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Inspector general: Va. Parole Board violated law, policies in releasing killer of Richmond officer

Inspector general: Va. Parole Board violated law, policies in releasing killer of Richmond officer

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The Virginia Parole Board and its former chairperson violated state law and parole board policies in its decision to grant parole to Vincent Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for killing a Richmond police officer, according to an investigative report by the Office of the Inspector General that initially was kept secret.

Three senior state Republican leaders on Thursday released an unredacted version of the six-page report from Virginia’s government watchdog agency that found allegations against the parole board and former Chair Adrianne Bennett were substantiated. Among other things, the report says the board failed to give proper notification to Richmond’s top prosecutor before granting Martin parole, did not earnestly contact the victim’s family beforehand, and denied one of Martin’s alleged victims in a separate case a chance to address the board.

A heavily redacted report was released July 29 to members of the media who sought it, but all but a few sentences of the document were blacked out, leaving only a few legible sentences. The full uncensored report was first sent to Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, on July 28.

The release of the full, uncensored report came after the Inspector General’s Office made a copy available in the last 24 hours to top lawmakers after the Republican leaders had demanded to see it.

Martin was released in June.

“This was a person who murdered a police officer in cold blood, and then he was convicted of doing that, and this parole board went out of its way — which was apparently their intention — to facilitate his release; and they broke every rule and procedure and law in the process,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, charged during a video news conference that he and two other Republican leaders held to discuss the report. “And somebody needs to be held accountable.”

Gilbert added that the parole board members who were part of the decision to release Martin “need to take responsibility for themselves and step aside.” If not, he said, Gov. Ralph Northam “needs to step up and do his duty to remove people who clearly have violated the law, clearly violated procedures, clearly done more to reopen these wounds of pain for the family of the victim through their action and inaction.”

The fact that the parole board members went “out of their way to ignore and prevent victim input is shameful at best, and blatantly illegal at worse,” Gilbert said. “And we hope to see some fundamental change there as a result of bringing this to the public’s attention.”

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, joined Gilbert in calling for the parole board members to resign or be fired. There are five members of the board but only four voted to grant Martin parole. The fifth was not polled. The legislators also called for the governor to immediately rescind Martin’s parole and return him to prison.

“The results are shocking,” the legislators said in a joint statement. “Both previous and current leadership of the Board were actively working for Martin’s release, rather than seeking impartial justice.”

In a five-page letter released after Thursday’s news conference by Republican leaders, the new chair of the parole board disputed many of the inspector general’s conclusions.

“The Board must first point out that the OSIG’s conclusions are based on faulty assumptions, incorrect facts, a misunderstanding of certain procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code,” wrote Tonya Chapman, who took over as board chair in mid-April after Bennett became a judge in Virginia Beach. The decision to release Martin was made before Chapman joined the board.

Asked whether the governor would seek the resignations of the parole board members or fire them, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said:

"Governor Northam appreciates the work of the Inspector General and is glad this report has been made public. It is important to note that this review was procedural and has nothing to do with the merits of the Parole Board’s decision to release this individual, who had served a 40 year sentence. Governor Northam has spoken with the new Chair of the Parole Board and reiterated that he expects all notification procedures to be followed, period."

According to the inspector general’s report, the parole board initially did not provide notification to Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin of Martin’s parole within the statutory time frame of his originally scheduled release date of April 30, did not “endeavor diligently” to contact the slain officer’s family before making the decision to grant Martin parole, and did not allow the victim’s family or other interested parties to meet with the parole board in accordance with the board’s own policies and procedures.

The report says that according to the victim’s family, after being notified March 4 about Martin’s upcoming parole, the family contacted the parole board and an appointment was scheduled via conference call with Bennett and the victim services coordinator for March 12. The victim’s family was present for the call, “but neither Bennett nor any other representative from VPB honored this scheduled interview.”

