Last week, Pat Jones narrowly defeated Assistant D.A. Gary Maxwell to succeed Doug Valeska as the next Houston County, Alabama, District Attorney. Pat Jones won after having briefly worked as an assistant D.A. under Doug Valeska from 1998 to 2000, and then in private practice. Valeska, who has headed the office since being elected in 1987, opted not to run for another term.

The Houston County District Attorney’s office, led by Valeska, earned a reputation for seeking “grossly excessive” and disproportionate punishments whenever possible.

In one case, Valeska charged Roderick Dewayne Ware for felony possession of marijuana under Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act, despite the fact that both of Ware’s priors were also for felony possession of marijuana. The Habitual Offender Act calls for a “sentence of 15 to 99 years or life in prison for each charge.” Because of the new Alabama sentencing guidelines, Ware received eight years in prison.

In another case involving a juvenile, Valeska stated, “Nothing happens to them in the juvenile court so they’re not worried [about following the law.]” The young man in question, who had a prior robbery conviction, ended up with a 27 year sentence, despite the fact that he was unarmed and was charged with stealing low-value items from a video rental store.

Valeska also received a bar complaint this month from a former Alabama State Supreme Court justice for having deliberately or recklessly given false statements to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole to justify keeping ReNaul Johnson in prison. Johnson was given 50 years for an assault on a school principal. The principal was not hospitalized for her injuries. The altercation occurred because he was angry that the principal decided to paddle his 5-year-old nephew for misbehavior at school. At the parole hearing, Valeska claimed that “the injuries…were serious and that Johnson had slammed [the principal’s] head off the wall and into metal lockers.” However, the evidence in the case showed that there were no lockers where the altercation had taken place.

Valeska was a strong proponent of the death penalty. Upset about difficulties of obtaining execution drugs from Europe, Valeska said, “Get big yellow mamma back. Get them back in the electric chair and electrocute them.”

Courts have also found that Valeska regularly struck Black jurors from juries in capital cases; this misconduct resulted in a civil rights lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed because of the lack of a statutory private right of action. Under Valeska’s tenure from 1995 to 2008, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, “sixteen people were sentenced to death in Houston County — a 1600% increase over the previous two decades.”

Jones now has an opportunity to determine the future of the Houston County District Attorney’s office, though his past actions and comments suggest that he may be more similar to Valeska than not.

In an interview in February of this year, Valeksa voiced support for sending juveniles to prison for life without parole sentences, saying that they “did not need to be back on the street if convicted.”  

Like his predecessor, Jones also supports the death penalty despite the fact that public support is declining. Unlike Valeska, though, Jones has never tried a capital case.

Pat Jones now has chance to lead the Houston County District Attorney’s office away from a past tarnished by overzealous prosecution and misconduct. Let’s hope that Jones will be more interested in seeking justice than retaining the status quo.