In an interview on January 23, Pocahontas County Prosecuting Attorney Eugene Simmons and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Robert Martin described the goals they want their office to achieve in 2014. Foremost among those goals is improved cooperation between local law enforcement agencies.
“We’d like to have more and better cooperation between the State Police and the county deputies,” Simmons said. “We’ve been working on that this year and it hasn’t been very successful – not completely. The prosecuting attorney is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. That’s our job.”
Simmons said the lack of cooperation has become a serious problem.
“They don’t speak to each other,” he said. “There’s no cooperation between all of them.”
Martin said a recent move to improve relations had shown success.
“We’ve appointed [Chief Deputy] David Walton from the Sheriff’s Department as a liaison between the two departments, to try and increase communication and cooperation between the two departments,” he said. “I think that’s worked. I think that’s gone a long way to helping out in that regard – just increasing the communication and the coordination between the two branches.
“Right after that was done, there was a joint arrest/raid, that was one of the Sheriff’s Department’s cases. They contacted our office and they needed some help and we got the State Police involved. The State Police were right there, Johnny-on-the-spot, to help and they did that together. It was a very successful raid from a law enforcement perspective, and it was a successful raid from our perspective, because the two agencies worked together so well. Right after Gene made the appointment, there were some immediate, positive results.”
Simmons said the quality of officers is not a problem.
“We think we have outstanding officers,” he said. “The State Police and the deputy sheriffs are outstanding individuals – each better in their own field. The State Police are probably better trained to do investigations. The deputy sheriffs are out in the field, know the people better, probably, than the State Police. We want them to work together.”
Simmons said continued aggressive prosecution of drug cases is another top priority.
“We want to work harder on drug cases because, basically, all the problems in Pocahontas County go back to drugs,” he said. “Our child abuse, our neglect, they all go back to drugs. Over the first year, we’ve done a real good job, insofar as making it more difficult to sell drugs in Pocahontas County.”
“All of it stems from the drugs,” he said. “Spousal/significant other abuse, the child abuse, the petty thievery, the breaking and enterings – all that goes back to the drugs, pretty much. At least 95 percent of it does.”
Simmons said his third goal is to divert deserving defendants to the drug court program – a task he found difficult during his first year in office.
“Because of the lack of convictions over the past few years, we felt it was necessary that we send some people to the penitentiary, and we’ve done that,” he said. “We think that we can probably back off of that a little bit now and maybe we can put more people into drug court now, because it’s cheaper for the county for an individual to be in drug court or in day report than it is to be in the penitentiary.”
Martin said a change in mindset among local drug defendants was needed.
“We’ve gotten some grief from the powers that be, over not sending enough people to drug court,” he said. “But we felt there had been such an abuse with drug court before – we’ve even been told by defense attorneys and by defendants, ‘If I get busted for selling some drugs, I’ll just go to drug court,’ and, ‘I won’t go to jail for that.’ So we had to change that mindset.
“It’s supposed to be an intermediate step to, number one, cut down on the cost and the overcrowding of the prison. But, number two, it’s to give people who are deserving a second chance. We found that the vast majority of the people who were taking advantage of drug court were basically playing the system. The only reason they were there is they didn’t want to go to prison and they didn’t want a felony conviction. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a genuine desire by the person to improve themselves and get away from the drugs and get their life back on track. There are people out there who are deserving of that, but it’s been harder to find them because of the way the system’s been previously abused.”
Despite the need to deal with system abusers, Simmons continues to support the drug court program.
“There are people out there who can benefit by drug court,” he said. “But there are people out there who use drug court just to get out of felony cases and are not interested in getting off drugs.”
Simmons said more convictions is not necessarily his goal, because effective law enforcement could ultimately result in fewer convictions.
“We may have less convictions because we’re not having as much drug work now as we did when we first took office,” he said.
“I think we’re seeing the trend already,” added Martin. “We’re seeing progress already. We had tons of felonies when we first came into office and then the latter part of the year, those just dissipated. We’ve got a grand jury scheduled in April and we’ve got maybe two or three things to present to the grand jury, right now. Things might change between now and April, but right now, we’ve got very few presentments.”
Finally, if the State Fire Marshal’s Office reports any wrongdoing involved with the November 10 fire in Marlinton, Simmons and Martin want a successful prosecution.
“We need to solve the fire and prosecute whoever’s involved in that, if somebody’s guilty on that,” said Martin. “We need to resolve that. We’ve stayed in constant contact with the investigators and we should, hopefully, have something in the immediate future.”