Later, family members asked if they could come in person to meet with the parole board so they could adequately express their emotions and concerns, but Bennett denied the request because of COVID-19. The report notes that the parole board did not update or change any policies or procedures in relation to the pandemic.

“The Parole Report prepared by the Victim Services Coordinator noted that Bennett stated she ‘had been working on this case for four years and the family’s input was the last piece of the puzzle and the Board was reluctant to reach out, but is required by law.’ ”

During interviews conducted by the Inspector General’s Office, several parole board employees stated that Virginia law and agency policies and procedures regarding proper victim notification “were not always followed under Bennett’s tenure as chair,” the report says.

“The employees stated that Bennett was vocal about not wanting to contact victims and particularly in the VLM case due to the expectation of opposition because the victim was a police officer,” the report says, referring to Martin by his initials. “One employee stated that Bennett instructed the [parole board’s] victim services unit that if the victim of a crime was deceased (as in the VLM case), no further victim notification research needed to be performed.”

Bennett noted in public comments earlier this year that the board conducted its own investigation of Martin’s case and concluded there was a “dark cloud of injustice” over his conviction.

In additional findings, the Inspector General’s Office learned that on May 18, an alleged prior shooting victim of Martin’s requested an appointment to express his concerns over the inmate’s release. But Chapman, the new parole board chair who took over in April, denied the request because Martin was never charged with a crime in that incident. Chapman, a former Portsmouth police chief, cited Virginia law that provides the definition of a victim.

But parole board policy states that “other interested persons,” including victims and other people opposed to the parole release of an inmate, may meet with board members “to discuss specific cases and to offer information relative to the parole to any inmate,” according to the report.

The inspector general also determined that Bennett did not keep meeting minutes as required by law. On May 22, investigators requested board meeting minutes for October 2018 to the present. Chapman responded by email on May 26, stating, “Bennett’s Board meetings were often scheduled, but did not always occur and there were no Board meeting notes taken.” There were no records of parole board meetings minutes for October 2019 through March 2020, according to the report.

Chapman, in her letter to Inspector General Michael Westfall, addressed in detail several of the agency’s findings.

For example, Chapman wrote that OSIG’s determination that the parole board violated procedures by not allowing the victim’s family or other interested parties to meet with the board before voting to grant Martin on parole “is contradicted by the facts presented in its own report and relies on OSIG’s faulty interpretation that parole board procedures provide that non-victim interested parties are entitled to an in-person meeting with a member of the board.”

She added: “OSIG has confused that which [the parole board] may do with which it must do.”

Bennett could not be reached for comment.

After two delays in the face of forceful opposition from several local and national law enforcement organizations and individual police officials, Martin was released from prison on June 10.

He had been serving a life sentence at Nottoway Correctional Center. His release was delayed twice, the second time when the parole board decided to place a temporary 30-day hold on his departure due to the administrative investigation commenced by the Inspector General’s Office.

Martin was convicted in the Nov. 13, 1979, execution-style killing of Richmond patrolman Michael P. Connors, who was shot in the head four times after pulling Martin and three friends over for a traffic stop. The four suspects had just robbed at gunpoint a 7-Eleven store in the 300 block of West Grace Street when Connors pulled them over about 2:05 a.m., unaware that they had just committed a robbery.

Years earlier, Martin was sentenced to 30 years in prison for robbery and possession of a shotgun in a crime that occurred in 1972. He served six years and was released on parole in 1979, according to the inspector general’s report.

“Martin was on parole for less than 100 days before he murdered a police officer in November 1979,” the report states. He originally was sentenced to death for killing Connors, but after an appeal and retrial, he was convicted and sentenced to life.

Martin first became eligible for parole in 1994, and the parole board denied him parole at each review until this year. He served 40 years and six months in prison before being released.

Discretionary parole was abolished in Virginia for felonies committed in 1995 or after, requiring offenders to serve at least 85% of their sentences with the ability to earn good-time credits toward an early release date. Virginia still allows geriatric parole for elderly inmates under certain conditions.

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