Homicide prosecutor retires

Published 8:46 pm Thursday, March 24, 2016

For the past 18 years, nearly every homicide suspect in Suffolk has faced prosecutor Will Jamerson.

Will Jamerson sits in his office, where he has spent much time recently cleaning out nearly two decades’ worth of case files in preparation for his retirement next week.

Will Jamerson sits in his office, where he has spent much time recently cleaning out nearly two decades’ worth of case files in preparation for his retirement next week.

Becoming a trial lawyer wasn’t much of a stretch for a man who cut his teeth on “Perry Mason” and the original “Divorce Court” and entertained himself as a pre-teen by watching cases being tried at the Pittsylvania County courthouse near where he grew up.

“It’s something I always wanted to do since I was a kid,” he said.

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Jamerson is retiring at the end of this month, leaving in his wake more than 100 homicide cases tried in Suffolk and Portsmouth over a 33-year career. Only a handful ended in a not-guilty verdict.

Jamerson attended Virginia State University and then went to law school at Washington & Lee University. He started his career in the Virginia Attorney General’s office as an assistant attorney general before becoming a prosecutor in Portsmouth.

Within six months in the Portsmouth office, he had been assigned his first homicide case.

“I just think that everybody has something they’re good at,” Jamerson said. “Some people are good at white-collar crime; some people are good at sex offenses. Homicide is what I’m good at.”

He preferred tackling the most complex cases — multiple offenders, cold cases, cases where he was seeking the death penalty. He’s sent two people to death row in his career — both in Portsmouth — and they’re now both deceased.

Jamerson lays out his support for capital punishment thusly: “A society has to have a right of retribution against its worst offenders. Why should you kill 20 people and get the same punishment you would get for killing one person? I consider that repugnant.”

Jamerson’s talents truly shone during jury trials, when he traditionally wore a dark suit with a white shirt and was given to becoming emotional during closing arguments.

He says it’s all about having the right attitude to be a trial lawyer.

“You either have the ability to deal with the personalities, difficult as they may be, of the people involved, or you don’t,” he said.

His philosophy toward trials can be summed up by the quote from “A Few Good Men”: “It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove.”

“There’s no such thing as a moral dilemma for a prosecutor,” he said. “You either can prove a case or you can’t. If you don’t have a case you believe in, you don’t go to court with it.”

Jamerson credits part of his success to a number of other people — legal assistants, investigators, victim/witness staff and the police department.

Jamerson’s boss and fellow attorneys alike speak highly of him.

“Will has been an outstanding both lawyer and employee in the office,” Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson said. “Without question, we’re going to miss him and his expertise.”

Jamerson trained Michael Massie, a local defense attorney and former prosecutor, when he started working at the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

“Will is really one of the most savvy prosecutors out there,” Massie said. “He knew murder cases and how to do murder cases like the back of his hand. He was just very talented. As a young prosecutor, that was good for me, because I took it all in and really learned a lot from him.”

Now that he’s at the defense table, Massie still praises Jamerson.

“He’s always been a very tough prosecutor and really committed to victims’ rights,” he said. “We do what we’re charged to do, and we don’t take it personally. We still shake hands at the end of the case.”

Local defense attorney Greg Matthews said he is a “fan” of Jamerson.

“He’s a very capable lawyer,” Matthews said. “Will and I have had many trials. They might have been losing affairs, but they were conducted fairly. I think the world of him.”

Suffolk’s top public defender, Jim Grandfield, also spoke highly of Jamerson.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Grandfield said. “He’s one of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever met. What you see is what you get. He could be tough, but you don’t resent it, because that’s Will.”

Grandfield said one thing he’ll always remember about Jamerson is his tendency to underestimate the number of questions he was about to ask a witness — and now-retired Judge Westbrook Parker’s reaction to it.

“Will would be famous for either saying, ‘Just a few questions,’ or sometimes he’d even put in a number,” Grandfield said. “If Will made the mistake of saying, ‘I just have four questions,’ Judge Parker would sit there and count with his fingers and watch as Will grossly exceeded that number.”

After long days of asking questions, Jamerson could often be found blowing off steam at high school sports games, particularly football and basketball. As a former high school football player himself, he enjoys the atmosphere, even if he doesn’t know anybody on the teams.

Jamerson and his wife, a retired Portsmouth librarian, will be enjoying retirement in Florida, where his wife’s sister and brother-in-law live. They have no children, but he expects to spend plenty of time on the golf course.