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State agency issues new reports into alleged misconduct at Parole Board

Published: Oct. 19, 2020 at 1:20 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - A state agency says it can prove several new allegations of misconduct within Virginia’s Parole Board. Seven new reports from the Inspector General have come in along with another, released in July, which scrutinized the release of man convicted of murder.

The week of October 5, we learned the Office of the State Inspector General, or OSIG, concluded investigations based on complaints about the parole of several Department of Corrections offenders.

Of those seven new reports, a summary from OSIG states they were able to substantiate a number of the claims. In his memo, State Inspector General Michael Westfall said the period covered by the review was from December 2018 through August 2020. He wrote the complaints were aimed at the Board in general as well as former Chair Adrianne Bennett. Westfall said in his summary that his office received seven allegations that VPB did not provide notification of an offenders' pending parole to the respective Commonwealth’s Attorneys at least 21 days prior to the inmate’s release; this being required for discretionary parole of inmates convicted of a felony and sentenced to a term of 10 or more years. It was the same complaint lodged at the board in the case of Vincent Lamont Martin, convicted in the early 1980s of the murder of a Richmond police officer.

According to OSIG, their investigation substantiated five of the seven allegations of this type.

They were also able to substantiate seven of seven allegations that the Board did not “endeavor diligently,” as required by law, to contact victims prior to making any decisions to release offenders on discretionary parole. OSIG also reported it was able to substantiate one case in which the Board did not adhere to its procedural manual in handling a geriatric parole case. Lastly, the summary, dated October 6, stated that OSIG received one allegation that VPB granted an offender parole after serving only one-third of his/her sentence. Westfall wrote that while that allegation was accurate, the Board did comply with statute in that case.

“It seems one of the main issues here is transparency," Lynchburg’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison told WDBJ7 the week of October 5.

Harrison said she’s experienced similar issues as those allegations listed in OSIG’s summary this year with the Board in the case of Earl David Inge.

Inge was convicted of killing Clifford Smith in April 1975. His son, Shane Smith, said someone tried to break into their house, 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.

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 in May, 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.

But Smith and Harrison are not sure this case is addressed in the seven new reports.

That’s because they are heavily redacted.

“We want transparency in government, why government agencies are making the decisions they’re making and if there are problems," she said, "we deserve to know.”

The report on the investigation into the Martin case was also released to members of the media as a heavily redacted copy, saying only that the allegations were substantiated. Its contents were only available after Republican leadership in the General Assembly requested copies of the report and the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus distributed it to members of the media.

They are attempting to do the same with these seven new reports. In a release dated October 6, Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) and House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) called on OSIG to provide them with unredacted copies of the reports.

“'The failure of General Westfall to provide complete and unredacted copies of these reports undermines his credibility and damages the independence of his office,'" Norment wrote in the release, adding, “'The production of a sanitized summary of misconduct by the Parole Board has all of the hallmarks of a coverup.'”

“VPB aggressively reviewed a number of cases at the onset of this pandemic, in light of that there were some, you know, admittedly some deficiencies in some of the notices. And OSIG has been investigating that,” said Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran.

During Governor Northam’s Covid-19 press conference Tuesday, October 13, Moran was asked whether he might release the reports.

“The report is property of OSIG, it is their authority, obligation, responsibility to determine whether or not that gets released," he said, later adding, "Parole board is working diligently to make sure all the notices, all the appropriate policies and procedures performed for victim notification as well as prosecutors are adhered to and followed and we’re well aware of the complaints and deficiencies and we’re correcting them.”

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea declined an interview on the subject.

So did the Board’s new chairperson, Tonya Chapman.

Since taking over leadership on the Board April 16, Chapman has spearheaded the response to OSIG’s investigations. In July, she issued a short statement in response to OSIG’s findings in the Martin case. Chapman had written in a July 31 statement that OSIG’s conclusions “are based on factual inaccuracies, a misunderstanding of the Parole Board’s procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code.” The statement went on to say that OSIG’s investigation does not impact the final decisions rendered by the Board.

Even still, Chapman has since said the Board would be reviewing policies and procedures and is already in the process of making changes.

Following its initial report on the Martin case, OSIG released a document of 10 recommendations for the Board, which included developing a Code of Ethics' reviewing all policies, procedures and statutes; improving communication with victims and their families; developing standard questions for victim board appointments; developing policy and procedure for the voting process for Board members; documenting reasons for grant and non-grant decisions; developing standardized communication forms; and review and develop notification procedures.

Chapman said in a subsequent letter the Board had taken action which included additional practices for a thorough review of every case before it is certified. She has since said the board would be reviewing policies and procedures, in addition to other actions, telling WDBJ7 in an email that “the OSIG review did indeed highlight several inconsistencies that need to be addressed.”

The Board’s procedural manual has not been updated since 1996 and its policy manual has not been updated since 2006.

Chapman said in her email to WDBJ7 that because of the pandemic, the Governor and General Assembly authorized the Department of Corrections to implement early release plans for offenders with a year or less left in their sentences. To limit the spread of COVID-19 and minimize risk to staff, she said the Board expedited review of eligible cases, which meant more cases were reviewed and subsequently granted.

“While these measures were taken in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the unintended consequence was that a limited number of individuals granted discretionary parole or geriatric conditional release by VPB had their release date set prior to the Commonwealth’s Attorney notification requirements being met," Chapman said in her email. "However, once the issue was brought to the VPB’s attention, the VPB took immediate action to resolve the issue. The VPB Chair immediately contacted the Director of DOC to adjust the release dates of the other impacted offenders to provide enough time for the 21-day courtesy notification.”

“It is concerning that only now that members of the parole board are stating they need to look at their procedures to make sure they are following the law considering we’d never heard any such complaints of this nature until this year," said Harrison.

In May, Harrison said she learned of Inge’s imminent release from a Facebook post from a member of Clifford Smith’s family. She said she immediately contacted the Parole Board.

“Once I saw that post and our office spoke to the Smith family, I did write a letter to the Virginia Parole Board and copied the Secretary of Public Safety, Brain Moran, and sent a copy to the Governor Northam," she said. "This last quarter I’ve written another letter in opposition of parole I sent to Secretary Moran and to the Virginia Parole board.”

Inge is scheduled for a parole hearing in December. Harrison is hopeful for change.

“We have a standard. The law is to endeavor diligently to seek out victims and their families for notifications," she said. "That’s already the law. What we need is some sort of checks and balances in place to make sure that law and those procedures are being met.”

Meanwhile, Chapman said the final review of policies and procedures was delayed by OSIG’s investigation. She said because certain revisions require the Governor’s approval, the Board decided not to submit the revised manuals until after the 2020 Special Session. Chapman is also requesting more money and personnel to carry out the necessary changes, including the funding of positions for a victim services assistant, an office manager, parole examiners and additional investigator positions.

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