‘The laws did not matter’: Leaked reports show pattern of Parole Board violations

By: - February 26, 2021 12:51 pm

The offices of the Virginia Parole Board in Richmond. (Virginia Mercury)

The controversy surrounding the Virginia Parole Board has centered largely around the case of Vincent Martin, a man freed last year at 64 after serving more than 40 years in prison for murdering a Richmond police officer in 1979.

Martin’s release drew outsized attention due to complaints from law enforcement and because it was among the first to be investigated by Virginia’s Office of the Inspector General for potential violations of state law and Parole Board policies. When Republican legislators got a copy of the watchdog report saying the accusations against the Democratic-appointed Parole Board were true, they quickly released the document to the media.

But the IG’s office investigated at least six other cases without ever revealing details of its findings to the public, the General Assembly, or the local prosecutors who complained that the Parole Board failed to carry out its duty to seek outside input on parole decisions. Last October, the inspector general released copies of the reports that were almost entirely redacted, summarizing its findings in a general report that didn’t include specifics on what the Parole Board had done wrong.

This week, the Mercury obtained unredacted copies of those reports, all dated Sept. 18. Together, they show a pattern of violations that ran in favor of releasing inmates quickly and against consulting others who might have a dissenting opinion.

“It’s a sad commentary when it’s so obvious that what has occurred was a willful, intentional act,” said Suffolk County Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson, who said he only learned OSIG validated three of his complaints against the Parole Board when the Mercury informed him this week. “There was an agenda and a motivation to get these people out. The rules did not matter. The laws did not matter. It was just they were going to get it done no matter what.”

Irvian Cotton (Suffolk)

One of the Suffolk cases involved Irvian Cotton, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing his estranged wife in 1985 in front of two children. He served roughly 34 years and was released last year at the age of 67.

The IG’s office outlined numerous problems with Cotton’s parole process in a report that suggests former Parole Board Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett, now a judge in Virginia Beach, was determined to release him even though he had been denied discretionary parole in January 2020. The same three board members that had denied parole just months earlier voted to grant Cotton geriatric release in March, the report says, even though inmates are typically only considered for parole once in any 12-month period and Cotton hadn’t filed a petition for geriatric release. Parole Board procedures say inmates have to include “compelling reasons” for release on those petitions, but Bennett seemed to have made a decision without one.

“He is old and has been in prison over 30 years. I had planned to grant him before I left the Board,” Bennett wrote in a March 22 email. “I would like to get him in my queue and get him voted before I am gone. He will be considered for geriatric so he will not be interviewed and a decision will come quick if he makes it.”

Instead of conducting a new assessment interview with Cotton, the Parole Board relied on a 2019 interview from his prior bid for parole even though, after that interview, the board had decided to keep him incarcerated.

“Because the 2019 hearing examiner recommended to ‘not grant’ and VPB voted to ‘not grant’ IC discretionary parole in January 2020, there is no assessment for geriatric release suitability and no supporting reasons for a grant decision,” the IG’s office said in its report.

The quick reversal also occurred without proper notice to the Suffolk prosecutor or the victim’s mother, the IG’s office found. State law requires prosecutors be notified by certified mail at least 21 days prior to an inmate’s release and requires the board to “endeavor diligently” to find and contact victims to allow them to offer testimony prior to a parole decision.

Though the board voted to grant Cotton geriatric release in late March, the victim’s mother wasn’t given a notification until April 14. Cotton was released April 17.

The victim’s daughter was also registered to receive notifications about Cotton’s status, but never got one.

Robert Dwayne Godfrey (Grayson)

In early 1994, Robert Dwayne Godfrey was sentenced to 200 years for the murder and robbery of a 68-year-old man. He escaped from the Grayson County jail before a prison transfer that same year, and was convicted of a new drug charge two years later while incarcerated.

He was paroled last year at the age of 51 after serving 26 years, but the IG’s office determined the Parole Board didn’t try hard enough to contact victims before his release.

The report on his case says the board didn’t try to locate victims until after it voted to grant parole, and no victim input was received.

The Grayson County’s prosecutor’s office told the IG’s office it had contact information for the victim’s daughter, and would have given it to the board if asked. The victim’s daughter did not get a notification letter.

