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Jared Brown, a 30-year-old University of Virginia graduate, was grateful for the gubernatorial pardon he got in October for an assault and underage intoxication conviction that landed him in jail for about a month during his freshman year.
“It felt really empowering to be here with other people,” said Brown, one of five people Gov. Ralph Northam has pardoned who shared stories last week at event celebrating Northam’s pardons on Brown’s Island in Richmond near the new Emancipation and Freedom Monument. “To hear their stories and their experiences and to really reflect about the power of the pardon and the incredible work that the governor and his team have done to create those second chances for Virginians.”
But not everyone is celebrating Northam’s pardon decisions. Republicans are blasting the governor for pardoning violent offenders and parents of other prisoners who have spent decades behind bars are wondering why their requests are going unheard.
‘Justice, not just punishment’
At the ceremony last week Northam emphasized the importance of pardons in giving people second chances, and touted his posthumous pardon in August of the Martinsville seven, a group of Black men who were sentenced to death on charges of raping a White woman.
“We need a criminal justice system that treats everyone fairly,” Northam said. “That doesn’t mean a lack of a system or one that does not punish crimes appropriately. It means a fair system, equal representation, one that is focused on justice, not just punishment.”
During the past four years, Northam has granted more than 712 pardons, which is more than the previous nine governors combined, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said last week. Northam previously said his administration would not speed through a backlog of pardon applications in the last months of his tenure. Thomasson, whose office investigates pardon applications, could not provide updated numbers on how many the governor has acted on in the past month.
“We’ve been committed for this whole administration to acting on as many pardons as we can, and that hasn’t changed,” she said. “We’ll do that until the day we leave.”
Thomasson said the administration looks at each case to make a decision, and there is no formula to decide, since all the applications are different. However, the governor has faced backlash over his decision last week to pardon Blair Dacey of Colonial Heights who was convicted of the second-degree murder of 21-year-old Russell Mack. Northam granted Dacey a conditional pardon after completing seven years of her 20-year sentence.
Former House Speaker Kirk Cox and Delegate-elect Mike Cherry, both Republicans from Colonial Heights, blasted the decision.
“The sheer lack of input from Rusty Mack’s family is wrong, and once again confirms that the governor’s version of ‘justice’ ignores victims,” Cox and Cherry said in a news release.
The length of Dacey’s sentence and the plea bargain for a lesser charge she had been offered played a factor in Northam’s decision to pardon her, Thomasson said, adding that the administration had taken into consideration the pain of Mack’s family.
“There’s always going to be people that are upset with some decisions that get made, and this one I take that really seriously,” she said. “I understand that the victim’s family was obviously very upset, and nothing that we can say or do can take away the pain of them losing their son.”
Cynthia Sydnor and BeKura Shabbazz of the Criminal Injustice Reform Network, an advocacy group calling for justice system reform, attended the event to advocate for Sydnor’s son, who has spent 23 years in prison for an armed robbery conviction. Shabbazz also criticized Northam for pardoning Dacey, and for mentioning the posthumous pardon of the Martinsille seven as part of his accomplishments.
“If we want to invoke change in the state, you don’t bring in your tokens and talk about what you’ve done for them when you have turned a blind eye on so many others,” Shabbazz said.
Sydnor’s son’s pardon was denied after waiting four years for a response, Shabbazz said.
“My organization has advocated for so many others who have been denied their pardons, and not only that, they are still sitting in waiting for a response,” she said. Gail Dietz of King George also complained to WRIC that a pardon application by her son, who is serving a 10-year sentence for an armed robbery in which no one was injured, was denied.
As Northam’s team gets ready to leave office in January, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s approach to pardons could reflect his tough-on-crime rhetoric, but Brown is optimistic that won’t be the case.
“I am hopeful that the incoming administration can follow the outstanding model of Gov. Northam on this issue,” Brown said.
A Youngkin spokesperson declined comment on the approach the new administration will take to pardons.
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