SUSSEX COUNTY, Va. -- For more than 20 years, Terrence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne have been behind bars in federal prison despite a jury clearing them of the murder of a Waverly police officer. In a case that is convoluted, involving both state and federal courts, family members and advocates are bringing renewed attention after the Virginia Attorney General’s office intervened on the behalf of the “Waverly Two".
“Like he’s been saying, I know in my heart he is innocent,” said Debra Allen, Claiborne’s mother. “I really can’t explain what I feel when it comes to this whole case, really. Because they were railroaded, both Ferrone and Terrence.”
The Virginia Chapter of the NAACP hosted a press conference with Allen and attorneys for the men Tuesday and backs their push for freedom.
In 1998, Richardson and Claiborne were charged in connection with the shooting death of Waverly Police Officer Allen Gibson. The men took plea deals for lesser charges at the time because they feared facing a jury in Waverly with the death penalty on the table, according to their attorney. Both have maintained their innocence throughout the process.
“Two young Black men in a situation that historically has happened to Black men all across this nation,” said Jarret Adams, who represents Richardson and Claiborne. “Both Terrence and Ferrone have always reminded me that the family deserves justice as well, and that’s the family of Officer Gibson.”
Both the former police chief in Waverly and Gibson’s daughter told the Richmond Times-Dispatch they support re-examining the case.
In 2001, federal prosecutors charged the men with Gibson's murder in relation to a drug distribution conspiracy. A jury acquitted Richardson and Claiborne of murder and gun charges related to the shooting but found the men guilty on drug charges.
A federal judge imposed a life sentence for both, Adams said, in part because of the guilty pleas to the lesser counts in Sussex County Circuit Court.
Now, Adams is asking the Appeals Court of Virginia to intervene and vacate Richardson’s initial plea. Claiborne only plead to a misdemeanor, but Adams believes if Richardson’s plea is vacated it could lead federal prosecutors to revisit both life sentences.
The conviction integrity unit at the Virginia Attorney General’s Office recently intervened, saying the initial investigation into the case was flawed and evidence against the men was weak.
“This injustice started in Virginia. That is the only way it leads up to the federal court to free both men from their unjust bondage. We recently had the Attorney General join in on our actual innocence petition,” Adams said.
There is no set timeframe for when the state appeals court will take up the case.
“Attorney General Herring believes that Virginia’s goal must always be justice and truth, not just convictions, or preservation and defense of convictions in defiance of logic, facts, or new evidence. He remains committed to ensuring justice and to righting wrongs whenever they are found and he is incredibly proud of the hard work that his Conviction Integrity Unit did on this complicated case,” a spokesperson for AG Herring wrote in an email to CBS 6.
The case will likely continue to play out when Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares takes office. Adams said they have no concerns and that he does not see Miyares as someone who would “ignore injustice” over politics.
The current momentum in the case is allowing Debra Allen to imagine what seeing her son outside prison would be like, after twenty years.
“Praise god for that, that’s what I’m going to do first. And then, I’m going hug him so long, he’s going to get tired of me,” she said. “They thought they were two little people nobody cared about.”
You can read more about the efforts in support of Richardson and Claiborne here.