By Megan Shaw
Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Christopher Russell became hooked on criminal law after a summer job with his second cousin, an assistant district attorney in Boulder, Colo.
“I always wanted to be prosecutor,” he said. But these days he isn’t just a prosecutor.
Russell also serves as an adjunct law professor at Washington and Lee University and a professional advocate for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
As commonwealth’s attorney, he says, he has seen an increase in economic and financial crime.
“That seems to me to have been on the rise in recent years based on what I do see in court,” he said.
Buena Vista Police Investigator J.W. Miller says that even though the numbers on property crimes are “not something kept on the records,” he, too, has noticed them happening more often.
Miller’s most recent embezzlement case involved the misappropriation of $52,000 from the BB&T in Buena Vista. Kimberly Kerr Buchanan, a Lexington resident, was charged with four counts of embezzlement and five counts of forgery. She is accused of redeeming a family member’s deposit slip and issuing checks.
Russell, a 1995 graduate of the University of Notre Dame Law School, started his career as a law clerk at Chesterfield County Circuit Court. After working as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society in Lexington, he joined the prosecutor’s office as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Lexington and Rockbridge County in 2001.
Three years later, he became commonwealth’s attorney in Buena Vista, replacing Michael Irvine. Irvine is now a Rockbridge County Circuit Court judge.
The Virginia Constitution requires that the commonwealth’s attorney prosecute misdemeanors and felony cases.
“I’m a constitutional officer,” Russell said. “I’m obligated to prosecute any crime, any felony offense.”
But it’s not easy to be a prosecutor in a town as small as Buena Vista — population slightly less than 7,000 — where it often is difficult to pick juries because “everyone knows everyone,” he said.
In such a close-knit community, Russell said, it can be hard for potential jurors to stay neutral and keep their opinions in check.
“It’s against human nature,” he said.
Sometimes, though, working in such a small town is an advantage, he said.
“Knowing everyone … knowing their backgrounds and the details is a useful thing.”
Russell said his toughest cases involve crimes committed against children. As a father of three, he said, those cases are especially heartbreaking.
“It’s always difficult for a child to be put in a very adult world … They’re the star witness,” he said. “That scary robed man standing at the front can be nice, but it isn’t an easy thing for children to share details like that.”
Lee R. Taylor, a Lexington defense attorney, knows Russell professionally. He says his measure of discretion is exceptional in court.
“It’s his thoughtfulness and professional nature in the way that he executes his approach in court,” he said. “He’s excellent.”
Russell said he and his family plan on staying in Buena Vista.
“It’s a long-term plan,” he said.