CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A judge’s ruling on the motion to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the review and possible reopening of the solicitation of prostitution case against a Virginia Beach pastor has revealed new criticism of Chesterfield County’s top cop and prosecutor.
Judge David Johnson submitted his 11-page ruling in Chesterfield Circuit Court on Feb. 3, appointing Brunswick County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney William R. Blaine, Jr. to decide whether to prosecute Rock Church International Pastor John Blanchard, whose charges were dropped in Oct. 2022.
Blanchard was originally arrested in Oct. 2021, along with 16 other men, in an undercover sex sting carried out by Chesterfield Police, in which detectives used a “well-known prostitution website” to communicate with potential offenders, posing as a teen girl. The majority of the cases against the other individuals moved forward with prosecution, with some defendants serving jail time.
But almost exactly one year after he was first arrested, the Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office issued the decision to nolle pros or drop the charges against Blanchard, citing a lack of evidence. However, Police Chief Jeff Katz disagreed with that assertion, releasing a statement in which he argued that the decision to nolle pros Blanchard’s case was “not due to a lack of evidence or a substandard investigation.”
On Jan. 18, following months of questioning this decision, Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport held a news conference announcing that, as a result of “new information” that was provided to her office less than 48 hours before that news conference, she would be calling for a court-appointed special prosecutor “to determine whether this case should now be prosecuted.”
Davenport did not take questions at the news conference, and her office has declined most of 8News’ requests for comment. But, according to Judge Johnson’s ruling, on Jan. 20, Davenport appeared on a radio show to discuss the case.
“This is such a mess at this point that we can’t make any decisions,” she said. “That’s why I decided that a special prosecutor should get involved.”
The judge’s ruling showed that Davenport originally intended for the City of Waynesboro Commonwealth’s Attorney David Ledbetter, or his designee, to be the special prosecutor on Blanchard’s case. But, in response, Judge Johnson wrote, “The Court declines to accept the appointment recommendation made by the Commonwealth’s Attorney in her motion. If the Commonwealth’s Attorney is so situated that she cannot make a prosecutorial decision, she most assuredly cannot decide who will make that decision.”
In her motion to request a special prosecutor, Davenport wrote, “The politicization of this case creates an appearance of a conflict of interest for this office.” While Judge Johnson asserted that there was no conflict of interest, he did note Davenport’s concern that there could be an appearance of such conflict.
“What the Commonwealth’s Attorney asserts is an ethical bar to her making a prosecutorial decision appears to this Court to be the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s unwillingness to make a controversial prosecutorial decision,” the judge said. “This matter presents one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to our system of justice: the transformation of the sober and serious investigation of guilty into a grotesque media carnival.”
In his ruling, Judge Johnson went on to assert that “trials should be conducted in courts of law, not in courts of public opinion,” and that both Davenport and Katz jeopardized faith in the justice system through the manner in which they provided public comment on Blanchard’s case and how it was handled.
“This is not a challenge to the right of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, the Chief of Police, or any other member of the community to exercise their respective rights pursuant to the First Amendment of the Constitution,” the judge said. “If both the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Chief of Police had refrained from making any public comments, then when the Chief of Police produced new evidence to the Commonwealth’s Attorney, she would have, by her own admission, been able to make a decision.”
In Dec. 2022, Blanchard’s attorney filed to have the records of his client’s arrest and relevant investigation expunged, or sealed from public view. That expungement case is still playing out. But on Feb. 10, court documents showed that Brunswick County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney William R. Blaine, Jr. — the same special prosecutor appointed to examine new evidence and determine whether the solicitation of the prosecution case against Blanchard should be reopened — was also assigned to the expungement case.
“It is shocking that an officer of the law would direct discontent to any other public office. This inappropriate — some might say reckless — language is subject to potentially dangerous interpretation. Certainly the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s public comment sparked the Chief’s response. But words have meaning,” Judge Johnson wrote. “The public one-upmanship displayed by the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Chief of Police was as unbecoming as it was irresponsible.”
Katz told 8News he is grateful Judge Johnson ruled in a way that would allow for the case to be seen inside of a courtroom.
“Through this order, he and he alone has re-activated the wheels of justice that had been frozen by the CA’s decision to set these charges aside,” Katz said in a statement. “The sad irony is not lost on me that the public nature of this debate – while unfortunate – is the very thing that ultimately put this matter before Judge Johnson to remedy. He did the right thing, the just thing, and I’m thankful.”
Judge Johnson was the same justice who, in 2021, reversed the murder conviction of a suspect linked to the 2019 homicide of an 18-year-old. Both Davenport and Katz were outspoken on the matter, the former, stating that the judge chose to “substitute his own judgment” for that of a jury.