Kanawha prosecutor, office barred from child-abuse cases

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette file photo
Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants and his staff were disqualified Wednesday from handling domestic-violence cases involving parents and minor children.

Kanawha County prosecutors are barred from cases involving parents abusing their children while their boss faces similar charges, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom disqualified prosecutor Mark Plants — who is facing two misdemeanor charges — and his office from handling such cases.

"It is in the public's interest that child abuse and neglect, violent crimes against children by their parent, guardian, or custodian, and criminal violations of protective orders be prosecuted impartially without any appearance of impropriety," Bloom wrote in a 10-page ruling.

Special prosecutors will be assigned to handle those cases, the order states.

Plants faces charges of domestic battery and violating a protective order.

The ruling was in response to a petition from the city of Charleston asking that Plants be disqualified from hearing cases brought by the Charleston Police Department.

In February, Plants' ex-wife filed a domestic-violence petition alleging that Plants beat his 11-year-old son with a belt. An emergency protective order was issued, ordering Plants not to have contact with his children or his ex-wife.

Plants was later arrested and charged with violating the protective order after he said he found his children unattended at a local pharmacy. After West Virginia State Police investigated the abuse allegations, Plants was arrested again, on March 31, and charged with domestic battery.

Plants has said he and his ex-wife had agreed to spanking as an acceptable form of discipline for their children. Plants has said he doesn’t believe he’s committed a crime and that it’s his right to reasonably discipline his sons.

On April 11, lawyers with the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a petition with the state Supreme Court asking that Plants be suspended or disqualified from prosecuting domestic-violence cases involving parents and minor children. The ODC’s petition states that Plants’ belief that the allegations against him aren’t a crime creates a conflict of interest for his office.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing on the matter for May 5.

Meanwhile, Charleston city officials filed their own petition in Kanawha Circuit Court asking that Plants’ office be removed from prosecuting those types of cases investigated by Charleston police. Bloom heard arguments from both sides Tuesday.

Lawyers agree that, "for the sake of integrity of the legal system, the welfare of minors, and the public's interest in the same, the court should establish parameters for [Plants] and his office that will avoid the appearance of impropriety, conflicts of interest, and a compromised legal system," Bloom wrote in Wednesday’s order.

Bloom went on to prohibit Plants and his office from prosecuting all cases — not just those investigated by Charleston police — involving violence against children by parents or guardians, abuse and neglect cases and violations of domestic-violence protective orders.

Since the ODC filed its petition, assistant prosecutors have been filing notices in their domestic-violence cases of a potential conflict of interest. Special prosecutors already have been assigned in some cases.

Dan Holstein, Plants’ chief of staff, had asked Bloom to disqualify prosecutors only from cases involving corporal punishment.

On Wednesday, Holstein said the prosecutors would follow Bloom’s order “to the letter.”

Paul Ellis, attorney for the city of Charleston, said he is glad an agreement was reached.

“It’s a comprehensive, fair and efficient resolution to a very difficult situation involving courts, law enforcement, children, victims, prosecutors and the general public,” Ellis said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

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