Virginia’s Inspector General issues scathing report on Parole Board

Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 5:37 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - The release of an inmate once convicted for the murder of a Richmond police officer sparked debate statewide.

It also sparked an investigation into Virginia’s Parole Board, which is the subject of a scathing report by the Office of the Inspector General.

The report centers on one particular case, but other families in Virginia say they’re having a similar experience with the board.

The case that kick-started the investigation was the parole of a man named Vincent Lamont Martin, announced in early April 2020. As we first reported in May, Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall used his position as the President of the Virginia Police Chief’s Association to speak out against Martin’s release.

“It’s our position that someone who commits a crime of this nature should never, ever be paroled,” Hall told us in May.

The Parole Board had just voted to release Martin, who was convicted twice for the 1979 murder of Richmond Police officer Michael Conners, who was 23 years old at the time. Martin originally faced the death penalty, but after an appeal and a re-trial, he was sentenced to life in prison.

In an April 15 letter about their decision to release Martin, former Board Chair Adrianne Bennett wrote, “Vincent Martin has demonstrated himself over the decades to be a trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor in the correctional community. Vincent Martin consistently receives strong support from Department of Corrections staff.”

Bennett also noted Martin had been infraction-free for 30 years and often prevented and broke up fights in the facility.

Still, many law enforcement agencies, and the Virginia Association of Police Chiefs, vehemently disagreed with the decision.

On a letter on behalf of the agency, Chief Hall asked Governor Northam to put a halt on the order and requested that his office investigate the parole board for errors they believe were made in the decision.

Hall noted Conners’ manner of death in his letter. Hall detailed the moments leading to his death, in which Conners had been called to respond to a 7-Eleven robbery. He made a traffic stop immediately after the robbery.

“Evidence showed that, as Patrolman Conners approached the vehicle, Vincent Lamont Martin exited the vehicle and fired one round from a .357 magnum, which struck Patrolman Conners in the throat. As Patrolman Conners lay on the ground, Martin then emptied his revolver into Patrolman Conners’ face at point-blank range.”

The Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney, Colette Wallace McEachin, wrote a letter April 28 to the Parole Board’s new chair, Tonya Chapman. In it, McEachin wrote in part, “... I respectfully request that the Board reconsider its decision to grant discretionary parole to Mr. Vincent Martin. It is my understanding that the victim’s family wishes to present information which may have been unknown to the Board at the time of review, and that the Board’s decision was therefore based upon incomplete information. Also, given the number and seriousness of Mr. Martin’s convictions, I am concerned about his suitability for parole and the safety of the general public should he return to Richmond.”

McEachin also wrote Virginia Code requires her office to be notified at least 21 business days prior to release on discretionary parole of any inmate convicted of a felony and sentenced to a term of 10 or more years.

McEachin wrote, “Obviously, notifying my office after the Board has made its decision to release an individual on discretionary parole does not allow the Commonwealth’s Attorney time ‘to offer information relative to the parole’ of an inmate while that information could inform the Board’s decision about whether to release the individual.”

The parole board chair noted the disagreement from law enforcement in its letter, saying the rebuttal, “is highly concerning and contradictory to an unbiased criminal justice system.”

Hall disagreed, telling us in May, “That’s ridiculous ... Last time I checked that was part of our society, the opportunity to question public decision.”

The new chair of the parole board took office the day after the previous chair wrote the letter. She had no comment for us at that time. Nor did Roanoke City Mayor Sherman Lea, a member of the Parole Board for six years.

Martin was set to be released from the Nottoway Correctional Facility in Burkeville, Va. May 11. An announcement from the Office of the Inspector General about an independent investigation delayed that.

According to the Associated Press, Martin was released a month later, July 11.

But the report from the OSIG wouldn’t come for a few more weeks.

July 30, WDBJ7 was presented with a copy of the report, dated July 28, that was almost entirely redacted. The beginning of the report simply stated the office was conducting an administrative investigation of the VPB, Case #18647, based on several complaints made to the State Fraud, Waste and Abuse hotline. The redacted letter’s conclusion stated, “The allegations ... are substantiated.” It noted potential recommendations were forthcoming.

