Meet Commonwealth's Attorney James P. Fisher
James P. “Jim” Fisher has been a Virginia attorney for approximately 30 years, and is the current elected prosecutor for Fauquier County, Virginia which is located roughly 45 miles from Washington D.C.
A native of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he graduated from Stonewall Jackson Senior High School in 1981 located in Manassas, Virginia. At Stonewall, Jim was active in student government, varsity wrestling (four years), varsity football (three years). In his freshman year he completed his involvement as a long standing member of the Boy Scouts of America in which he served as Senior Patrol Leader for troop 884 ultimately attaining the rank of Eagle, scouting’s highest rank.
Jim played football at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The Shepherd Rams were in the NAIA, division I at the time, but by 1994 they would join the NCAA, division II. During College, Jim also excelled in academics. He majored in Political Science and carried a minor in Communications with a study emphasis area of public speaking. During his time at Shepherd, Jim was also an active member of the Lambda Chi Alpha national fraternity for all four years holding several leadership positions. Having volunteered and voted for Ronald Reagan as a high school senior in the fall of 1980, he later served on the college debate team as the Republican representative at Shepherd College advocating for Reagan’s re-election in 1984.
After college, Jim attended and graduated from Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio where he was a member, associate editor and published author on the school’s Law Review. His article onthe application of the death penalty to juvenile murderers correctly predicted the outcome of Stanford v. Kentucky, which was later reversed after one justice changed his mind on the issue. Jim’s article was reprinted by the National District Attorney’s Association in 1989, the year Stanford was decided. The publication of his article had been in doubt, until Jim capitulated to a supervising professor who urged that he blend a “living, breathing document” approach to the article which Jim later rejected as anathema to constitutional interpretation. Nonetheless, the article concluded that the death penalty was not prohibited in cases where juvenile murderers are concerned. This 5-4 majority was flipped in 2005 by the change of one vote on the court. Currently, juvenile murderers may not be sentenced to death for any capital offense.
During law school, Jim served as a law clerk to The Honorable Paul B. Ebert, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Prince William County, Virginia. In Ebert’s office he was able to engage in legal research for Mr. Ebert in several high profile Capital Murder cases including Commonwealth v. Roy Bruce Smith (capital murder of a Manassas Police Sergeant John D. Conner, III; a bright, successful and beloved policeman in Manassas, Virginia), and Commonwealth v. Dawud Majid MU'MIN, aka, David Michael Allen (capital murder of Mrs. Gladys Napwasky, a retail store proprietor in Eastern Prince William County, by a prison inmate assigned to a work crew with VDOT; the inmate was soon to be released on Virginia’s now abolished parole law even though he was serving a 48 year sentence for the murder and robbery of a cab driver. Pending his release on parole, someone thought was a good idea to assign him to a VDOT work crew which he abandoned in favor of walking around businesses looking for victims to either rob or rape). Smith and Mu’Min were later executed for their crimes. Working for Mr. Ebert as a law clerk was a defining time period in Jim’s career because the cases were so intense and the trials were very demanding and dramatic.
After law school, Jim landed his first full time job with the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office working for another legendary Virginia prosecutor, the Honorable Robert F. Horan, Jr. The high volume office gave Jim the unique opportunity to try numerous jury trials for both very serious and also somewhat minor crimes while he was still relatively new to the practice of law as a new attorney fresh from law school. Building on the lessons learned from Ebert in Prince William, Jim was now an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for the man that would later become the Virginia “gold standard” in criminal prosecution. In fact, Horan was the prosecutor for whom the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys would name their prestigious state-wide award in recognition of Horan’s many years of valuable service as Virginia’s leading prosecutor. From this position, Jim had a front row seat in which he could learn from Horan who, during the time, personally prosecuted such cases as Commonwealth v. Caleb D. Hughes (abduction with intent to defile 5 year old Melissa Brannen by a 24 year old groundskeeper based on FBI and VA forensic evidence of hairs, fibers along with circumstantial evidence. Melissa was never found. Hughes was sentenced to 50 years for the abduction.)
