RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Parole Board is defending their decision to release a man convicted of killing a Richmond police officer more than 40 years ago, a ruling that has shocked and angered the victim's family, fellow officers, and law enforcement groups.
As CBS 6 first reported Monday, the board has voted to grant parole to Vincent Lamont Martin, a 64-year-old inmate at the Nottoway Correctional Center.
Martin has been serving a life sentence for the murder of Patrolman Michael Connors, who was shot multiple times near the campus of VCU on November 13, 1979.
The shooting occurred after Connors pulled over a vehicle that was traveling the wrong way down a one-way street. Inside that car were Martin and a group of accomplices who had just minutes before robbed a 7-Eleven store near the intersection of Madison and Grace, in the city's Monroe Ward neighborhood.
Connors, unaware of the robbery, was shot in the neck after approaching the vehicle. Investigators say Martin then stood over the dying officer and fired several more shots into his head.
"It was a flat out execution," said Stacy Garrett, who prosecuted the case. "The medical examiner testified that during the autopsy, she removed bits and pieces of gravel and stone that were in his face because of the force of the gun shots... it's just something you never forget."
Both Connors and Martin were just 23 years old at the time of the killing, but Martin already had a long criminal record.
At trial, he was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. But Martin appealed, and the Supreme Court of Virginia ordered that a new trial take place.
The second jury also found him guilty, but spared him the death penalty, instead sentencing Martin to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Parole has been denied every time that Martin has gone before the board, until earlier this month, when four members cast an affirmative vote, the super majority required to grant Martin's release, given the serious nature of his crime.
"[The Board] takes every possible precaution to ensure that a person is ready, and prepared for success prior to granting release," said VPB Chair Adrianne Bennett in a statement posted on the Board's website. "This decision was no different, and the Board stands firmly behind its grant of parole to Vincent Martin."
Bennett said that the Board has spent years researching the case and reviewing the facts, and that they concluded that Martin's conviction was based primarily on the "conflicting testimony" of the three cooperating co-defendants, who she said all had violent felony convictions on their records.
Garrett strongly disagrees with that assertion. He said it was clear that Martin was the gunman.
According to Bennett, Martin has also been a model prisoner during his decades behind bars, saying that she has been told by a DOC employee that he has served as a "role model, mentor, father, brother, cadre and guiding light" to both staff and inmates.
But just last year, the Parole Board reached a much different conclusion when Martin's case was brought before them.
According to a document on the Board's website, Martin was denied parole in January 2019. Among the reasons listed were the serious nature of the offense, Martin's extensive criminal record, and a history of violence. There was also concern about what might happen if Martin were to be released.
"Your prior failure(s) and/or convictions while under community supervision indicate that you are unlikely to comply with conditions of release," the document reads.
When Martin was denied parole in 2018, the board also noted that he had been convicted of a new crime while incarcerated.
Connors's family and several current and former Richmond-area police officers tell CBS 6 that the news of Martin's parole has been painful, and difficult to process.
"It was disappointing and devastating when we heard it, on Good Friday of all days," said Maureen Clements, Connors's sister. "But it was almost something we expected."
Clements said that Learned Barry, a longtime member of the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, told her that this is the worst miscarriage of justice he has seen in 40 years. While the man who took Martin to trial twice says the Board's decision is a slap in the face to law enforcement.
"We have five people, four of whom said the life of a police officer is not worth a whole hell of a lot," said Garrett.
"This has been a Parole Board unafraid of making tough decisions," said Brian Moran, Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
"Clearly the pain and anguish is being relived all over again 40 years later. Our hearts go out to the family, the Richmond Police Department and those who knew [Connors], and even those who didn't know him. Those in law enforcement are a tight knit community. I understand there's anguish and they're upset. We appreciate and respect the work they do, it's unfortunate, but a decision the Parole Board stands by."
Connors's family and friends are now hoping that someone stops Martin from being released, and there is a letter-writing campaign underway, asking the governor to intervene.
But it appears that is unlikely, and in fact, he might not even have the authority. Bennett says the Board's decision is final and not subject to reversal or appeal.
Miles Turner, a veteran sheriff's deputy who wrote a paper about Connors's murder, says a life sentence barely fit the crime, which he says was carried out by a man who had already made several bad decisions before callously taking the young officer's life.
"Mike's mom and dad are both still living and his sisters go home to a shadow box and grave site," Turner said.
"He didn't have a chance to be a father, an uncle, a grandfather, a husband... you know, he had his brains blown out by somebody on his fourth try."