Republican lawmakers, including Senators Mark Obenshain and Thomas Norment, requested an un-redacted copy of the report. A press release dated July 31 from the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus noted Section 2.2-313 (B) of the Code of Virginia, which says of OSIG reports‚ “The State Inspector General shall notify the Governor’s chief of staff, the Speaker, Majority Leader and Minority Leader of the House of Delegates, and the President pro tempore, Majority Leader and Minority Leader of the Senate of problems, abuses or deficiencies relating to the management or operation of a state agency or non-state agency.”

August 6, WDBJ7 received an un-redacted copy of the report from the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus.

In its six-page report, the OSIG notes under its Findings of Fact that, “VPB did not initially provide notification to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney within the statutory timeframe.”

It goes on to note also, “VPB did not ‘endeavor diligently’ to contact victims prior to making the decision to release Martin,” as required by code.

“VLM fist became eligible for parole on 1994 and subsequently received annual parole reviews. VPB did not notify the victim’s family of these reviews and records show VPB did not perform any due diligence to contact the family.”

The report also states that VPB employees said in interviews that policies and procedures for proper victim notification were not always followed under Bennett’s tenure as Chair.

The report states, “The employees stated that Bennett was vocal about not wanting to contact victims and particularly not in the VLM case due to the expectation of opposition because the victim was a police officer.”

The report also said one employee states Bennett instructed the Victim Services Unit that if the victim of a crime was deceased, no further victim research notification needed to be performed.

The report also notes the OSIG found the board did not allow the family or other interested parties to meet with the board, and that one of Martin’s co-defendants, as well as an alleged prior shooting victim of Martin, were denied an opportunity to submit their opinions to the board for consideration.

Lastly, the report states Bennett did not cause the meeting of minutes for the board, and that there are no records of VPB meeting minutes for October 2019 through March 2020.

The day after the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus released this report, Senators Obenshain and Norments, along with Delegate Todd Gilbert, held a press conference over Zoom. They called on the board to resign or be fired by Governor Ralph Northam. They also called for Martin to be returned to prison.

July 31, the VPB released a statement in response to the OSIG report.

In it, current Chair Chapman wrote the board was not able to comment on the information contained in the report. But, she wrote, the OSIG’s conclusions “are based on factual inaccuracies, a misunderstanding of the Parole Board’s procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code.” She concludes the statement by saying the OSIG’s investigation does not impact the final decisions rendered by the board, as the decisions rest solely with the Parole Board.

We reached out again Friday to Mayor Sherman Lea. He referred us to Chapman’s statement, adding he too felt the report contained inaccuracies, and he was confident the board followed all policies and procedures.

But it’s clear some other Virginia families have similar complaints against the board.

“We watched our dad bleed to death in front of us, you know from a gaping gunshot wound to his chest and to his face,” Shane Smith told WDBJ7 Friday. “... So we feel like because he escaped the death penalty, you know, life in prison, he can still, he’s still alive. My dad’s not alive anymore.”

Smith’s father, Clifford Smith, was killed in front of him in April 1975 by Earl David Inge. Smith said his family had just moved to Virginia from North Carolina so that his dad could go to seminary school at what is now Liberty University. They were living in Lynchburg for less than a year when Smith said someone tried to break into their home, unaware Smith’s father was home. The elder Smith allegedly chased him out of the home and identified the would-be burglar as Inge.

About two weeks later, Smith said Inge returned to his home and shot his father from outside the home. Smith saw it happen. He was 5 years old.

Convicted of Smith’s murder, Inge was incarcerated before parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995. So, at some point, he became eligible for parole every year.

And each year, Smith works to fight it.

He said he, his mom and his brother provide statements and paperwork to the board and travel to have an in-person conversation with the nearest parole board member.

He said, whenever he tells his dad’s story, his murder is as vivid to him as the day it happened.

At some point, Inge also became available for geriatric parole, meaning his case went before the parole board twice a year. Smith’s family petitioned. Now, Inge is technically up for regular parole once every three years, while still facing potential geriatric parole each year.

But a few months ago, Smith said they almost didn’t get the chance to petition when Inge’s parole came up unexpectedly early.

“We got a call and she told us, just ‘hey, you guys should know he’s getting ready to walk out and it’s imminent,‘” he said, saying it wasn’t the role of the person calling to deliver this information.

Smith said he felt the Virginia Parole Board didn't do its due diligence in contacting victims, neglecting its own policy.

Smith says he doesn’t know he can trust the board’s decisions with his father’s case.

Hall said Friday, he fears there are more cases like these.

The Office of the Inspector General is working on recommendations based on its findings.

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