Learning from both Ebert and Horan gave Jim a great foundation on which to build an early career in prosecution in Fairfax where he tried 105 jury trials, winning all but two and suffering one hung jury that was later dismissed by the court, post-trial. The trial docket in Fairfax at the time was such that it was routine to try several jury trials in a week. Nights and weekends were necessary work in order to be successful. The job required Jim and 15 fellow assistant prosecutors to routinely cover all of the 30 courts in session each day in Fairfax, a bedroom community of Washington D.C. He handled a wide variety of criminal prosecutions ranging from sexual assault to murder to even traffic cases involving the occasional Washington Redskin who may have strayed too far from the field.
Jim also spent nearly 10 years in private practice. He worked as an associate litigation attorney for a prominent insurance & liability defense firm: Jordan, Coyne & Savits & Lopata, (now Jordan Coyne, LLP). After a stint at the Jordan Coyne firm where he learned much about civil liability practice, Jim later worked in his own practice with several partners where he represented such clients as one of the DC areas prominent condominium associations: The Rotonda. In private practice, Jim also spent several years on both the federal and state court appointed attorney list which allowed him to serve the court in cases of indigent persons involved in both criminal and civil litigation.
The private practice of law however could not replace the reward of pursing justice on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia and more particularly, those victims of crime and crime survivors who were often overlooked in the system of justice. Jim ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fauquier County in 2003 just 4 years after moving to the county from his childhood home in Manassas. He lost the election in Fauquier by 1,000 votes but promised to return and try another time for the office in the future. In the meantime, Jim was fortunate to be appointed Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney by the Honorable James E. Plowman who won a Commonwealth’s Attorney election that same year in neighboring Loudoun County. The job in Loudoun served as a tremendous opportunity to not only work in the administration of a large volume office in Northern Virginia, but also to handle and/or supervise some remarkably serious cases that accompanied Loudoun County’s rapid residential growth in the early part of the new millennium. During most of Jim’s nearly 8 years as the Loudoun Chief Deputy prosecutor, the county was the fastest growing county in the United States. Along with the growth came a wide array of challenges in the criminal justice system that were tackled by Plowman and Fisher. For example, the jurisdiction was a trash pickup away from a murder that would likely have remain unsolved when a dumpster diver found the carefully dissected remains of an Ashburn woman deposited in a dumpster inside a suitcase. A mere 20 minutes later and the dumpster contents would have been picked up and taken to an incinerator. Not all of the remains were found, but a rapid and thorough investigation resulted in the conviction of the murderer for the crime. In another murder case that Jim handled, he was convinced that the photos from the crime scene did not adequately display the distances and spatial relationships in a parking lot where the accused killer shot into an apartment window killing the victim. Jim filed and argued a motion for a jury view which, at the time, was a very rarely granted motion in Virginia. The Honorable Thomas D. Horne, trial judge, granted Jim’s motion for a jury view and ordered the sheriff’s office to arrange for the entire jury and court personnel to be escorted to the scene of the killing for an in-person view of the location where the victim was killed. The defendant was convicted and the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld Judge Horne’s careful orchestration of a jury view in a published opinion that has since been relied on by numerous courts as precedent when considering the motion for an actual jury inspection of a crime scene.
In another case, Jim handled a weeklong jury trial resulting in the conviction of a man who, obsessed with rap music and thug culture, violently burned and beat a two year old child left in his care by the mother – his girlfriend. In addition to the cases handled, Jim worked side by side with James Plowman in the reorganization of the office keeping it up to par with the logistical challenges associated with the county’s rapid transition to a large urban county. They reformed the victim-witness program, created a domestic violence prosecution program and procured new positions for additional prosecutors. In filling a large staff with good employees, they routinely engaged in nationwide as well as statewide searches to bring good senior level prosecutors to Loudoun County.
After nearly 8 years in Loudoun, the Fauquier position of elected Commonwealth’s Attorney that Jim ran for in 2003 opened up in 2011 due to a vacancy where the incumbent prosecutor was appointed to serve as a judge in the 20thjudicial district. Jim was appointed to the position of Commonwealth’s Attorney for Fauquier County by the Circuit judges in that region and continues to serve being elected by the voters of Fauquier County twice since the appointment. As the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney, Jim manages an office of 15 full time employees, 2 part time employees as well as student interns or law clerks on an occasional basis. He also continues to try cases in court.
