The Murder of Mercy

by Daniel A. Rosen |

A young man named Vincent Lamont Martin killed a police officer named Michael Patrick Connors in November of 1979. He’s served 37 years in prison as a result. He was supposed to walk out of the Nottoway Correctional Center on May 11th, 2020, after being granted parole on Good Friday. But now Martin’s release is on hold for up to 30 days while a state Inspector General looks into the case.

This delay comes courtesy of a “John Burkett Crime Insider” investigation by Richmond’s local CBS News affiliate. Burkett found that the victim’s family (living near Buffalo, NY) wasn’t notified of Mr. Martin’s pending parole decision, as Virginia’s statute requires. The story went on to question whether Martin should have been paroled at all, given his crime. Governor Ralph Northam and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran at first declined to reconsider the Parole Board’s initial disposition, but now seem to have backtracked, supporting the IG review and a 30-day hold.

As a state prison inmate in Virginia, I found Mr. Burkett’s investigation into Mr. Martin’s parole offensive and misguided. And worse, his reporting was lazy, sensationalistic, and one-sided. Burkett’s “insider” scoop – perhaps fed to him by cozy police sources – described Martin’s crime in prejudicial and grisly detail. It gave the victim’s family extensive airtime to angrily demand the revocation of Martin’s parole grant. But it spent exactly no time at all on how Mr. Martin has used his time in prison or why the Parole Board voted to grant his release now.

Do you know how hard it is to get parole in Virginia? Especially for anyone convicted of homicide, let alone someone the media has branded as a “cop-killer”? Virginians can be sure that inmates granted parole in this state didn’t get there by accident; the review process is stringent and a positive decision from the Board is rare. I’ve witnessed countless inmates come back from their hearings looking dejected, knowing that another rejection letter will follow in a few months.

There’s a gentleman who lived in the cellblock next door to mine, also in for homicide – he went up in front of the Board 29 times before finally being granted release this year. I don’t know how you keep hope alive after the 10th rejection, or the 20th, let alone open yourself up to that disappointment for the 29th time. My eyes sprang a leak when he gave me the news; he seemed to almost not believe it himself.

Inmates in this state are used to parole rejection letters that provide the same standard reason every year – “seriousness of the original offense” – which takes no account whatsoever of anything done to improve himself or atone for his crime in the intervening years. It’s seemingly Virginia’s way of saying: “We don’t care who you are now – you will never get a second chance to show you’ve outgrown your original mistake.” I’ve read that Virginia’s Parole Board gave favorable decisions just two percent of the time prior to 2018, and that it jumped up by 17 percent last year. Successful applications may decline again if more “Crime Insider” stories like this one are filed to scare viewers and politicians alike.

The vast majority of Virginia inmates – over 90 percent – aren’t eligible for parole anyway. It was abolished in 1995 due to ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws in the tough-on-crime Clinton years. Inmates sentenced after that year now serve at least 85 percent of their time, and many serve more than that. So, anyone waiting for a Parole Board decision has, by definition, been locked up for decades.

I know some will note that Officer Connors didn’t get a second chance. His family is surely wounded forever by the loss of this husband, son, and father doing his sworn duty. But keeping Mr. Martin locked up forever only serves to damage another family even further.

Four decades behind bars is surely long enough to change a man, sometimes for the better. I don’t know Mr. Martin, but I do know that he could have never been granted his release without a truly impressive and inspiring record of positive change. That’s what it takes to get a ‘yes’ from the Parole Board. Most of the time, even that isn’t enough.

John Burkett’s biased and sensationalist “Crime Insider” story isn’t doing Virginians a public service. It’s local ‘news’ at its worst, and Governor Northam, Secretary Moran, and the Parole Board ought not to be cowed by it when reviewing the cases of deserving inmates who’ve served their time and waited decades to rejoin society. Given how high the bar is set for parole in this state, Virginians can trust that if the Board grants someone like Mr. Martin his release, they’ve undertaken a careful review and made a thoughtful decision for a man deserving of mercy.

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