As the Capital braced for the edge of a monster storm from NOVA to New England, a ray of sunshine emerged for former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell Monday. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled McDonnell will remain free from prison, pending the conclusion of his appeal.
“[The appeal] raises a substantial question of law or fact that, ‘if decided in favor of the accused’ is ‘important enough’ to warrant reversal or a new trial,” read the court order. “The court grants appellant's motion and releases appellant on his own recognizance pending appeal.”
Oral arguments on the appeal will be heard Tues. May 12, 2015, within the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. United States Courthouse. The imposing building holds historic importance for standing in the way of a destructive fire, one that could have devastated Virginia’s Capitol during the end of the Civil War.
The judges inside may now be poised to save the former governor’s future career from conflagration, with a multitude of supporters hoping McDonnell will one day return to public service.
“I am grateful for today's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit allowing me to remain free on bond pending my appeal,” McDonnell said in a written statement. “I plan to spend time with my new granddaughter who was born this month, attend my sons' graduation ceremonies, and embrace family time with my daughters.”
“I want to thank my family, friends and legal team for their tireless support and unwavering belief in my innocence,” McDonnell continued. “At this time our family requests privacy.”
The court agreed to hear McDonnell’s appeal on an expedited schedule, with opening briefs due March 2. Response briefs have a March 26 deadline, with any replies due April 8.
“This accelerated schedule, not subject to continuance, means the Court will have briefing and argument before it breaks for the summer,” said former federal prosecutor Charles E. “Chuck” James Jr., now a defense attorney with Williams Mullen.
“Although we do not know the composition of the three judge merits panel and this ruling doesn't correlate to the ruling in a case not yet briefed or argued, this is a ray of sunshine for the defense. This was not the outcome many observers predicted.”
The judges also found the McDonnell appeal is not for the sole purpose of delaying a possible prison term, and the former governor “is not likely to flee or pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community if released.”
The order comes less than a month before former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell will be sentenced, with a prison term expected to be far less than her husband’s 24 months.
Mrs. McDonnell’s defense team has not yet released the letters of support written to U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer on her behalf. More than 440 letters submitted to Spencer asked for leniency during the former governor’s sentencing.
Within the trove of letters, few have kind words for the former first lady, with the notable exception of a letter from Rev. Wayne L. Ball – the Richmond priest with whom the former governor now lives.
During his January sentencing, McDonnell asked Spencer to grant mercy first to his wife. Similar sentiments are echoed in Ball’s letter, saying that Mrs. McDonnell did not understand that her actions may have been improper.
“I ask first for Maureen,” Ball writes. “Even today I look at her and the words of Jesus from the cross come to mind, ‘Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.’”
“A basic principle of moral theology is that a human act requires operation of the intellect and the will,” Ball continues. “I am certain beyond any doubt that she did not and does not understand. I ask that you look not only to her punishment, but to her healing.”
Monday's order clears the way for McDonnell to appear with his family during Mrs. McDonnell's sentencing, set for Feb. 20 in Richmond.