RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin will be inaugurated on January 15, 2022.
One of the first things on Youngkin’s agenda is to shake up the state agency that has the power to grant inmates an early release from prison.
“As I’ve said, on day one, I will change out the parole board and we will have a new parole board,” Youngkin said. “I’ve just been very consistent, I want to make sure we have a complete fresh start.”
That promise was a focal point of Youngkin’s campaign, as well as that of Virginia’s next attorney general, Jason Miyares.
“The parole board scandal, in my opinion, is one of the worst scandals we’ve seen in state government in decades,” Miyares said.
The controversy began in April 2020 when CBS 6 was first to report that the board had granted parole to Vincent Lamont Martin, a man who had been serving a life sentence for the murder of Richmond Patrolman Michael Connors. Connors was shot multiple times in the head near the VCU campus in November 1979.
Martin was eligible for parole, but the Connors family was outraged, saying they had not been given enough time to argue against his release.
“My father was just, you know, grief-stricken and sobbing,” Maureen Clements, Connors’s sister, said during an interview last year. “He said, ‘This is not going to go our way, this was a done deal, they’re going to let him out no matter what we say.’”
One month later, CBS 6 broke the news that Virginia’s official government watchdog agency, the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG), had launched an investigation.
OSIG ultimately found that the parole board and its former chair, Adrianne Bennett, had violated state law and its own rules in the way it handled Martin’s parole.
The Connors family had received written notification from the board on March 4, 2020, at which time they were told they had three weeks to contest Martin's release.
But the parole board's own rules afford 50 days for victims, or victims' families, to provide input.
The investigation also found that the board did not allow the Connors family to meet with the board, in accordance with its rules.
A conference call between the family, Bennett and a victim services coordinator had been scheduled for March 12, but Bennett did not show up, according to the OSIG report.
Additionally, the investigation determined that the parole board did not reach out to Richmond’s Commonwealth’s Attorney about Martin's pending release within the required time frame.
Some, including the Northam administration, say that Martin’s parole was unfairly politicized, and have criticized the inspector general’s report.
“The parole board itself came out with a point by point rebuttal to that six-page report, pointing out chapter and verse why they had concerns with OSIG’s findings, why they did not think those were accurate,” Clark Mercer, the governor’s chief of staff, said during a news conference in March of 2021.
A third-party investigation of the OSIG probe found that the lead investigator in the Martin case was likely “impaired by personal bias.”
However, that investigation did not dispute OSIG’s findings, saying that was outside the limited scope of their review.
And according to state officials, the Martin case was not an isolated incident.
Subsequent inspector general investigations found similar faults in the way the parole board handled the release of a half dozen other inmates as well.
“It’s unconscionable that you had victims that found out that their loved one’s killer had been released by this parole board sometimes by just hearing about it on the nightly news," said Miyares. “People should feel hurt, and that’s exactly the frustration, people feel like there’s no transparency, no accountability.”
The Republican is now promising a thorough investigation of the parole board’s actions.
“My goal is to make sure future parole boards, never, ever, ever repeat the same mistakes this one has.”
Miyares said he wants to know what, if any, mistakes were made by the office he’s taking over.
Nixon Peabody, the law firm that conducted the investigation into how the inspector general’s office handled the probe of Martin’s parole, has suggested that OSIG should have its own general counsel.
Currently, that office is represented by the attorney general, who also represents the parole board.
“That’s precisely why we have to have a full investigation, there still so many more questions than we have answers,” Miyares said.
But while state Republicans all seem to be on the same page, some Democrats have concerns about the future of parole in Virginia.
“I’m worried that the governor’s going to appoint people that just aren’t going to give anybody parole,” Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat from Fairfax, said. “I think that would be bad for morale within the prisons.”
Surovell said he is a supporter of second chances and believes that inmates who are eligible for early release should receive a fair and impartial hearing.
“I think people have to have that hope, and we have to fulfill our promise to people when they are convicted, that they are going to have a meaningful chance at parole if they can show that they can redeem themselves," he said.
Youngkin told CBS 6 that the parole board needed to be above reproach, with no agenda. He said he’ll appoint people who will look at the totality of each case that comes before them and make sure everyone involved has a chance to be heard.
“I want to make sure that we have a parole board that, yes, evaluates the appropriateness of granting parole, but also one that looks out for victim’s rights as well."