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Editorial: Miyares' promise to investigate the Virginia Parole Board should be kept

Editorial: Miyares' promise to investigate the Virginia Parole Board should be kept

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“We will replace the entire Parole Board on Day One,” boomed Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin during his victory speech.

His promise ties the bow on a gift handed to Youngkin and the rest of the Republican ticket on a silver platter by the Democrats who are soon to be (mostly) out of power. In terms of who’s to blame for this boon that helped Terry McAuliffe lose the election, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and the General Assembly both contributed generously.

As a consequence closer to home, it appears that Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea, a retiree from a 35-year career with the Virginia Department of Corrections who has served on the parole board since 2014, will soon be freed of those responsibilities. Note should be made that Lea has not been specifically accused of any wrongdoing in this mess.

Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but people convicted before that year remain eligible, and among other duties, the Virginia Parole Board considers whether or not to grant release in those cases.

The scandal starts in April 2020 with the release of Vincent Martin, who had served 40 years of a life sentence, convicted of capital murder in the 1979 slaying of Richmond Police Officer Michael Connors.

The chair of the board at the time, Adrianne Bennett, defended the decision to release Martin even as she stepped down to take a post as juvenile and domestic relations court judge in Virginia Beach.

Though he had a violent criminal history, Martin’s conviction resulted from conflicting testimony given by his three co-defendants, who all received much lighter sentences. He had been a model prisoner for decades. The board’s decision to release Martin, while controversial, wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that Connors’ family and prosecutors weren’t notified or given the chance to object or offer testimony as required by law.

In hindsight, Bennett’s comments at the time about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the parole board’s work seem deeply ironic, even hypocritical. “This moment in time calls for an urgent response,” she said. “We also have to make sure that the response is within the parameters of the law and that we are acting responsibly.”

The Office of the State Inspector General, Virginia’s government watchdog agency, began an investigation after receiving complaints through a state hotline. This investigation was administrative, not criminal. The Inspector General’s office concluded that in the handling of at least eight releases of convicted killers, the board violated state law and procedures. The report named Bennett as the main source of the problems.

The convicts set free without proper notification of the victims’ families include Donald Lee Brooks, convicted of second degree murder for slitting the throat of Gerald “Jerry” Hall after shooting him multiple times. Brooks had served less than 10 years of a 28 year sentence. In another instance, the parole board turned off notifications to the grandmother of Gwendolyn “Angel” Thomas before the man who murdered Thomas in 1992, Hugh Joseph Brown, was released.

A Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation found that under Bennett’s watch, more than 100 parolees were released from supervision without any recommendations from parole officers.

Instead of delving further, Northam’s administration chose to question whether the state’s watchdog agency had any right to investigate the parole board in the first place. Inspector General Michael Westfall reportedly feared for his job security after the reprimand, and pledged not to dig any further into the parole board problems.

In the sort of move that makes any sensible person wonder who is trying to hide what from who, Democrats in the General Assembly instead authorized a $230,000 inquiry into whether the lead investigator into the parole board violations, Jennifer Moschetti, was acting out of political bias when she made her original findings.

The law firm that conducted the investigation into Moschetti proclaimed she was indeed biased without ever speaking to her or Bennett, and without making a convincing case for that accusation. By then Moschetti had already been fired, ostensibly for leaking investigation records to lawmakers.

Nothing in the report about Moschetti contradicted the first report substantiating violations of law and procedure by the parole board.

The investigation of the investigator did detail how Bennett, after meeting Martin in 2018, became convinced he likely had been wrongfully convicted. She began manipulating the system to get Martin released, in ways that countermanded established procedure, a revelation that cried out for closer inspection.

The results of a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request by the Times-Dispatch showed that during the month that this investigation of the investigation was authorized, Bennett went on extended leave and instructed court clerks not to contact her with questions.

The debates over all of this had a partisan taint from the get-go — with the justifiable outrage on the Republican side and the disingenuous dissembling on the Democratic side.

Virginia Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares ran an attack ad during his campaign that blamed incumbent Mark Herring for the parole board debacle. Though Herring’s office has nothing to do with the parole board’s decisions to release offenders, the Miyares campaign argued to voters that Herring’s office could have taken steps to address the misconduct.

Now Democrats will have no choice but to watch from the sidelines as the probe they should have authorized proceeds under the guidance of their political opponents.

To the victor goes the sound bites. Miyares says he wants to ensure a future parole board never makes the mistakes that the about-to-be disbanded one has.

“Citizens get frustrated when they feel like there’s no accountability or transparency in government,” Miyares said in at a Richmond news conference. And how.

Miyares has pledged a “deep dive” into the parole board misconduct. His pledge should be kept and conducted in good faith.

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