In 2012 he was appointed to serve as special prosecutor in a troubling officer involved shooting case in an adjoining jurisdiction where the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney withdrew from the matter citing conflicts of interest. Jim decided early on that the use of a special grand jury would be an appropriate tool to uncover information concerning not only the case, but also the officer’s controversial hiring and background on the small town police force. The case resulted in conviction of the officer for manslaughter and a 3 year jail sentence. The actual convictions were for common law “voluntary manslaughter,” statutory “involuntary manslaughter” and shooting at an occupied motor vehicle. Jim’s use of cumulative homicide theories withstood appellate review of double jeopardy claims because the crimes had different elements and withstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Blockburger” double jeopardy test. Jim used the exact same theory in a subsequent homicide case in Fauquier where a delinquent debtor, claiming “accident” shot and killed a tow truck driver who was repossessing his pickup truck. That case is still on appeal on the double jeopardy issue after a 3 judge panel reversed a portion of the case.
In 2012 and 2013, Jim cemented a partnership of sorts with the local sheriff in order to bring Ronald Cloud to justice for the 1980 New Year’s Eve slaying of farm manager Brad Baker. The 32 year old cold case was renewed by Jim’s convening a special grand jury to gather new evidence and by using his office’s employee vacancy savings to hire an interrogation specialist in collaboration with then Sheriff Charlie Ray Fox who humbly pledged his full cooperation to the effort. The partnership with the Sheriff allowed the interrogation specialist to be appointed deputy sheriff for purposes of an interview which yielded a confession in the case. Though Cloud had been a suspect for years, traditional methods of investigation had long since failed and the collaboration between Commonwealth’s Attorney Fisher and Sheriff Fox broke the case open. The case brought closure to surviving family members as well as many long standing residents of Fauquier who remembered the case over the years. The case was brought in 2013 and took nearly two years to successfully litigate before the circuit court. In 2015 - 16, Jim worked alongside investigators as his office prosecuted a "craigslist" killing which exposed a little known subculture of "swingers" and the risky lifestyle they led that ultimately ended up in a murder. Perhaps the most challenging case Jim has tried thus far in Fauquier is the case of Commonwealth v. Judy K. Deal who shot her estranged husband and then attempted suicide with a gunshot wound to the head that she survived. It took four years and multiple court battles to establish that while she no doubt had suffered traumatic brain injury from the gunshot wound, she was embellishing her symptoms and had recovered to the point where she was, in fact, competent to stand trial. She ultimately was found guilty and sentenced for the murder.
One of Jim's early reforms was to apply for an accredited "facility dog" which is a specially trained service dog. The dog is trained in over 40 commands and is trained to work with victims and vulnerable court participants within the setting of a courthouse, or even during witness interviews at partnering facilities. The funding of the program comes from nonprofit dollars and only the most successful dogs are able to pass the final test on-site in order to serve in an office. Fauquier's dog, Lincoln, has now reached his third year of service working with victims and witnesses. Fauquier is the only jurisdiction in Virginia to have a local rule of court promulgated that permits the use of the dogs as an in-court companion who sits with children or other vulnerable victims such as the elderly or the infirm as they testify.
In 2008 Jim was appointed by the Virginia General Assembly to the 7 member state-wide Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission. The commission was created by the Constitution of Virginia and has a mandatory membership of three judges, two members of the Virginia Bar and two citizen members. It adjudicates ethics charges against Virginia judges in those unfortunate circumstances where a judge may have engaged in conduct that violates the cannons of ethics of Virginia such that they may be censured, removed from office or ordered into retirement. Jim served the maximum term limited time and was honored by the commission with a retirement dinner in 2016 along with several awards that recognized his service particularly as serving two successive terms as chairman of the commission. Even though term limited, he has since occasionally been recalled to service by special appointment of the Governor of Virginia in cases where a sitting member may have a conflict of interest.
Jim and his wife have been married for nearly 25 years and are members of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Warrenton, VA. They have 3 children whom they have doted on over the years making sure to be involved in most of their activities. Jim served a Warrenton Boy Scout troop for over 10 years, and sometimes continues to serve on the board of review for aspiring Eagle Scout applicants. Over the years he has coached soccer, baseball, basketball as well as girls fastpitch softball for several community leagues. He has also coached girls fastpitch softball for Marshall Middle School and Kettle Run High School’s Junior Varsity team. He maintains that staying involved with church, family and the community keeps him “sane” as well as hopeful about the future of Virginia and the United States of America.