RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced steps on Thursday designed to help ease a backlog of requests for pardons and smooth the application process.
Northam’s office said in a news release that there’s been a “major influx” of pardon petitions during his administration and that of previous Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Northam has declined to disclose the number of cases in the backlog or the number of state employees assigned to investigate cases.
The governor’s office redesigned its pardon website and petition portal and is eliminating a requirement that petitioners obtain a copy of their criminal history from the Virginia State Police, which can be expensive.
“The launch of this new website and petition portal furthers the governor’s commitment to transparency and good government for the people of Virginia,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said in the release. “Enabling Virginians to submit their petitions online also improves efficiency of the clemency process, allowing pardons staff to spend less time opening and sorting mail and more time reviewing petitions.”
Northam’s office also announced the appointment of a new member to the Virginia Parole Board, the scandal-plagued panel that reviews requests for pardons and decides whether certain inmates should be paroled.
Northam appointed Lethia Hammond, who has been an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Botetourt County, to the board as vice chairman. Hammond replaces Linda Bryant, who is now a judge in Chesapeake.
Hammond teaches law at Washington and Lee University and is a member of the Western Regional Child Fatality Review Team, the Blue Ridge Prevention Coalition, and the Multidisciplinary [Child Abuse and Sexual Assault] Task Force, according to the governor’s office.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I am proud of the second chances we are providing Virginians,” Parole Board Chairwoman Tonya Chapman said in the release. “I welcome Lethia Hammond to the Virginia Parole Board and am grateful for the determination and perspective she will bring to our critical work.”
The board remains under scrutiny following last year’s findings by the Office of the State Inspector General that the board violated policy and state law in the process used for releasing convicted killers. Former Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett, now a judge in Virginia Beach, went on “extended leave” from the bench in April, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported this week. The circumstances remain unclear.
The governor’s release said “thousands” of pardon petitions were pending when McAuliffe took office in 2014.
The extensive review process means most decisions don’t receive a decision for “several years,” the news release said. By the time his term ends next year, Northam expects to have granted more pardons than all other Virginia governors combined. He has granted nearly 300 so far.
One case in the backlog is that of Jermaine Doss, who has always insisted he is innocent of hiring someone to kill another man in Norfolk in 1998. His family asked then-Gov. Bob McDonnell for a pardon in 2013.
More than seven years later they still don’t have an answer, but remain hopeful.
“A pardon provides unique relief to individuals with exceptional circumstances who have demonstrated rehabilitation,” the release said. “If an individual feels they are able to provide substantial evidence of such exceptional circumstances, they may petition the governor for a pardon.”