 2020 charged the shooter, Gerald Brevard III, with three felonies related to his attempt to abduct a hotel housekeeper and later break into a nearby apartment. The felonies—abduction with attempt to defile, burglary, and possession of burglarious tools—together would carry a minimum of 26 years in prison and up to a life sentence.

But six months later in June 2021, Brevard was a free man. Descano's office reduced the first two felonies to misdemeanors, and dropped the third entirely, the case file shows, allowing him to leave prison after just five months. Less than a year later in March, Brevard opened fire on the first victim of his shooting spree. In the course of the nine-day spree, he is alleged to have killed two homeless men and wounded three others in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

The reduced charges Descano's office placed on Brevard were not the first in his criminal history—his rap sheet stretches back to at least 2010 and includes malicious destruction of property, drug possession, armed robbery, assault with a firearm, and assaulting a police officer. A policy memo that Descano distributed the day before Brevard's 2020 arrest urged assistant commonwealth's attorneys to seek misdemeanor charges over felonies whenever appropriate. And according to sources who spoke with the Washington Free Beacon, including former members of the commonwealth's attorney's office, such criminal justice reform policies promulgated by Descano allowed Brevard to evade justice.

Descano was among a coterie of left-wing prosecutors—along with Loudoun County's Buta Biberaj and Arlington County's Parisa Dehghani-Tafti—swept into office in 2019 by six-figure donations from George Soros. The Democratic megadonor's Justice and Public Safety PAC donated more than half-a-million dollars to Descano's campaign, helping him oust a 35-year veteran prosecutor in the Democratic primary before capturing office in deep-blue Fairfax County.

Police interviews with Brevard's abduction victim reveal he approached the housekeeper from behind when she was alone in a hallway, shoved her head into a wall, then covered her mouth and tried to drag her into an adjacent room. The victim was able to cry for help and escape after a short scuffle, suffering only minor injuries. She informed police she would be able to identify Brevard if she saw him again. Three weeks later, Brevard broke into a nearby apartment and was arrested.

Police records show Brevard also disposed of a fully loaded pistol magazine in the back of a squad car as he was transported to jail on the night of his arrest—a felony Descano's office never charged him for.

Descano's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Virginia's top prosecutor Jason Miyares (R.) told the Free Beacon Descano's light sentencing for violent criminals enabled Brevard's violent rampage.

"This is an example of his criminal-first, victim-last mindset," Miyares told the Free Beacon, adding that Descano has conducted himself more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor. "You want to be a defense attorney—great, resign. You're not prosecuting. You're acting as an advocate for violent criminals."

Descano has said Brevard's abduction and burglary charges were hamstrung by lack of evidence. But conversations with former members of the Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney's office reveal a pattern of failing to prosecute violent criminals. During his tenure, Descano has abolished cash bail, told his attorneys to avoid mandatory minimum jail sentencing, and declined to prosecute many misdemeanors. He has reportedly told his staff that they "will never get in trouble for prosecuting light."

Former attorneys from the office told the Free Beacon such policies are "completely beyond the pale" of ordinary prosecutorial discretion.

"It is a total abandonment of his responsibility to seek justice and protect the public in his role as commonwealth's attorney," one said.

Reports show the Brevard case is not an outlier. In the first homicide case of this year, a Fairfax County man in January killed an 18-year-old and shot another man in the eye while waiting at a bus stop. Descano had pleaded the shooter out on misdemeanors in 2020 after he carried a concealed weapon with its serial number scratched off to a high school basketball game. The gunman had originally been charged with a felony.

Descano has cited last year's 10 percent decrease in crime in Fairfax County as proof of the effectiveness of his policies. Critics have pointed out, however, that homicide is up nearly 50 percent since his election. The supposed downward trend is, they say, the result of a lower conviction rate rather than a true reduction in crime.

Concerns over crime in Fairfax County have prompted some local groups to try to remove Descano from office. In April 2021, Stand Up Virginia announced a recall effort, and four months later Virginians for Safe Communities followed suit. Both describe their groups as motivated by the dangers progressive prosecutors pose to public safety. Sean Kennedy, the president of Virginians for Safe Communities, said the homeless killings Brevard was recently charged for show how "reckless" Descano's approach to criminal justice reform has been.

"If Descano had done his job by protecting the public and following the law instead of protecting criminals and imposing his radical ideology there is not a scintilla of doubt that those two innocent men would be alive today," Kennedy told the Free Beacon. "Their lives mattered more than Descano's reckless agenda."

The prosecutorial approach has also alienated law enforcement. Since the beginning of the year, 29 police officers have left their jobs in Fairfax County. Only two were fired, and resignations outpaced retirements three to one.

Staff described a contentious work environment in the office, with Descano prone to angry outbursts when his judgment is questioned. More than half of the attorneys have departed since he took office, including four of his five deputy commonwealth's attorneys, leaving behind mostly unpracticed prosecutors to handle a flood of cases. Those who spoke with the Free Beacon did so anonymously for fear of career reprisals. All mentioned Descano's political ambitions.

"There wasn't a focus on the actual investigations," another former attorney said. "Rather it was what will look good or bad for a TV camera or Washington Post article."

During one particularly heated meeting over sex crime cases, Descano reportedly yelled at a prosecutor who was planning to charge a murderer with a 20-year sentence, "Fuck that. You're going to charge, at most, 15 years."

"Don't listen to victims," Descano added. "They're overly dramatic."

On March 18, the Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney's office dropped felony charges for a mother accused of shaking her two-month-old baby and causing head trauma. The assistant commonwealth's attorney tasked with the case had resigned from the office in February. Descano blamed the resignation for his office's failure to prosecute.