VACP President's Letter: "National Police Week in Virginia: A Somber Time… for Several Reasons"
Chief Howard B. Hall
President, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation
Chief of Police, Roanoke County Virginia
Since 1962, this week has been designated to recognize and remember law enforcement officers whose lives have been lost in the line of duty. In Washington, DC, the National Law Enforcement Memorial has the names of more than 21,000 fallen heroes carved on its walls. The men and women whose names are on the wall stand between the decent, law-abiding citizens of our country and those who victimize them. They are, indeed, the thin blue line.
Normally, memorial events would take place throughout our country to honor our heroes. Unfortunately, they won't take place this year due to the effects of COVID-19. Safety considerations will prevent them.
Police Week in Virginia will be particularly troubling. It is always a somber occasion when we remember our fallen heroes; however, recent events have made this week especially sad. In particular, I am referring to the decision of the Virginia Parole Board to release Vincent Martin, who was convicted in 1980 of brutally murdering a Richmond Police Officer. The facts of this case are worth repeating.
In the early hours of Nov. 13, 1979, Vincent Martin and some accomplices robbed a convenience store in Richmond. This was not Martin's first offense. He was convicted in late 1972 for using a sawed-off shotgun during two robberies, where he shot at least one person. He was convicted and was given a lengthy sentence in prison. He was paroled only 7 years later, undoubtedly to give him a second chance. It didn't take long for Martin to return to his criminal ways.
After robbing the store in 1979, the getaway car in which Martin was riding traveled the wrong way down a one-way street and was spotted by Richmond Police Officer Michael Connors. Officer Connors pulled the getaway car over but was unaware of the robbery that had just taken place. As Officer Connors exited his police car, Martin got out and stood at the rear of the getaway car. He shot Officer Connors five times. The evidence suggested that the first shot hit Officer Connors in the neck. Subsequently, Martin stood over Officer Connors and fired four more shots into his head. By anyone's standards, this was a heinous and brutal crime.
Martin was arrested and convicted of the capital murder of a police officer, for which he received a death sentence. He was later granted a new trial based on a procedural error during jury selection. He was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison. By all accounts, this should have been the end of the story. A brutal murderer sentenced to life in prison should never again see beyond the prison walls. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In March, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police was contacted by some of Officer Connors' former colleagues who had learned that Vincent Martin was granted parole. Since that time, we have worked to learn about how this transpired and have expressed our concerns to numerous public officials including Governor Ralph Northam, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, the Virginia General Assembly, the current and former Chairpersons of the Virginia Parole Board, and the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney. We have been joined in this effort by many concerned citizens, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, the Virginia State Police Association, the Concerns of Police Survivors and others. What we have found is beyond troubling.
Last year when Martin was reviewed for parole, his release was not recommended by the Parole Board. The only board change between April 2019 and April 2020 was the appointment of Kemba Smith Pradia on September 30, 2019. Prior to her appointment, Pradia held the position of State Advocacy Campaigns Director with the ACLU of Virginia. There has been no explanation of what other factors may have changed to make Martin a candidate for release. In fact, when the Parole Board's decision was questioned, the former chairperson, Adrianne Bennett, released a statement criticizing both our Executive Director and the Richmond Police Chief for expressing their concerns. Based on her statement, it appears that she conducted her own investigation that led her to conclude that Martin may not be guilty. The verdict of guilt was decided by a jury many years ago and is settled unless changed by a judge. I applaud both Ms. Schrad and Chief Smith for their efforts to challenge a decision that is an affront to every law enforcement officer and law-abiding citizen in Virginia and beyond. How dare Ms. Bennett question our right to hold public officials accountable!
The huge outcry of protest about this terrible decision has raised some very concerning issues:
- What changed about Martin in one year that made him worthy of parole?
- What happened in the hearing examination process that may have been in violation of law, rules, regulations or ethical considerations that resulted in a release decision?
- Is it proper and ethical for the Parole Board chair to initiate an investigation into the trial and conviction without benefit of the judicial system to reach a determination that Martin is innocent? Is that power within the purview of the Parole Board? If there is a question of innocence, why isn't that a decision for the courts?
- How is it proper for the outgoing Parole Board chair, now a juvenile and domestic relations court judge, to chastise the Richmond Police Chief and the VACP Executive Director in an official Parole Board release for raising our opposition to the release of Martin?
- It is alleged that there were no efforts in 40 years to contact Officer Connors' family to give them their right to engage in the parole review process, rights that are guaranteed to them in the Virginia Constitution, and an allegation that Connors' family members have confirmed.
We are pleased that, after extensive media coverage and requests by numerous citizens and organizations, as well as several members of the General Assembly, Vincent Martin's parole has been delayed. We appreciate the support from Senator Mark Obenshain, Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Senator Thomas Norment, Jr., and Delegate Robert Bell. Not only did they request the delay in Martin's parole but have called for a moratorium on the release of all violent felons by the Virginia Parole Board. We applaud their efforts and strongly support the moratorium. (Ed. Note: Governor Northam has rejected this proposal.)
