BLUEFIELD — Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler is being challenged for the Republican nomination for the office by Bluefield attorney Brian Cochran.
The Primary Election, set for June 9, will determine who will be prosecutor for the next four-year term, which starts Jan. 1, 2021, since no Democratic candidate filed to be on the ballot in November.
Both candidates visited the Bluefield Daily Telegraph last week to answer questions from members of the editorial board.
Sitler, who is from Bramwell, was elected in 2016 after serving as assistant prosecutor since 2005. His experience covers 23 years, starting in the public defenders office in 1997 and eventually working as a magistrate and reaching the status of chief assistant prosecutor before being elected to his current position.
Cochran lives in Princeton and is an attorney with the Bluefield firm of Brewster Morhous.
An attorney for 13 years, Cochran was also the City of Bluefield’s attorney for several years.
He was a West Virginia State Trooper for 11 and a half years in Southern West Virginia, including in McDowell County for five years and in Nicholas County, before obtaining a law degree and moving to Mercer County.
He was also a city police officer in Grafton and a deputy sheriff.
Cochran said he has thought of being a prosecutor for several years and thinks this is the time to run for the office.
“I think we have to be more effective in prosecuting drug dealers,” he said of his motivation to run. “I think we have to be more effective in communicating with police officers in building these cases from the ground up so we can have successful prosecutions.”
He also said he has also been concerned about how sexual abuse cases are handled.
“As a father, I have been concerned about the effectiveness” of the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases,” he said, pointing out a plea agreement in an “egregious” case that was “unacceptable.”
Cochran also said law enforcement officers “have a difficult time communicating with the prosecutor’s office about their cases,” especially related to drug cases.
Sitler said he is running for reelection because of his “desire to assist law enforcement in securing justice.”
A father of three daughters, Sitler said his “experience raising them has given me a special passion for crimes against children,” and he has secured sentences for criminals in these cases that amount to hundreds of years.
“What it takes to be an effective prosecutor is experience,” he said, especially the “special kind of experience” to work with traumatized victims.
Working with the public defender’s office taught him skill sets “to get the best results,” he said, adding that he also has “very much enjoyed the relationships I have with law enforcement officers.”
“I have seen every aspect of the criminal justice system,” he said, having tried about 175 felonies. “I am the only candidate in this race with any felony trail experience. I hope to continue my service to Mercer County.”
Sitler also responded to a question about how he has handled drug cases in working with the Drug Task Force.
Since he has been in office, he said, he has indicted 288 felony drug cases in Mercer County with “almost all of them resulting in a felony conviction.”
Sitler said he had recently spoken to the head of the Drug Task Force and asked him if he had any problems about how the prosector’s office was handling drug cases and the answer was, “No, not that I am aware of.”
Sitler said he asked if there were any cases that presented concerns and he was given a list of 28 out of the 288.
Of those cases, Sitler said, 10 of them had no drug lab results yet, and 10 of them had documented communications with multiple assistance prosecutors and with the probation officer.
Sitler said he spoke with the officers involved in those cases and was told they “are pleased with what we are doing.”
“Not every result is perfect,” he said. “Not every result is mutually agreed upon but we do have a consultation process.”
Stiler said he had spoken with several members of the Task Force who told him they had some problems historically with the prosecutor’s office but they are “much happier with the way my office handles these cases.”
Any case that is resolved without a trial is a “collaborative decision-making process,” he said, involving the investigating officer, the assistant prosecutor and the probation officer.
Sitler said in the future he will subpoena the investigating officers to the sentencing hearings to make sure “there is no danger of miscommunication.”
Cochran explained his lack of experience in trying felony cases.
“I have made a choice not to represent criminals,” he said. “I just don’t do it. I have never been (worked) in a county prosecuting attorney’s office. I have tried cases in municipal court (as the Bluefield city attorney) and as a trooper I have investigated from day one murder cases, child sexual assault cases, any type of cases that you can think of and worked that case up and prepared that case for trial and sat in weeklong trials…”
Cochran said he has had “much experience” with felony jury trials from a law enforcement standpoint.
“I have not as a lawyer tried a felony case because, number one, I don’t represent criminals and, number two, I have not been a prosecutor in a prosecutor’s office.”
