DINWIDDIE, Va. (WRIC) – A lawyer running to be Dinwiddie’s next commonwealth’s attorney was picked to fill the interim role despite having no experience prosecuting cases, drawing concerns from his opponent over his ability to lead the Irvo Otieno death case.
Jonathan Bourlier was chosen Wednesday to replace Ann Cabell Baskervill, whose resignation as Dinwiddie’s commonwealth’s attorney went into effect on June 21. He is one of two candidates vying for the permanent job in November’s general election.
In an interview, Bourlier said he didn’t have much information on what led to his appointment other than that the Dinwiddie Circuit Court Clerk’s office called his private law practice in Petersburg to tell him a court order had been entered to appoint him.
“I was appointed and asked if I would be willing to accept the appointment and I told them I would, so I didn’t have any conversations with the court prior to that,” Bourlier told 8News Thursday. “It was no real involvement from me.”
Under state code, a majority of the county’s three circuit court judges would have had to appoint Bourlier as Dinwiddie’s interim commonwealth’s attorney after the petition was submitted.
He admitted he has no experience prosecuting cases and “not a lot” of experience in jury trials. Bourlier said he interned with the Appomattox County’s commonwealth’s attorney but as a law student, he was not allowed to practice law.
“I don’t have any experience prosecuting cases. Years of defending them, which obviously in order to defend the case you have to know what you have to be proved,” Bourlier said. “So that’s, I guess, the only true experience I’ve had with that.”
The order filed in Dinwiddie Circuit Court shows that the county attorney, Tyler C. Southhall, informed the court that the county’s Board of Supervisors voted for a petition to be filed requesting that no special election be held and that Bourlier be appointed to serve in the interim role.
Dinwiddie’s two new assistant commonwealth’s attorneys were not selected for the position after the court concluded “that no presently employed full-time assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney is qualified to vote for and hold the office,” according to the order obtained by 8News.
Amanda Mann, Bourlier’s opponent in the Nov. 7 general election, told 8News she’s “deeply concerned” about the lack of transparency of the decision. She stressed that she wasn’t questioning the court’s order, but voiced concern over Bourlier’s lack of experience.
“I wasn’t told anything about it or given a heads up,” Mann said Thursday. “I’m very concerned and our citizens should be too. I still need to find out the how and why of it all, but I can’t change it.”
Bourlier will take over the Irvo Otieno murder case, a high-profile case that has gained national attention, until at least January 2024. He told 8News he’s getting more familiar with the Otieno case, but that he hasn’t had much time since being appointed Wednesday.
“The way that I view it and that our staff does is that it is as important as any other case but especially any other case where there’s a life that’s been lost,” Bourlier said. “I don’t feel any winner in the tragedy at all and certainly not in this case.”
Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man, died on March 6 after he was pinned down by Henrico sheriff’s deputies and others while being admitted to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie.
The state medical examiner’s office concluded Otieno died of “positional and mechanical asphyxia with restraints” and ruled his death a homicide. Seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and three Central State Hospital personnel were initially charged with second-degree murder in his death.
On Tuesday – Baskervill’s last day on the job – charges were dropped against two of the hospital staffers. Baskervill said in a statement that dropping the two cases “ensures that the strongest possible case goes to trial.”
“It’s going to be a top priority to review quickly and be more familiar with the situation and to be able to look over all those things and move forward with it in a way that’s appropriate for the victim and for the family of the victim as well as for the accused to have their opportunity to have a day in court if that’s where it proceeds,” Bourlier added.
Attorneys for Otieno’s family did not respond to requests for comment about the dropped charges and Bourlier’s appointment.
Mann claimed that Bourlier has “zero” experience with jury trials and that she’s worried about his ability to try the Otieno case and other criminal cases.
“The defendants in the case have heavy hitters representing them,” she told 8News. “Check his firm’s Facebook page, he’s listed as a family and divorce lawyer.”
Bourlier described his practice as a “general practice” firm, saying he has tried criminal cases that have had potential consequences as high as life in prison. While he said he doesn’t have a lot of jury trial experience, Bourlier pushed back against Mann’s claims that he has zero experience with jury trials.
“First, I’d like to say that Mrs. Mann is a person that I’ve long considered a friend. However, she is flatly incorrect that I have ‘zero’ experience with jury trials,” Bourlier wrote in a text responding to Mann’s reaction. “I am unsure what concerns Mrs. Mann may have over the transparency of the process. I was not involved in the process the Court used outside of stating my willingness to be appointed when asked.”
He added that when Baskervill took a medical leave of absence last year that he sent a letter to the court informing it he would be willing to step up if there was a vacancy, but Baskervill returned and that came before he announced his campaign for the office.
Bourlier lost to Baskervill in Dinwiddie’s 2015 commonwealth’s attorney’s race as a write-in candidate. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the last-minute challenge from Bourlier came after Baskervill faced backlash for publicly rebuking the county’s sheriff’s use of the n-word during an interrogation.
Bourlier said he has to dissolve and close his private practice within 30 days, a process that he told 8News is underway. 8News has reached out to every member of the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors for this story but has yet to receive a response.