Prosecutor doesn’t keep score in seeking justice

By Robert Grattan

Robert “Bucky” Joyce, Rockbridge County’s commonwealth’s attorney, earned his nickname, Bucky, when he was born on a kitchen floor on the way to Lexington’s Stonewall Jackson hospital.

For much of his adult life, Joyce has been much more predictable.

“Impulsive is probably the last word I’d use to describe Bucky,” said William Hancock, a lawyer in Lexington, “He’s the opposite of that … Every dealing I’ve had with Bucky I’ve found to be nothing but fair, competent and honest.”

His nickname and easygoing nature can be deceiving, said Christopher Billias, deputy commonwealth’s attorney.

Rockbridge County Commonwealth's Attorney Bucky Joyce (Photo by Robert Grattan)

“When I very first saw Bucky … I expected a big heavy redneck kind of guy,” he laughed. “I thought, he doesn’t look like a Bucky … I was expecting someone a bit more out-of-the-woods.”

In 1986 Joyce became a prosecutor, working for Eric Sisler, the commonwealth’s attorney at the time. Joyce took over the top job when he was elected in 2004.

Joyce is tall, with mostly gray hair. He comes across as formal but relaxed. He stands to shake hands. Later, halfway through a response, he leans back and rests a foot on a glass table.

“He’s very easygoing,” Billias said. “His approach to his job is very humble. He sees himself as a public servant.  [Defendants] are people too, they have families and lives.”

Joyce ran unopposed for re-election in 2008. This year he faced Independent Josh Elrod, son of Lexington mayor Mimi Elrod, and won handily.

Becoming the commonwealth’s attorney wasn’t necessarily a goal, Joyce said. It just happened. “I would never have wanted to do anything else, looking back,”he said. “It’s my niche.”

Joyce graduated from Lexington High School in 1968. He left town to study at the University of North Carolina, but returned to Washington and Lee University‘s law school, graduating in 1981.

As a prosecutor, Joyce refused to single out one case as his biggest accomplishment. “I think that’s for the community to decide,” he said.

“It’s not any one single group of larger cases,” Joyce said, “but I am most gratified by cases we handle day to day that affect the largest group of citizens.”

For him, prosecuting cases is about, “fairness, sportsmanship, not piling on, not running up the score.”

Joyce said he doesn’t worry about conviction rates or lengths of sentences.

“It’s looking at each case individually,” he said. “Justice is dealing with human beings.”

Joyce said he doesn’t dwell on wins and losses. “Ultimately, you just lay it out and the judge or jury makes the decision.”

In October Joyce negotiated a plea bargain with lawyers for defendant Kevin Howard, who admitted to shooting and wounding a camper at Arnolds Valley in 2007.

Howard agreed to serve 17 years in prison, with the possibility of being sentenced to 30 more years if he gets into trouble—inside or outside of prison.

“It was a compromise,” Joyce said, explaining that he was concerned about the uncertainty inherent in a jury trial.

Joyce has established an open file policy, meaning all information the prosecution collects during an investigation is provided to defense attorneys early in a case.

“It’s helpful for us,” said local lawyer William Hancock.

“We don’t play those games,” said Billias. “If it’s not there, it’s not there.”

By disclosing evidence up front, he said the prosecutor saves time for the judge and jury and doesn’t resort to tricks to win cases.

“If you put someone in jail, you’re taking away everything… you better get that right,” he said.

But Billias said the prosecutors pursue cases they think are strong.

“If the facts are there we go all out, we don’t hold back,” he said. “The key to a good prosecutor is knowing when to swing the hammer, and when to apply the feather.”

Joyce said he intends to focus on combating methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse in the community.

“Meth has overtaken cocaine as the most problematic street drug. It’s a vicious, nasty drug,” he said.

For the most part Rockbridge County is a quiet place for a prosecutor, Joyce said.

“It’s relatively safe, relatively low crime,” he said. “We sort of have this little bubble over us.”

There have been no murder cases since Joyce became commonwealth’s attorney.  The harshest sentence he remembers was a sexual assault case where the accused received 40 years in prison.

If Joyce wants to keep his job, he must campaign every four years. He attends community events and goes door-to-door in some parts of town to talk to voters.

“I’m glad I don’t have to do it every year,” he said, “but I enjoy a lot of aspects about it.”

When asked how long he wants to stay in the job, Joyce smiled and said, “Until my grandkids say, ‘Granddaddy, it’s time to spend more time with us.’ ”