We understand that the Virginia Inspector General has initiated an investigation into possible improprieties and/or procedural or legal violations by the Parole Board in the Martin case, and hopefully in other cases as well. We are pleased that this desperately needed investigation is underway. It has come to our attention that sex offenders have been released or scheduled for release without GPS ankle bracelets. It has come to our attention that the Board has scheduled parole releases based on hearing examiner reports that are brief (one or two sentences) and appear to be insufficient examinations according to the parole review process. It is our understanding that the Inspector General's Office has interviewed at least one individual who has reason and knowledge to believe that the Parole Board's processes should be questioned for ethical and procedural violations. If any of these are true, the Parole Board is not only negligent in the performance of its responsibilities, it is putting every law-abiding citizen in the Commonwealth of Virginia at risk. We urge the Inspector General to invest the time necessary to thoroughly investigate these issues and any others that might arise and not be bound by any artificial time line.
The Board's processing of parole reviews in the past two months has happened at a furious pace, which begs the question: how can the Board and its staff fully review and do due diligence in the review and approval of parole? How many victims and Commonwealths' Attorneys have not received the proper notice and opportunity to engage in the parole process during this time? Do concerns about the COVID-19 virus outweigh the Constitutional rights of victims? How far can the authority of the Parole Board be extended administratively to allow the violation of normal procedures and rules, and under what circumstances?
We are grateful that the first steps have been taken to stop these dangerous decisions but we fear that this is really part of a broader effort to release an increasingly larger number of criminals into our communities. Recently, the General Assembly, over the objections of the aforementioned members, passed an emergency bill to allow for the immediate release of certain inmates. This was done under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Seventeen members sent a letter to the Governor urging, amongst other things, that we “use every tool at our disposal to reduce the inmate population.” They described the criminals in our prisons as some of our most vulnerable residents and even compared them to patients in nursing homes. Really! Nowhere in this letter is there any mention of the reasons that these criminals are in jail. It's because they have been arrested on probable cause, convicted based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and sentenced by a court. It's because they have chosen to prey on our citizens. In other words, they are in prison because of their own actions. Comparing them to patients in a nursing home is outrageous.
What I have described is the goal of those who advocate for “criminal justice reform.” This is actually a concerted effort to release criminals back into our communities either through parole or early release as well as eliminating or reducing cash bail. The justification is based on the concept of “mass incarceration.” The legislators who wrote the aforementioned letter note that more than 57,000 criminals are currently in Virginia's jails and prisons. That is six-tenths of one percent of our 8.5 million residents. Since we know that a very small segment of our population (1-6% depending on the study) is responsible for most violent crime, this is not surprising. What these activists fail to acknowledge is that, despite its faults, our system of justice has been the most effective in the world for more than 200 years.
We have been through this before. For those of us who worked in law enforcement in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, it harkens back to times when consideration for criminals outweighed consideration for victims and society in general. Crime was much higher and citizens demanded action. Elected leaders of both parties passed legislation that increased accountability for offenders and made victims a higher priority. Criminals went to jail and, especially for violent crimes, stayed. Not surprisingly, crime was reduced to historic lows. People felt safer because they were safer. While we continue to enjoy the results of these efforts, we are in danger of squandering years of hard work to appease the ideals of radical activists. How soon we forget.
It is expected that reasonable people may debate and disagree about how criminals should be punished in our society. New ideas that show promise in helping criminals change their behavior and function as productive citizens are worth trying and evaluating. There is no doubt, however, that there will always be certain crimes that are so heinous and repulsive that the perpetrators can never go free. The murder of a police officer must be at the top of that list along with other capital crimes. Those that choose to make a career of violent crime deserve the same. These people will never pay their debt to society and, while prison will not likely cause rehabilitation, it will prevent them from victimizing more of our citizens.
The release of convicted criminals into our communities will place the safety of law-abiding citizens in jeopardy. In general, this might take some time; however, other states who are following this dangerous path are already suffering. Here are some recent headlines:
Dozens of NYC inmates back in jail after coronavirus release (New York Post, April 19)
Florida inmate released from jail due to coronavirus arrested again — this time on a murder charge (USA Today, April 15)
Fair or dangerous? Days after ending cash bail, New York has second thoughts (NBC News, January 7)
Arrested 4 times in 3 weeks: L.A. police blame zero bail for rise in repeat offenders (LA Times, April 30)
Do we want this in Virginia? I hope not. I think that the overwhelming majority of our citizens want to be safe in their communities and want criminals to be held accountable. Ronald Reagan once said:
We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions
This is just as applicable today as it was in the 80s.
Our police chiefs and law enforcement officers are committed to ensuring your safety but we need the help of our citizens. Before the misconduct of the Parole Board gets worse, before our elected leaders can continue down the path of placing consideration for criminals before law-abiding citizens, and before our crime rates rise, we all must demand that accountability be restored and that dangerous criminals be kept in prison for the duration of their sentences.
While we reflect and honor our fallen heroes this week, we also must demand that the sacrifice made by Officer Michael Connors and his family be honored. The only way to do that is to keep Vincent Martin in prison to serve the life sentence that was lawfully and rightfully imposed by our courts.