Q&A with the candidates for Smyth County Commonwealth’s Attorney

Gun Rights

When voters cast their ballot in the Nov. 7 general election, for Smyth County Commonwealth’s Attorney, they’ll have a choice between Phillip “Bucky” Blevins, a Republican, and Paul Morrison, a Democrat. They are vying to replace longtime Commonwealth’s Attorney Roy Evans, who plans to retire at the year’s end.

County commonwealth’s attorneys, who are the senior prosecutor for a locality, serve four-year terms.

In order to help voters make their decision, the News & Messenger presented identical questions to the candidates, limiting their individual question responses to 250 words. In cases where they exceeded that limit, their responses were edited. Otherwise, editing was limited to correcting obvious typos.

Phillip “Bucky” Blevins

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Please share your education, professional, civic experience, and other background that you would like voters to know.

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From running to emergencies instead of away from them as a Firefighter and EMT, to standing up for children as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, to defending our freedom as an Air Force officer, I have been preparing to be our Commonwealth’s Attorney my entire life.

Over the course of my legal career, I have prosecuted crimes of all types in federal, military, and state court – ranging from petit larceny, to crimes against children and women, to murder. I have also defended those accused of crimes and provided real time guidance to combatant commanders as a military lawyer in a combat zone.

I am guided by the principles of servant leadership and grounded by faith, humility, and gratitude. I am a graduate of Smyth County public schools, Virginia Highlands Community College, UVa-Wise, Appalachian School of Law, and The University of Missouri School of Law.

In the community, I serve as a fireman at Adwolfe Volunteer Fire Department and as Post Judge Advocate at both the VFW and American Legion Posts. I am also a member of the Masonic Lodge and the National Rifle Association. I work to pay my blessings forward by serving on the College Board of UVa-Wise and teaching law part time at Appalachian School of Law. I am blessed to be married to my best friend, Katie Jo. Together, we have two young boys, Noah and Lucas. We are proud members of the Chilhowie Baptist Church.

Why are you seeking this office?

As a former Air Force lawyer, Special Assistant United States Attorney, and current state court prosecutor, I have unique experiences and fresh ideas to reduce and prayerfully prevent crime.

I went to law school to protect others, stand up for those without a voice, and to put bullies in their place. Serving as Smyth County’s top prosecutor is an opportunity to protect and serve the community that built me – but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to make this community safer and better for my two young boys.

After traveling across most of the U.S. and a lot of the world, I can attest to the fact that there is no place like home. I served just shy of six years in the Air Force, and not a day went by without me thinking of our home nestled in the mountains of Southwest Virginia – now, not a day goes by that I don’t think about keeping it safe.

In law school, I served as an intern in this very office three separate times. I kept coming back because I was called and led to this work. Nothing is more rewarding than fighting for justice. I am seeking this office because I want to move Smyth County forward. To protect our community by unapologetically prosecuting violent offenders such as child molesters, rapists, and murders to the full extent of the law; to stand up for victims and those without a voice; and to make our communities safer by locking up drug dealers.

The issue of plea bargains has been prevalent in this election. How would you decide which cases merit a plea bargain versus going to trial?

Simply put, some cases must be heard by a jury of Smyth County residents. Cases such as violent crimes with victims who are willing to testify. However, in recent years, the legislature has stripped juries of their ability to sentence a defendant. So the only benefit to demanding jury trials on behalf of the Commonwealth is to send a message to others: if they commit a similar offense, then a jury trial is the result. Trials without a jury, also referred to as bench trials, are effective tools to accomplish the same result.

Our partner law enforcement agencies across the County are highly trained professionals committed to excellence. In my years of working with federal agents, I can unequivocally say that most of our town and county officers leave no stone unturned. When faced with a mountain of evidence, professional law enforcement officers, and iron clad cases, defendants plead guilty without an agreement. No Commonwealth’s Attorney can prevent an accused from pleading guilty without an agreement.

Conversely, justice demands in certain cases that a plea agreement be made. These cases are those in which a victim does not wish to face his or her assailant in court or to re-live their traumatic experience. I am particularly sensitive to victims and understand that when they take the stand against their wishes, irreparable damage could result.

When faced with a difficult decision, the first thing I do is pray. Thereafter, I consult trusted advisors and community partners.

How do you envision your relationship with local law enforcement?

I am incredibly humbled to have the support of our law enforcement partners and proud to be the “Law Enforcement Candidate.” I understand that most of the crime that occurs in Smyth County isn’t between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.

When I accepted my current position as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney 14 months ago, the first thing I did was immerse myself in the field. I have witnessed the execution of multiple search warrants, went undercover with narcotics agents, and ridden along with each law enforcement agency several times. I have a profound respect for the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way, miss family functions, and selflessly work to protect our way of life. I am proud to consider myself as part of Smyth County’s law enforcement team and that will not change after November.

Every officer, to include troopers, conservation officers, deputies, and town officers, has my personal cell phone number. They know that I am always a phone call or text message away – regardless of the time of day or night. Working in partnership with law enforcement is critical for the success of any case. I cannot overstate the value of witnessing a crime scene and being in the trenches with our law enforcement officers.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney, to include the staff and Deputy Attorneys, are members of the law enforcement community. Law enforcement’s success is our success and I am beyond confident we will work together as partners to reduce crime.

What else would you like voters to know?

As Smyth County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, I will work tirelessly to put victims first and criminals last, build lasting relationships with law enforcement partners, and move Smyth County forward.

My first initiative is to stand up Smyth County Works: An Alternative Sentencing Program for Non-Violent Offenders. This program allows non-violent offenders an opportunity to perform supervised community service in Smyth County instead of serving a 30-90 day jail sentence. It is projected to save the county in excess of $250,000 per year in jail costs.

