Judge disqualifies Plants, his office, from prosecuting certain cases

Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants comments about the Charles March sentencing Thursday at Kanawha County Circuit Court. Bob Wojcieszak/Daily Mail FILE PHOTO 01/31/13

A circuit judge has disqualified Kanawha Prosecutor Mark Plants and his office from prosecuting hundreds of cases involving children.

The order, entered Wednesday afternoon, said Plants’ office is disqualified from prosecuting crimes of violence by a parent against a child, abuse and neglect cases, and criminal violations of domestic violence protection orders.

Attorneys appeared Tuesday for a hearing on the city of Charleston’s petition against Plants, asking the court to clarify whether the prosecutor’s office should handle such cases in light of pending charges against him. Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom said during the hearing the order would pertain to 200 to 300 cases.

After the ruling Wednesday, Assistant Prosecutor Dan Holstein said he agreed with the order.

“We’re going to follow it to the letter,” he said.

City Attorney Paul Ellis was pleased with Bloom’s decision, calling it a “comprehensive and fair resolution” for law enforcement, victims and the public.

“We are thankful for the wisdom of the court and cooperation with the Kanawha County Prosecutor’s Office in reaching this resolution,” Ellis said.

Plants faces charges of domestic battery and violating a domestic violence protective order. He is accused of whipping his 11-year-old son with a belt, causing a large bruise, and then later violating a protective order by having contact with his sons.

On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court found “good cause” in a petition by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel seeking Plants’ immediate suspension or the removal of his office from certain domestic violence cases. That means justices believe there is enough information to move forward with a hearing.

Oral arguments for this case are set for 1 p.m. May 5.

Earlier this month, the Judicial Investigation Commission filed formal charges against Kanawha Magistrate Ward Harshbarger related to the domestic violence petition against Plants.

The commission said Harshbarger, who has served as magistrate since 1981, violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by not giving a “full and fair review” to the petition and by openly discussing the filing with police officers who were not part of the case.

The commission said when the prosecutor’s ex-wife, Allison Plants, filed the petition, Harshbarger’s assistant, Melanie Rucker, immediately took it to Harshbarger instead of asking Allison Plants for more information and docketing the petition like usual.

Harshbarger maintains he reviewed the petition and denied it before he realized it was against Plants. His reason for denial, the document further states, is because the abuse was a form of parental correction.

When Harshbarger got back to night court, he told Allison Plants and her attorney he could either deny the petition and she could appeal it to circuit court or he could give the petition back to them and they could take it to family court.

The next day, Allison took the petition to Family Court Judge Michael Kelly, who granted protection.

The commission says Harshbarger violated canons of judicial conduct by not following rules of filing and reviewing emergency domestic violence petitions and by not giving a full and fair review of her petition.

The document also says Harshbarger discussed the petition and his review of it with two police officers who weren’t involved in the case.

In at least one of those conversations, according to the document, Rucker showed a picture attached to the petition to which Harshbarger commented, “this was the only evidence.”

Special prosecutors handling the criminal case against Plants will be sworn in at 9:30 a.m. today.

Contact writer Andrea Lannom at Andrea.Lannom@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/AndreaLannom.

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