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Public defender announces commonwealth's attorney bid

Ray Szwabowski of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office announced Friday that he will seek the Democratic nomination for Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney.

On the brisk afternoon, Szwabowski made his announcement from the steps of Charlottesville Circuit Court. Flanked by his wife, Molly Minturn, he delivered a short speech to a few reporters.

Szwabowski highlighted his experience as a public defender helping those in need of an attorney get their day in court. It was that experience that led him to seek public office, he said, citing a criminal justice system that he believes too often criminalizes those in need of mental health or addiction assistance.

“For too long this city has been waiting for criminal justice reform and that change has been slow to come,” he said. “We’re done waiting. Charlottesville deserves a commonwealth’s attorney who is willing to re-examine the entire criminal court system from top to bottom and affect real change where it is needed.”

Charlottesville has a deep well of creativity and resources, Szwabowski said, and the community can come together to find solutions to homelessness, addiction and mental health that does not involve incarceration.

Inspired by the recent racial justice and political movements spurred by the death of George Floyd, Szwabowski said now is the time to push for criminal justice reform because “we may not have the same momentum four years from now.”

Szwabowski also cited personal experiences with the criminal justice system he had as a child when a close relative received a federal prison sentence.

“I grew up seeing the hidden cost of incarceration: the expensive phone calls, the constant need to send money for basic necessities like a toothbrush,” he said. “But most importantly, I felt the pain and anxiety of knowing a loved one was in a place that wasn’t safe.”

According to a news release from his campaign, after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Spanish and Foreign Affairs, Szwabowski stayed in Charlottesville to work as a Spanish-speaking sales representative and then returned to UVa to earn his law degree in 2015.

While in law school, Szwabowski volunteered at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office and accepted a position at the office after graduation.

The position of Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney is currently held by Joe Platania, who was elected in 2017.

Platania was among the original attorneys at Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender’s Office in 1999 before joining the Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Office in 2003.

Platania defeated attorney Jeff Fogel in a June 2017 primary and ran unopposed in the general election succeeded his former boss, Dave Chapman, who opted not to seek re-election.

During his term as commonwealth’s attorney Platania has overseen various high profile trials, including the prosecution of Unite the Right car attacker James Alex Fields Jr., who was sentenced to life in prison plus 419 years in 2019.

Platania has not yet announced whether he plans to seek re-election.

“My current focus is on three active murder prosecutions and a recent violent sexual assault,” Platania said following Szwabowski’s announcement. “I anticipate making a formal announcement related to my re-election plans at the appropriate time.”

If Platania opts to seek re-election, then he and Szwabowski will face off in a Democratic primary on June 8.


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