Next, I am committed to establishing a preventative outreach program for high school students. This program, called “Classroom-to-Courtroom,” will convene a special setting of District Court for high school students to witness for themselves the ramifications of shoplifting, driving under the influence, and other misdemeanor offenses.

Additionally, I am dedicated to combating the mental health crisis by championing a mental health court here in Smyth County. It’s no secret that mental health issues plague our community. This court, similar to that of a drug recovery court, will give individuals in the judicial system with mental health illnesses access to medicine, counseling, and other measures designed to restore them to productive members of society.

I ask that you, the voters of our County, give me an opportunity to move us forward and to protect the community that we all love. Send criminals a message and stand with your law enforcement officers when you vote for me, Phillip Blevins, on Nov. 7th.

Paul Morrison

Please share your education, professional, civic experience, and other background that you would like voters to know.

I was born and raised in Marion. I graduated from Marion Senior High School in 1990. I then attended James Madison University, and graduated with a BBA in Marketing in 1994. I decided, while attending JMU, that I wanted to become a lawyer, and so I gained admission to West Virginia University College of Law and graduated from law school in 1998. I passed the bar exam on my first attempt, and from 1998 through 2016, I practiced law in West Virginia, focusing primarily on criminal law. I appeared in front of West Virginia’s highest court, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and had two convictions successfully overturned by that Court. In 2016, at age 44 and with 2 children under the age of 6, I decided I wanted to raise my family in Smyth County. My wife and I sold our home and property, and moved back to Smyth County with nothing more than a loan, and a prayer. We did not have jobs, and we did not have any family nearby to lean on for support as my family had long since moved away. It was challenging, but I knew in my heart that this was where we belonged. I started my own law firm in 2016, and we have been making our life here ever since. I am a member of the Marion Morning Rotary, attend Mountainview United Methodist Church, and my wife and I both have a history of coaching youth league sports teams.

Why are you seeking this office?

I am seeking the office of Smyth County Commonwealth’s Attorney because I believe in my heart that we need real change in Smyth County. In Smyth County we have had only 10 criminal jury trials over the past 15 years. What is even more disturbing is that from Jan. 1, 2018, thru the end of September of 2023, a period of 5 years and 9 months, Smyth County had only 1 criminal jury trial. Over that same time period, Wythe County had 10 criminal jury trials, and Washington County had 28 criminal jury trials. The message this sends to criminals is this: Don’t hesitate to commit a crime in Smyth County, because they never take cases to trial, and they will make you a really good plea offer. My opponent is currently an assistant Commonwealth Attorney, and a lifelong friend of Mr. Evans. Mr. Blevins will most certainly continue utilizing the same policies and procedures. As a father to two young children, I want Smyth County to be a safer place. As a citizen, I am tired of seeing the same Defendants continue to commit crimes.

The issue of plea bargains has been prevalent in this election. How would you decide which cases merit a plea bargain versus going to trial?

Our current system of justice cannot operate without plea bargains. If every single Defendant went to trial, we would literally have jury trials all day every single day of the week, and still not be able to keep up with the volume of cases. The Commonwealth Attorney must rely upon their experience and judgment when deciding which cases merit offering a plea agreement. There are several factors that must be considered, including, but not limited to: the nature of the crime, the criminal history of the Defendant, the strength of the Commonwealth’s evidence if the case does ultimately go to trial, and the feelings of the victim and their family. Those Defendants with little or no criminal history are much more likely to receive a more lenient plea offer than are those Defendants with a long history of violating the law. The impact the crime has on the victim and our community should be evaluated as well. Defendants convicted of violent crimes, selling drugs repeatedly, or crimes against our churches should all receive jail time.

How do you envision your relationship with local law enforcement?

The relationship between a prosecuting attorney and law enforcement is a critical component of the criminal justice system, and it should be characterized by cooperation, professionalism, and ethical standards. While both parties share a common goal of upholding the law and ensuring justice, it is essential to maintain a clear distinction between their roles and responsibilities. This is an area where my opponent and I disagree. A Commonwealth Attorney cannot be friends or buddies with the police officers. A close personal relationship with an officer could potentially cloud his judgment if the conduct of an officer becomes an issue. My opponent has 3 active police officers on his campaign election committee. Those 3 officers regularly attend his campaign events, wear his t-shirts, and hand out his campaign materials. If one of those officers is involved in any type of controversy how can Mr. Blevins remain fair and impartial to our citizens? Our citizens must believe in our Commonwealth Attorney, and if a complaint is filed against an officer, our citizens must have faith that their Commonwealth Attorney will impartially investigate the matter, and not just sweep it under the rug due to a personal relationship. Close personal relationships between a Commonwealth Attorney and the local police force create the image of a “good old boy network” which perpetuates selective justice based upon who you are, and not the merits of what actually may or may not have happened.

What else would you like voters to know?

After moving home and starting my own law firm in 2016, I was approached by the Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library. The members of that organization were upset because the Smyth County Board of Supervisors conducted illegal closed door meetings to dissolve our regional library system. I took the case, and I brought a lawsuit against the Smyth County Board of Supervisors and Michael Carter, the County Administrator. The battle that ensued took nearly 2 years to complete, and the case ended up in Richmond at the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Supreme Court sided with the Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library, and the lawsuit changed the way our Board of Supervisors conducted business. From that point forward, the business of the Board of Supervisors has been open to the public, and not decided behind closed doors. Suing some of the most powerful people in the County was not a good financial move for my law practice, but it was the right thing to do. I can promise the citizens of Smyth County that if I am elected as the next Commonwealth Attorney, I will stand up for what is right and just regardless of who is involved.

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