‘It’s not about fighting’: Former Stafford Co. prosecutor switches sides in quest for justice

Stafford County, Virginia, prosecutor Ryan Fitzgerald told the convicted murderer’s lawyer what the deal was —  he had the evidence to find her client guilty of first-degree murder for killing his estranged wife 32 years ago and would seek life in prison.

In April 2021, Jose Rodriguez-Cruz pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison, in the killing of Marta Haydee Rodriguez, who was 26 when she disappeared in May 1989.

Now, after prosecuting thousands of criminal cases in Stafford County since 2013, and in Fairfax County from 2010 to 2013, Fitzgerald has switched sides in the courtroom, and is sitting at the defense table.

“The search for justice, no matter what side of the law you’re on, is about trying to do the right thing,” Fitzgerald told WTOP, who recently left his role with the Stafford County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to became a partner at a Spotsylvania based Andrew Flusche law firm.

“When you’re a prosecutor seeking justice for the community, there’s nobility in that — it’s a fine profession, and I loved my time as a prosecutor,” said Fitzgerald.

With a family to support, Fitzgerald said his decision was solely based on the financial reality that defense attorneys can earn more than government prosecutors.

Fitzgerald said prosecutors and defense attorneys each play a crucial job in criminal cases.

“A prosecutor’s role is to find justice, but a defense attorney does justice for his clients by defending him,” said Fitzgerald.

In his new job as a defense attorney, “You want justice for the community, but you also understand that there’s a client that you’re representing that has rights — and those rights are what makes the system work.”

As a prosecutor, he had the burden to prove a criminal defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. “A defense attorney may see problems or issues come up in the prosecution’s ability to maintain that standard — those are things that can be litigated and pointed out.”

Fitzgerald knew as a prosecutor — and now, as a defense attorney — that most cases never go to trial, and are resolved with a plea.

“It’s not about fighting, it’s about reasonable outcomes,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s about appropriate outcomes. It’s about right outcomes.”

Fitzgerald’s job change comes amid a period of judicial reform. In 2020, WTOP published “Justice for all: Amid police reform debate, Northern Virginia prosecutors target systemic racism.”

Elected Commonwealth’s Attorneys from Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties, and the City of Alexandria — four of whom are first-term Democrats — detailed to WTOP how vestiges of Virginia’s past as the core of the Confederacy have been embedded in the legal system for decades.

Fitzgerald expects to be defending clients in Fairfax and Prince William counties, and understands different jurisdictions will have different positions on judicial reform.

“Judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys and jurors and witnesses, they’re all people,” said Fitzgerald. “So you have to know the people you’re dealing with.”

“My experience, and the places that I’ve been is an asset to me, in determining the best way to achieve that result,” said Fitzgerald. “But zealously defending my client remains my standard, no matter where I am.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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