Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney talks challenges, roadblocks to convicting offenders of violent crimes

‘There don’t appear to be any real solutions in sight’ | Scroll down to watch our full, uncut interview with Don Caldwell, Roanoke’s top prosecutor

ROANOKE, Va. – Gun violence is a growing problem across the country and the Star City. In 2023, there have been nearly two dozen shootings in Roanoke alone.

The most recent happened Monday night. Police say a man was killed after a shooting at an apartment complex in Northwest Roanoke.

In the wake of the recent violence, there’s been controversy in the community over how to address the problem, who’s responsible, and how city leaders and elected officials are keeping you safe.

10 News sat down with Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell to find out the challenges he faces when trying to put violent offenders behind bars.

“This country is facing a huge problem in violence, so it’s not specific to Roanoke City,” Caldwell said.

He’s been the city’s Commonwealth’s Attorney since 1979, prosecuting people who commit crimes.

“There don’t appear to be any real solutions in sight,” Caldwell said.

When it comes to gun violence, Caldwell says putting someone behind bars isn’t simple.

“We have absolutely no problem with case investigation,” he said. “But just because you’ve got good investigators, doesn’t mean you’re going to have a prosecutable case. It all hinges on admissible evidence in court.”

Caldwell says witnesses can make or break a case, and they’re hard to come by.

“What we do see more so than we saw 10 or 15 years ago, is a reluctance by some people to come forward and testify in court,” said Caldwell.

When deciding how long someone will spend behind bars, Caldwell says that’s not entirely up to him. Sentencing guidelines are set by Virginia lawmakers.

“If my hands are tied, it’s tied because of the laws that are passed by the General Assembly,” Caldwell said.

Unless there’s a plea deal, if a case goes to trial, convictions are ultimately up to a judge or a jury.

Caldwell’s office doesn’t track the city’s conviction rate.

10 News reached out to other commonwealth’s attorneys across Southwest Virginia, including Bedford County, Montgomery County, Henry County and Pulaski County. They all say they don’t track conviction rates either.

Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance provided the following statement to 10 News.

“Even with felonies, conviction rates can be misleading. Show me an attorney (prosecutor or not) that has won all of their cases and I will show you an attorney that doesn’t try difficult cases. If a prosecutor only accepts slam dunk cases, their conviction rate is going to be very high but it may be that they are refusing to take more challenging cases. On the other hand, an office may have a lower conviction rate but are accepting more difficult cases and trying those cases when other offices won’t. So, I’m not sure that conviction rates are synonymous with aggressive and successful pursuit of justice.”

Wes Nance, Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney

“People are dying at twice the rates from drug overdose,” Caldwell said. “Who is responsible for that? I mean, all you can do is what you can do. And in the end, I’m not like some people who get out there and beat my gums and talk about, you know, what needs to be done. I do what I can do and that’s all I can do.”

Watch 10 News’ full, uncut interview with Roanoke’s top prosecutor Don Caldwell below.

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You can watch Lindsey during Virginia Today every weekend or as a reporter during the week!