9/26/2011

Tough judge: Caravati court known for harsh sentencing


Former Mayor Blake Caravati made his first appearance in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Friday, September 16, but details of the incident that led to his being charged with spousal assault on September 9 may remain cloaked until trial.
After waiting quietly in the courtroom for nearly an hour for a tardy Judge Dwight Johnson to arrive, the 60-year-old commercial contractor and prominent local Democrat, dressed in a sportcoat and slacks, was among the first called to the bench, where Charlottesville Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Elizabeth Killeen announced that, due to a conflict in her office, Greene County prosecutor Ronald Morris will handle the state's case.
If questions linger about the details of Caravati's alleged crime, his potential punishment also remains a question, and anyone familiar with Johnson's judicial record might ask– hyperbolically, one hopes– if Caravati could be the second mayor hanged for a crime against his wife.
As longtime readers of the Hook may recall, 107 years ago, Mayor Samuel McCue was hanged for the bludgeoning, strangling, and shooting death of his wife, Fannie. While Caravati isn't accused of anything so extreme– he's facing a single misdemeanor charge for assaulting his spouse– Judge Johnson once issued a sentence in another high-profile matter that shocked even the prosecution.
That was the case of Albemarle County resident Elisa Robinson, whom Johnson sentenced to eight years in prison for providing alcohol at her son's 16th birthday sleepover. At the time, those who knew Robinson– who has since divorced and changed her name to Elisa Kelly– described her as a devoted soccer mom who simply made an error in judgment.
In addition to the eight-year sentences for both Kelly and then husband George Robinson (both later reduced on appeal), the pair were perp-walked out of the courtroom in front of waiting media– adding further humiliation that, some suggested, Johnson orchestrated to deter other alcohol providers.
In the present case, however, even if Johnson, a conservative Christian, wants to throw the book at Caravati, he appears limited by statute, which sets the maximum possible sentence at 12 months behind bars and a $2,500 fine.
Even that, however, would be extreme for a first offense, says legal analyst David Heilberg, who points out that the state explicitly offers first-time offenders in violence against a family member an alternative to standard punishment: anger management classes or other counseling and a two-year probation, after which the charges may be dismissed.
Heilberg says he doubts Johnson would single anyone out for harsher punishment unless there were some aggravating fact.
"He has these cases all the time, and he's pretty consistent," says Heilberg. "If the Commonwealth agrees, and it's a first-time offender, he usually offers a deferral."
If Caravati's worried about Johnson's sentencing history, he's not saying. He remained in the courtroom for at least 30 minutes following the hearing, forcing some reporters on deadline to leave without questioning him. His attorney, Sheila Haughey, however, suggests the media should just ignore the case.
The Caravati family, "has obviously hit a rough patch," says Haughey. "Let's leave them alone."
The trial is scheduled for Friday, October 21, in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

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