Could Parole Board debacle cast a cloud over criminal justice reform?

Clark Mercer, chief of staff to Gov. Ralph Northam, discusses an investigation into the Virginia Parole Board at a news conference earlier this week. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Members of Virginia’s Parole Board repeatedly ignored state law and several of its own policies in its decision to grant parole to a man who had served 40 years of a life term, according to a report by the state Inspector General.

In a scathing, six-page report released by Republican legislators on Thursday, the board, under the direction of former chair Adrianne Bennett and her successor, Tonya Chapman, failed to notify victims’ relatives, prosecutors and other interested parties as required by Virginia law.

The IG report, dated July 28, bore red, boldface instructions at its top and bottom admonishing recipients not to publicly disseminate the document. An almost entirely redacted version was released to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request last week.

The investigation does not assess the appropriateness of the decision to parole Vincent L. Martin, who was convicted of capital murder and initially sentenced to death in the point-blank shooting of Richmond police officer Michael Connors, which happened while Martin was on parole for a robbery and weapons conviction. It does, however, depict a board, prodded by Bennett, that appeared to go to extraordinary lengths to assure that Martin was freed. Also striking in hindsight is the extraordinary deference shown toward the board by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration after it received the report alleging the misconduct and the repeated stonewalling of its release, either to legislative leaders of both parties, who are required to get a copy under state law, or to the public.

At a minimum, it highlights the conflict of having the office of the watchdog responsible for rooting out misconduct and abuse by state agencies, most of them in the Executive Branch headed by the governor, domiciled within the Executive Branch at cabinet level. 

Inspector General Michael C. Westfall wrote in his report that Bennett and the board: did not notify the commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond where the crime occurred; did not diligently try to reach victims’ survivors; stood up Connors’ relatives for a scheduled conference call after the family learned of Martin’s pending release; and violated state law requiring the board to keep minutes of its monthly meetings.

There was no answer to a phone call to the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court offices where Bennett is now a judge, and no capacity for callers to leave voice messages for staff or judges. Nor was there an immediate reply to a message left with the Parole Board for Chapman, whom the report alleges continued Bennett’s policy of stiff-arming Connors’ relatives who sought meetings with board members.

Republican legislative leaders, who released the report publicly, called on Northam, a Democrat, to replace the entire Parole Board. They also accused his administration of fostering an environment conducive to the sort of violations alleged in the report, then helping the Parole Board keep the damning findings under wraps. The Republican House and Senate leaders were also denied access to the full report until Wednesday night after they sent the administration two demand letters noting that state law mandates that they receive the reports.

“This situation is not the exception. Over a 30-day period, this particular Parole Board released over 95 violent felons including 35 convicted murderers. There have been many reports from across Virginia of these same erroneous practices being employed,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who called for the resignation of all current board members and challenged Northam to fire those who don’t resign, just as former Gov. Mark R. Warner, also a Democrat, did 18 years ago after the board failed to notify a victim’s family.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.

Northam evidently has no plans to sack the current board, Alena Yarmosky indicated in an emailed statement, suggesting Chapman’s position is safe.

“Governor Northam has spoken with the new chair of the Parole Board, and reiterated that he expects all notification procedures to be followed, period,” Yarmosky wrote.

She also said in the statement that Northam “is glad this report has been made public.” No word on why the governor did not make it public himself when he first had the chance 10 days ago.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah and a former prosecutor, voiced shock at the extent to which the law was breached to achieve what he said was a predetermined goal of releasing Martin.

“The most notable thing is the degree to which the chairwoman of the Parole Board went out of her way to facilitate parole for this individual convicted of killing a police officer. She seemed hellbent on letting him out of prison,” Gilbert said.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The report says that the board actively avoided meeting with Connors’ family and with a co-defendant in Connors’ slaying who wanted to offer the board information adverse to Martin’s case for release. However, it shows Bennett and the board seeking out information favorable toward granting Martin’s freedom.  

“It really does beg the question of what her motivation was. I know she went out of her way and went all over the map when this was first brought to light, blaming police and saying he (Martin) was innocent on one hand and rehabilitated on the other,” Gilbert said.

One of the most stunning disclosures in the report was the finding that, for half a year,, Bennett dispensed with keeping minutes of board meetings, which is not only the law but a fundamental function of any governing board, from state commissions to church and civic clubs. Chapman, after Bennett’s departure, sought to explain it this way:

“Bennett’s board meetings were often scheduled, but did not always occur and there were no board meeting notes taken,” the report quotes Chapman as saying. There are no Parole Board meeting minutes from last October through March.  

The controversy surrounding Martin’s case will likely leave its footprint on the Aug. 18 special General Assembly session. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has introduced a bill to require that all votes Parole Board members take be made public record. Obenshain said other legislation to force more transparency onto the board would be forthcoming.

There was no immediate response to messages left for Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and with a spokeswoman for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn on Thursday afternoon.

It’s not a subject Democrats are likely to warm to as next year’s gubernatorial race approaches. Along with calls from the Democratic left to “defund police” and other reforms awaiting in the special session, this gives the GOP another talking point against “soft-on-crime” Democrats. It’s an appeal that could have significant traction in Virginia’s Democratic-voting suburbs where support for law enforcement is strong.

“I’m not sure based on where our Democratic colleagues are headed in terms of public policy that they are going to have an appetite for more transparency in the area of parole because we are seeing growing momentum on their side to put the parole system back into place for everybody,” Gilbert said.

Virginia abolished parole in 1994, a cornerstone issue that George Allen used to capture public frustration at what he called the lenient and deceitful parole system and clinch a surprise victory in the 1993 governor’s race. 

We may soon see whether it still resonates today.