Cochran said he has tried jury trials, though, from a civil perspective and criminal perspective, but they were not felonies.
When asked about what each thinks is the most significant criminal threat facing residents in Mercer County, both said drug-related crimes.
“Violent crimes from individuals who are hyped up on methamphetamine in Mercer County due to the significant amount of drugs being sold throughout this county,” Cochran said of the greatest threat.
Sitler said he agrees that violent crime related to drugs is the most significant problem.
“That is why I worked with Del. (John) Shott to increase the penalty for methamphetamine,” he said, a bill which passed and will become law after signed by Gov. Jim Justice. The bill raises the penalty from one to five years in prison to two to 10 years.
Sitler said he had asked for a three to 15-year penalty but it was “compromised down” in the legislature to the two to 10.
Sitler said he has also worked with the legislature on restricting the availability of prescription narcotics, which were the dominant problem before, pointing out the Opioid Reduction Act that incorporated several of his suggestions.
Opiates are much less available on the street now, he said, but meth has “moved in to fill that gap.”
Cochran said investigating officers involved in criminal cases, especially with drugs, should be part of the entire process and plea agreements should be avoided if possible.
“To me, we have to attack the source of the drug dealers,” Cochran said, and all 288 that who were indicted that Sitler referred to need to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and some of the plea agreements, from what I understand, are being reduced down … It really does not make any difference what the penalty for methamphetamine is if we are not at least making them plea to that the charge. If we are reducing that charge to a different type of drug and that is what the judge hears when it comes before him, then we are basically putting the judge in a box by making him sentence the drug dealer based on the plea agreement and what the plea agreement says that he did.”
Having the investigating officers at the sentencing hearing would be an “excellent idea,” he said. “The judge needs to hear the state’s position, not just the criminal’s lawyers’ position.”
Sitler said the judge is “always informed of the entire police report as part of the pre-sentencing process and he’s always aware of the total counts in the indictment” and of any plea that changes the number of counts. “He is always aware of those things.”
Sitler said the judge is also notified of the “full extent” of the criminal’s history prior to making a sentencing decision.
“All of that is already a routine part of the handling of a criminal disposition,” he said.
Both said establishing and maintaining a good relationship with law enforcement is an important part of the prosecutor’s office function.
Cochran said it is “absolutely vital” that the law enforcement officers trust the prosecutor’s office with their cases.
“You have to have the respect, the cooperation and the communication with your law enforcement officers,” he said. “If you don’t, you are going to have a very difficult time pursuing that case all the way through to a successful prosecution.”
Cochran said in his experience he has always had a good relationship with law enforcement and has been endorsed by the Troopers Association as well as the Mercer County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the Bluefield Fraternal Order of Police.
Cochran said he understands that a prosecuting attorney and law enforcement officers will not agree all of the time.
“But what these guys want is for you to communicate with them before plea deals are made,” he said. “They want you to explain why, in your opinion, that a plea agreement is in the best interest of the public and that is something I am positive I will do if I am elected.”
“I certainly agree it’s important to have the trust of law enforcement officers,” Sitler said. “And I do have the trust of the law enforcement officers that I have worked with in bringing cases to successful conclusions. There have been exceptions. There have been law enforcement officers who have disagreed with things I have done. That’s a natural by-product of handling thousands of felony cases.”
While that trust and mutual support is important, Sitler also said law enforcement officers have to “respect the integrity of the decision-making process and they have to respect the fact that, ultimately, it is the job of the prosecutor to pursue the public’s justice and not always to back everything that a law enforcement officer says.”
Sitler said there is always room for improvement in the communication and trust but “by and large law enforcement officers are involved in every stage of the decision-making process.”
Sitler also said an endorsement from an organization does not mean “universal” support and that he knows law enforcement officers who support him who did not have the opportunity to vote on any endorsement.
Each candidate made a closing statement.
“I do have jury trial experience,” Cochran said. “I know what it takes to put a case together and put it in front of a jury and that is what I will do.”
“I think it’s important for the public to base their decision on who to choose as prosecuting attorney on the relevant experience the candidate brings to the table,” Sitler said. “My opponent admits that he has never tried a felony case in front of a jury and I have tried over 170 of them. In order for this job to be done properly it needs to be done by somebody who knows the complexities.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org.