CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield’s top prosecutor has asked a circuit court judge to recuse herself from a murder trial set for April, citing concerns from the victim’s children and ongoing tensions between the judge and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport filed a motion requesting that Circuit Judge Lynn Brice step aside from presiding over the high-profile case of a man charged in the presumed murder of Linda Lunsford in 1996, claiming Lunsford’s children have expressed concerns over Brice’s impartiality.

Davenport cites the media attention that the case and Brice’s reappointment interview received after state Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) asked the judge about two encounters with Chesterfield’s Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jennifer Nesbitt last November.

Sen. Morrissey asked Brice to provide her version of the incidents during her Dec. 10 judicial reappointment interview in front of the House Courts of Justice and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Morrissey then asked Nesbitt to recount the encounters in a summary that was shared with lawmakers five days later and eventually became public.

Davenport wrote in her Feb. 14 motion that Brice’s recollection and Nesbitt’s summary “directly conflict with one another.”

“Members of the Virginia General Assembly appear to be considering these now public conflicting statements in connection with the reappointment of the presiding judge,” Davenport wrote.

In January, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to remove Brice’s name from a list of judicial reappointments. Complaints about Brice’s professionalism from a court clerk, her alleged statements in court and the interactions with Nesbitt were all brought up during the Dec. 10 interview.

In Nesbitt’s five-page summary, which was obtained by 8News, she claims Brice directed her to take off her mask in court on Nov. 17 because she had a hard time understanding her and was concerned about preserving the court record.

Nesbitt wrote that her child had recently been hospitalized with a respiratory illness and she did not feel comfortable removing her mask in the crowded courtroom.

“Due to my discomfort in discussing my personal life in a full and public courtroom, I explained that my unwillingness to remove my mask while sharing counsel table was ‘for the safety of my children,'” Nesbitt wrote in her summary.

But Brice said she was not aware of the situation, a detail Nesbitt acknowledges in her summary, telling lawmakers the prosecutor said she couldn’t remove her mask in court “for personal reasons.”

Nesbitt said she was not allowed to present her cases that day and Brice denied her request for a recess so she could bring another prosecutor up to speed on the cases. “I was dismissed and prevented from executing my duties because I felt necessary to wear my mask,” she wrote.

The next day, Brice asked Nesbitt to see her in her chambers. Nesbitt wrote she asked Davenport to join “because I wanted a witness to the conversation.” During the meeting, Nesbitt claims Brice “raised her voice aggressively” and said how she left the courtroom “was completely disrespectful.”

“I actually have the transcript of that situation because I was concerned about it. No, it didn’t…it did happen,” Brice said when Morrissey asked her if the interaction in court was contentious and led to a “yelling match” on Nov. 18. “It didn’t happen in that fashion.”

“She didn’t tell me what the problem was, but she had a mask on. Her comments were very muffled. I couldn’t understand her. I explained that to her. I explained that I also had a record to make, and I would appreciate if she would take her mask off,” Brice said during her interview. “What’s in the record and what I said to her was ‘we will miss you’ because frankly I think she does an excellent job.” 

Brice claimed she asked Nesbitt how she could accommodate her in court during the meeting in her chambers, saying they agreed that Nesbitt could speak from the court’s podium instead of sharing a table with another attorney.

“To be honest, what my comment was ‘you can stand at the backdoor with a microphone if that makes you comfortable. I just have to be able to hear you.’ There was no screaming. My secretary asked me what was that about when she left,” Brice told lawmakers.

While Nesbitt wrote that Brice “did not scream,” she noted that the judge raised her voice “in apparent hostility” in a way that people walking by the open door would be able to hear.

“Judge Brice reiterated that I had been unprofessional in court and stated that my behavior would affect my reputation with her, the bench, and the legal community in Chesterfield,” Nesbitt wrote. “I believe that she intended the statement to be threatening.”

Davenport wants a new judge to preside over the case of John Harvey Howard, a 62-year-old man charged with first-degree murder in the presumed death of Lunsford.

Howard was arrested last May, nearly 25 years after Lunsford was last seen. He was Lunsford’s former boyfriend and worked with her at a Walmart off of Midlothian Turnpike in 1996 when she disappeared.  

Lunsford, a mother of five, was reported missing in December 1996 and then presumed dead by police years later. Lunsford’s body has not been found, but Chesterfield police said in the release announcing the arrest that authorities have evidence to “bring Howard to justice.” 

Davenport and Nesbitt will both prosecute the case, which is set for a two-week trial in mid-April. Davenport wrote in her motion that Brice doesn’t know specific details in the case so a new judge could preside over the trial.

Davenport also claimed that Brice “displayed public disdain for Nesbitt” during a Feb. 11 court appearance, the first time the prosecutor was in Brice’s courtroom since last November, but did not include any additional details.

“Regardless of any actual bias or prejudice (or lack thereof) on the part of the presiding judge against a lawyer representing the Commonwealth in this matter, under these circumstances, the impartiality of the judge ‘might reasonably be questioned,'” Davenport wrote in her motion.

Judge Brice’s term will expire in December unless lawmakers make the unlikely move to reappoint her before the General Assembly session ends on March 12. She has not yet decided whether she will recuse herself from the case and efforts to reach Brice regarding her encounters with Nesbitt were unsuccessful.

Virginia’s Canons of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from making public comments on pending or impending cases. Davenport told 8News in an email that she has “no updated information to share” beyond her motion for Brice to recuse herself from the case.