The Bulletin

Late attorney’s pardon work revealed sentencing madness

By: - June 28, 2022 12:02 am

(Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

John Coggeshall could’ve easily been called “the anti-Sisyphus.” The late Norfolk defense attorney handled the pardon applications for several state prisoners, and the self-taught jurist won them freedom after years — even decades — behind bars.

Defendants and prisoners sought him out after other lawyers rejected their cases. Coggeshall represented people who faced insanely long prison terms based on their crimes.

The 71-year-old Connecticut native, who died earlier this month from cancer, didn’t claim his clients were innocent. Rather, Coggeshall questioned whether the justice system was more focused on vengeance, and he spotlighted the inequity of the inordinate sentences.

I wrote about one of his clients, Travion Blount, when I was a Virginian-Pilot columnist. Then 15, Blount committed several crimes while at a house party in 2006. The teenager was sentenced to six life terms and 118 years for weapons violations.

His co-defendants, who were older, only got double-digit sentences.

As I wrote about Blount in 2013: “He’s one of several prisoners in the commonwealth sentenced to life without parole for a crime other than homicide and committed while a juvenile.”

Coggeshall won three conditional pardons on one day in 2018 from outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe. They included Blount and Lenny Singleton. All three are African-American — another sign of the disparate racial treatment between Whites and Blacks in arrests and sentencing in America.

Singleton, for example, was sentenced by a Norfolk judge to two life terms plus 110 years in prison for a week-long spree of robberies. He stole a total of $550; injured no one; and was unarmed in all but one robbery — that time with a knife. The Navy veteran and college grad was addicted to crack at the time.

Singleton told me Monday, in an interview from Tulsa, Okla., he couldn’t fathom the harsh sentence after the crime spree in 1995 – the same year the commonwealth abolished parole. Singleton said he had thanked the detective after his arrest, because he knew he needed help.

Singleton’s wife, Vandy, had reached out to Coggeshall seeking his legal skills. She ended up working with him nearly a decade, assisting with pardon petitions.

“You’re talking about a great human being who cares, who fights for the little guy,” Lenny Singleton told me. Yet, “he didn’t want people to know how soft his heart was.”

Coggeshall would want this: a return of parole in Virginia. And a re-examination of the harsh sentences meted out by judges.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]