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Appeals court paves way for possible Jeffrey release

Former Roanoke City Councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. may be released from jail next week with only a fraction of his fraud sentence served and could stay out until a higher court decides his appeal — months or even a year from now, his attorney said Wednesday.

Melvin Hill described an unanticipated decision from the state Court of Appeals Wednesday to grant Jeffrey bond while the court evaluates appeals stemming from his March 2022 convictions for financial crimes and two and a half year sentence.

Jeffrey, 53, also plans to try a second time to return to the council, Hill said.

Jeffrey’s incarceration began in mid-March and except for the 26 days before his sentencing in August, he’s been behind bars.

About a week ago, Hill contested Jeffrey’s immediate incarceration upon sentencing Aug. 22. In its response, the higher court called that decision an abuse of discretion by Circuit Court Judge David Carson and reversed the action.

Jeffrey is scheduled to return to a Roanoke courtroom Tuesday for a hearing, according to the decision, which a three-member panel of the appeals court signed and distributed Wednesday.

The decision was split, with two judges agreed and one opposed.

The decision calls for the suspension of the execution of the sentence at the present time. The appeals court decision also directs that a bond be set under conditions of release.

Hill expressed confidence that Jeffrey could meet whatever conditions of bond will be set. The higher court left the details up to Carson but said the bond must be “reasonable.”

The same court handed down a similar ruling in July, saying Carson abused his discretion by jailing Jeffrey upon conviction to await sentencing. Jeffrey bonded out for several weeks until Carson imposed sentence.

Prosecutors told the appeals court that Carson did not abuse his discretion but exercised his authority to decide when Jeffrey started serving time in a “mature, deliberate manner.” The prosecution quoted Carson as having explained that Jeffrey was a thrice-convicted felon whose conduct was “egregious” and “requires and deserves punishment now.” Carson also said in court on sentencing day that Jeffrey’s planned appeals of his convictions had “zero” likelihood of success.

Given his taking of money “otherwise devoted to the less fortunate citizens of this community, I do find that he is a danger to the community,” Carson said at the time. Jeffrey was ordered to pay over $200,000 in restitution related to the convictions.

Bailiffs took Jeffrey into custody after the sentencing.

Since the case began last year, the Roanoke commonwealth’s attorney’s office conducted a pair of so-far successful prosecutions against Jeffrey, a former magazine publisher who also operated a property management business. A jury convicted him of obtaining pandemic relief money for his businesses under false pretenses from the Roanoke Economic Development Authority. In addition, he pleaded no contest to embezzlement in connection with a series of transactions that prosecutors said drained money from the accounts of the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization in 2020 and 2021, while working as its property manager. Carson convicted him in that case.

Jeffrey has since appealed “everything” about those prosecutions possible to the higher court, Hill said. Preparation of a transcription of court proceedings will take “a couple of months” and rulings could take a year, Hill said.

One of the primary appeals challenges the legitimacy of the embezzlement indictment. The indictment accused Jeffrey of embezzling from the Northwest neighborhood group by name. Hill called it a “fatal” discrepancy that Jeffrey was working at the time for two housing complexes, which though they belong to the Northwest group go by different names, and allegedly stole out of their accounts.

Another appeal complains that Jeffrey was disadvantaged by a document error that resulted in a defense witness not appearing to testify for him at the trial, Hill said. Another faults Carson for refusing to postpone the sentencing at the request of Hill, who took over for Jeffrey’s trial lawyer and who said he needed more time to get ready.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey plans to continue a legal challenge to his removal from the City Council and the conduct of a special election to replace him, for which early voting is underway, Hill said.

That case challenged a decision by a different local judge declaring that, when he pleaded no contest to embezzlement and was convicted, Jeffrey forfeited his council seat under state law. The council named Anita Price as Jeffrey’s interim successor to serve through the end of this year. Election officials have meanwhile arranged for a special election to take place Nov. 8, the same date as this year’s regular council election. Republican Peg McGuire and Democrat Luke Priddy appear on the special ballot. Voters have begun casting ballots in that and another council race.

Jeffrey’s challenge on the council matter failed Sept. 20.

Next week, Hill plans to appeal that loss – also to the Virginia Court of Appeals – and request a decision before election day. Were Jeffrey to win that appeal, reversing his removal from council, it’s within the realm of possibility that that would “technically” permit his return to council, according to Hill. Countermoves possible by the city could block him, however, Hill said.

If Nov. 8 comes and goes without a higher court decision, and voters pick a permanent successor to Jeffrey, that would end Jeffrey’s bid to reclaim his former seat, Hill said.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, including schools, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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