Dwayne Markee Reid (Suffolk)

As a teenager, Dwayne Markee Reid was sentenced to life in prison for murder and robbery. A hearing examiner recommended against parole last January, but the board voted to grant him parole shortly thereafter. 

He was released after serving 26 years, but the IG’s office found the board failed to give required notices to the prosecutor and the victims in a timely manner. The Suffolk prosecutor’s office received a notification on April 13 saying Reid would be released within 30 days or “after the completion of a re-entry program.” He was released three days later.

Parole Board records show it had one anonymous phone number on file for victim notification, but it was no longer in service. The Suffolk prosecutor’s office said it had contact information for one of the victim’s sisters, but the Parole Board didn’t ask for it, “despite her living locally.” 

The IG’s report says one of the victim’s relatives first learned Reid was being paroled from a news reporter.

Tyson Xavier Golden (Roanoke)

Golden was sentenced to three life sentences for what the IG’s office described as a “1986 crime spree that included homicide and multiple robberies and home invasions in Roanoke.” 

Golden was not parole-eligible due to the extent of his crimes, but the Parole Board opted to restore his eligibility in 2019, according to the IG’s office. He was released last April after serving roughly 33 years.

The board voted to release Golden before attempting to notify victims, according to the IG’s report. The Roanoke prosecutor’s office told state investigators it never received any notification about Golden’s parole.

Debra Kay Scribner (Halifax)

In 2012, Scribner was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison for her role in a Halifax County murder. She was released last year at age 66 after serving almost nine years.

She had been denied discretionary parole in May 2019, but was granted geriatric release in March 2020, despite a hearing examiner’s recommendation that she serve more time.

She was released April 1, but the Halifax County Prosecutor’s office didn’t receive notice until April 16 (the letter was dated April 6).

When the board attempted to contact victims, the IG’s office found, it sent a letter to “the wrong person at the wrong address.”

“The victim’s brother said he has lived at the same address for more than 20 years, including when DKS committed her crimes,” the report says. “As a result, VPB did not receive any victim input during the voting process for DKS’ release.”

The Halifax prosecutor’s office said it had correct victim contact information, but the Parole Board didn’t ask for it.

Patrick Schooley Jr. (Suffolk)

Schooley received three life sentences in 1979 for the kidnapping and murder of a 78-year-old woman.

After his 17th parole interview in 2018, an examiner recommended granting him parole, but only with “intensive supervision, completion of a re-entry program prior to release and placement in a halfway house for readjustment to society.”

He was released last April after serving a little over 41 years.

The IG’s office found the Parole Board did not notify the Suffolk prosecutor and didn’t try hard enough to find and contact victims.

The report notes that one of the victim’s grandsons contacted the Parole Board last June, well after Schooley’s release, and asked to speak to current board Chairwoman Tonya Chapman. The two spoke, but the report offers no details on the nature of that conversation.

‘Hellbent on releasing people’

In all six cases, the IG’s office concluded the Parole Board violated state law or its own policies. In five of the six cases, Parole Board hearing examiners, staffers who interview inmates and review their files to weigh suitability for parole, had recently recommended against release.

“They were just hellbent on releasing people from prison,” said Ferguson, the Suffolk prosecutor. “It didn’t matter how serious the crimes were.”

To explain the heavy redactions to the reports released publicly, the IG’s office claimed public-records laws didn’t apply because the Parole Board had not “waived” its right to invoke a Freedom of Information Act exemption. The unredacted copies show that some of the information in the blacked-out versions officially released by the IG’s office — particularly the details on when notifications were or weren’t received — came from prosecutors, not the Parole Board.

Ferguson said it was “ridiculous” that he was unable to get copies of the IG’s unredacted reports on cases involving his office.

“If I had made a complaint I’d like to know what the results of the investigation were,” he said.

“There’s a complete lack of transparency. A complete lack of an ability to understand what they did … You cannot imagine the hurt and the heartache that it caused the victims’ families in these cases when they found out these people had been released.”

Kate Hourin, a spokeswoman for the IG’s office, said the redacted reports were “appropriately” released last year.

