Is it too much to ask that appointed state officials follow the law like everybody else? If you’re a member of the Virginia Parole Board, apparently it is.
That’s why State Inspector General Michael Westfall’s unredacted July 28 report on the Parole Board’s deliberate violations of state law and its own policies and procedures should be a must-read for state legislators currently considering reforms to the criminal justice system, including relaxing the commonwealth’s “truth in sentencing” laws.
Vincent Martin had served six years of a 30-year sentence for robbery and possession of a sawed-off shotgun before he was released on parole in 1979. According to the IG report, he “was on parole for less than 100 days” before he shot 23-year-old Richmond Police Officer Michael Connors four times in the face after Connors stopped a car containing Martin and his three accomplices — who had just robbed a convenience store — going the wrong way on a one-way street.
After an appeal and a new trial on capital homicide charges, Martin’s sentence was reduced from death to life in prison. The General Assembly abolished discretionary parole in 1995, a year after Martin became eligible. His annual requests for parole were denied until 2020, when the four-member Parole Board abruptly reversed course and unanimously ordered him released from the Nottoway Correctional Center on June 10.
However, the board failed to inform the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney or “endeavor diligently” to contact Connors’ parents and three sisters, who were not informed of Martin’s imminent release as required by state law. Not only did then-Parole Board Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett not contact the family, board employees told the IG that, “Bennett was vocal about not wanting to contact victims and particularly not in the [Martin] case due to the expectation of opposition because the victim was a police officer.”
The Connors were not the only family members ignored by the parole board. Mark Brinkley said neither his family nor the local prosecutor was notified the killer who robbed, raped and stabbed his 78-year-old grandmother to death in her Suffolk home in 1979 was being released. Brinkley was just 15 when he, his mother and brother found Bessie Rountree’s body. Her murder traumatized him. “It’s kind of hard to see your grandmother laying there in blood, with a knife stuck in her chest,” he told WAVY.
Allegations that the Virginia Parole Board — which had a statutory obligation to allow families and local prosecutors to testify regarding the release of these violent felons — failed to even notify them were “substantiated,” according to the IG’s report.
But the supposed watchdog then attempted to keep the gory details from the public — while the parole board was busy releasing 95 violent felons, including murderers and rapists, from prison in just 35 days — by redacting almost the entire report and refusing to grant media requests for an unredacted copy. The full six-page report was made public only after Republican leaders in the General Assembly pointedly reminded the IG state law also required him to provide them with a copy of his findings.
Legislators are currently meeting in a special session to enact sweeping “reforms” to Virginia’s criminal justice system. Lawmakers should pass a bill (SB 5050) introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R–Rockingham, that would increase the transparency and accountability of the Virginia Parole Board, including a requirement to issue monthly reports on imminent prisoner releases so families like the Connors and the Brinkleys are not kept in the dark again.
Obenshain called the IG report “deeply disturbing,” and it is. Crime victims and their families deserve justice, too.
The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star