The Murder of Mercy: Attacking Virginia’s Parole Board

by Daniel A. Rosen |

A young black man named Vincent Lamont Martin killed a white police officer named Michael Patrick Connors in November of 1979. Martin served 37 years in prison as a result. He was supposed to walk out of the Nottoway Correctional Center on May 11, after being granted parole on Good Friday. That walk to freedom was delayed a month while a state Inspector General looked into potential errors made by the Parole Board in the case.

The 30-day hold and IG investigation came courtesy of a “John Burkett Crime Insider” piece aired by Richmond’s local CBS News affiliate. Burkett found that the victim’s family, living near Buffalo, NY, wasn’t properly notified of Mr. Martin’s pending parole decison, as Virginia’s statute requires. The story went on to question whether Martin should have been paroled at all, given his heinous crime, and Burkett’s biased report made it clear he thinks men like Mr. Martin unworthy of redemption. As calls for racial equity and criminal justice reform gain ground in Virginia, the “Crime Insider’s” tone deaf fear-mongering seems increasingly out of touch with public sentiment.

Governor Ralph Northam and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran declined to question the Parole Board’s initial disposition, but supported the review and the 30-day delay. The IG report found that the Board, under the previous chair, failed to follow Virginia law and proper procedure when it gave up on notifying Mr. Connors’ family. State legislators are working to strengthen the law, to ensure that the Parole Board follows correct procedure going forward.

Now, Mr. Burkett is seeking the details of six more recent grants of parole to inmates serving life sentences for murder. He’s trying to scare Virginians into believing that the Board is making irresponsible decisions and putting public safety at risk, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Burkett’s “investigations” into these parole cases are offensive and misguided. His lazy and sensationalistic “insider” scoop in Martin’s case – likely fed to him by cozy police sources – described the 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 had improved himself in prison, and didn’t bother to ask Parole Board members why they voted to grant his release. Burkett will take the same imbalanced approach in these other six cases – he always does.

Do you know how hard it is to get parole in Virginia – for anyone convicted of homicide, let alone someone the media has branded a “cop-killer”? Virginians can rest assured 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. Inmates consistently return to their cellblocks from hearings looking dejected, knowing that another rejection letter will follow in a few months.

A gentleman living in the cellblock next door, who was also in for homicide, went up in front of the Board 29 times before finally being granted release this year. How you keep hope alive and keep working to better yourself after the 10th rejection, or the 20th, let alone open yourself up to that disappointment for the 29th time?

Inmates in this state are used to parole disposition letters that provide the same standard reason for rejection every year – “seriousness of the original offense” – which takes no account whatsoever of any self-improvement or atonement made in the intervening years. It’s 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.” Virginia’s Parole Board gave unfavorable decisions 98 percent of the time prior to 2018; that number finally went down incrementally last year. Successful applications may decline again if more reprehensible “Crime Insider” stories are aired 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 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. This state simply doesn’t release murderers after a few years behind bars.

Some will note that good men like Officer Connors never got 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 or any other inmate locked up forever will only serve to further damage even more families.

Spending decades in prison changes a man, sometimes for the better. Mr. Martin could have never been granted his release without a truly impressive and inspiring record of change. That’s what it takes to get a yes from the Parole Board. Most of the time, even that isn’t enough. The other six parolees now being targeted by Burkett’s yellow journalism will have similar stories of positive change; he should take the time to review their hard-won self-betterment before airing his next piece.

John Burkett’s biased and sensationalist “Crime Insider” stories aren’t doing Virginians a public service – they’re local “news” at its worst. Governor Northam, Secretary Moran, and the Parole Board shouldn’t be intimidated when reviewing the cases of deserving inmates who’ve waited decades to rejoin society. Given how high the bar is set for parole success in this state, Virginians can trust that if the Board grants an inmate his release, it has undertaken a careful review and made a thoughtful decision for a man deserving of our mercy.

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