OSIG has no further comment on the matter,” she said, refusing a request for an interview with Inspector General Michael Westfall.

Halifax Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Martin said the newly revealed report confirms her belief the Parole Board mishandled Scribner’s case. But, she said, in light of revelations that that the IG’s office originally drafted a 13-page report on Vincent Martin’s case before cutting it to six pages, “the trouble runs much deeper.” 

I have to wonder what else the OSIG found regarding the Parole Board’s handling of Scribner,” she said in an email.

Questions swirl around draft report

Richmond TV station WTVR first reported the existence of a longer draft report on Vincent Martin’s case that was never officially released by the IG’s office. That report led some Republican legislators to renew their accusations the Executive Branch may have sought to cover up the Parole Board issues by scrubbing information and redacting the final reports.

The draft report on the Vincent Martin case, also obtained by the Mercury, goes into greater detail on the extent to which Bennett acted as an advocate for Martin. Instead of carrying out her duties impartially as the law requires, the report suggests, Bennett tried to marshal support for Martin’s release and said she believed he was innocent.

The draft report quotes extensively from an email Bennett appeared to send to a Northam administration official on April 13. In that message, according to the draft report, she called the case against Martin “built on lies” and said the board “unfortunately had no choice” but to contact the victims.

“This is not a ‘Covid-19 grant’ or an ‘on my way out grant’ this has been in the makings for years and was decided in November (after Soerings release) by the Parole Board that would not and could not say ‘no’ to Martin again,” Bennett wrote in an email that went on to call Martin a “leader among men.”

The day before Martin’s parole interview, Bennett instructed Parole Board staff to upload an older interview report and submit it as “their own,” the draft report claims, allegedly saying in an email: “There is nothing we don’t already know very well about his case.” The report says the staff members “refused to falsify a report and violate their own ethics.”

Neither Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration nor the IG’s office have offered an explanation for why information in the draft report was dropped from the final version. As of Friday morning, the governor’s office said it still did not have a copy of the draft report that surfaced in the media Tuesday night. The inspector general reports to the governor’s staff.

In an radio appearance on WRVA Friday morning, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said it was unfair for the draft report, which was addressed to him, to continue to go unexplained and allow “wild accusations” to proliferate.

“OSIG needs to do something and they need to do something today about this,” Moran said. He insisted did not pressure the inspector general to scrub the report and said he wasn’t aware of anyone else in the Northam administration doing so.

The draft report includes extensive footnotes that reference other documents investigators obtained. Several are labeled “Email Dump” and include the last names of specific officials.

The improper releases probed by the IG occurred near the end of Bennett’s tenure as chair, before she was replaced by Chapman. Chapman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on the six newly revealed reports.

‘No systemic problems’

Many of the contested releases occurred just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning and officials were trying to avoid prison deaths and speed up the release of inmates no longer deemed a threat. In an official response last year, Chapman said the combination of the pandemic and the leadership change created “unusual circumstances” that caused the board to miss some steps in the parole process. But she said steps had already been taken to address the issues.

“There are no systemic problems with the 21-day notification process,” she wrote.

The watchdog reports repeatedly note the Parole Board didn’t formally alter its policies in response to the virus.

Both Bennett and Westfall were originally appointed to their state jobs by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and retained by Northam.

The draft report also contains an allegation Parole Board meeting minutes may have been altered during the probe. The draft report says the IG’s office requested meeting minutes from October 2019 through May 22, 2020. The minutes investigators received from Chapman for an April 28 meeting, the report says, didn’t match minutes previously sent to Parole Board members on May 12. The draft report claims “it was clear that information regarding Martin had been deleted.”

The version of the Martin report released last year made no mention of the April meeting minutes, saying only that there were no records of Parole Board minutes from October through March.

A message for Bennett left with the clerk’s office at the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, where she currently serves, was not immediately returned Friday.

The draft report also says the Parole Board’s Victim Services Unit used a template for notification letters that “automatically calculated 60 days from the date of the letter, allowing ample time for the victims to provide their input and feedback.” 

That template was “discontinued,” the report says, when Bennett was appointed chair.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.