Attorney General Jason Miyares said Wednesday that former Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett could have been charged with falsifying parole discharge records, but the alleged violations cannot be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has passed.
He also asserted that Bennett "unlawfully suspended" Virginia's "three strikes" parole ineligibility statue, but that Brian Moran, then Virginia's secretary of public safety rejected her bid for "a new, lenient interpretation" of the statute.
A new report from Miyares' office asserts that Bennett ignored state code and board policies as the board released dozens of inmates in the spring of 2020. It also criticizes limited Northam-administration-led investigations into related matters.
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Miyares said during a news conference Wednesday that between February 2020, when Bennett was nominated for a judgeship in Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, and her investiture in April 2020, that the parole board violated a mandate in Virginia law 83 times when "it did not endeavor diligently to contact victims before making their parole decisions."
He said the probe found that the parole board violated Virginia law 66 times in the spring of 2020 by not notifying local prosecutors of an inmate's release.
"To be clear, the actions of the Virginia Parole Board endangered public safety," Miyares said. "Every Virginian was impacted by this release."
The Office of the State Inspector General in 2020 found the parole board violated law and policy, including not properly notifying victims and prosecutors about people being released from prison on parole.
Inquiry into the board’s operations began to percolate after the parole board released 95 people from prison in March 2020 — the Virginia Parole Board's highest number of monthly releases on record. It coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a justification given by the Northam administration at the time.
Miyares called this time period a "parole-granting frenzy."
The Attorney General's report found that in that month the parole board released 35 murderers, 11 rapists and 22 people convicted of armed robbery.
A previous Virginia government watchdog report said the board violated the law and its own policies in releasing Vincent Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing Richmond police officer Michael Connors in 1979.
The new report lists a handful of released people, all who committed violent crimes such as murder, rape or repeated armed robbery. In Martin's case, the report noted that the group reviewed 538 instances of victim opposition to his release from 39 different Virginia localities and nine states. Martin’s case pops up a few times in the report as some stated Bennett’s treatment of him was biased, that she believed he was innocent, and was “rushing” to release him.
“Parole Board policy and procedure allowed Vincent Martin’s parole to be rescinded based on the significant victim opposition," the report says. "However, the Board took no such action."
State code outlines the process for the parole board to investigate criminals’ behaviors while in prison to determine if they could be released. But the report said that Bennett failed to notify victims of Martin's crimes, who are supposed to be able to submit testimony and be aware the incarcerated person may be released.
The Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission later investigated Bennett and suspended her from the bench in Virginia Beach. Bennett filed a petition at the Supreme Court in 2021 challenging her suspension. The court denied her request but put the entire file under seal, only opening up portions of the records in April 2022 after the Richmond Times-Dispatch challenged the sealing.
The Attorney General's report asserts that Bennett “presided over a culture of ignoring the Virginia code, parole board policies and administrative procedures.”
The report says that when the investigators interviewed board employee Crystal Noakes, who assisted with victim contact efforts, she told them that Bennett “would make up policies” that were “convenient.”
Noakes is quoted saying that Bennett’s policy regarding rape victims was that “if it was a rape victim, don’t traumatize the victim by contacting them.”
The report stated that there were also 11 instances of Bennett noting an early discharge request by two employees who oversee the boards’ post release unit — but they say they never made requests.
“Many of the early discharges that Chair Bennett represented as having been requested by “Helen” or “Cal’Vina” had been requested by a different parole officer, but in some cases, there was no request from a parole officer whatsoever,” the report said.
The report also indicates that Bennett operated as if a change in law had occurred — but it didn’t.
In 2018, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, briefly carried a bill that would have given the Parole Board chair “at liberty” discretions, but he ended up tabling it - seeking no further action on the measure - during that session. Bennett and the board went on to implement an unwritten policy that was never posted for public review or review, the report said.
“Moreover, Secretary Brian Moran," secretary of public safety under Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, "specifically rejected the change, stating that it would require action by the General Assembly; finally, the General Assembly declined to take such action, as noted above” it said.
More than lambasting Bennett, the report accuses the Northam administration of bias that obfuscated the actions the parole board took.
The Office of the State Inspector General, a body created to investigate ineffectiveness in state government, conducted an investigation into the parole board as well in 2020. Initially, it released a six- page report, but a longer version was leaked months later.
This led to the General Assembly approving a $250,000 investigation into the OSIG investigation — which the report by the Attorney General's office said was limited and still failed to more deeply explore alleged issues from the parole board.
While the General Assembly authorized $250,000, a spokesperson for Herring at the time said the total ended up coming to $232,000.
Nixon Peabody, the firm hired by then-Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, left out testimony relating to the parole board from the report because its investigation was focused on OSIG instead.
The report outlines possible actions that the parole board and state legislature could take.
First, it suggests that the parole board establish a code of ethics for its members and asserts that it is not the parole board’s purview to investigate whether or not someone was accurately convicted. (Currently, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, has a “second look” bill that would allow incarcerated people who have served at least 15 years to petition a judge to see if they are deemed able to be released early).
The report also suggests the legislature adjust state code so that the parole board can hold public hearings. It says the parole board should ensure victims are notified if an incarcerated person is eligible for release before the board votes on the matter.
It also suggests adjustments to the parole board’s structure, additional staffing suggestions and updates to technology that it uses.
In noting how former governors pardoned certain offenders, both the Attorney General's report and the parole board would support the General Assembly passing a law to require governors to seek victim input before making pardons.
Lawyers for Bennett did not respond with a statement at the time of this publication. Though a statute of limitations may prevent her from being charged for the findings in the report Miyares said "the ball is in the General Assembly's court" if the legislative body seeks to issue articles of impeachment for her current judge role.
Charlotte Rene Woods (804) 649-6254
@CharlotteWords on Twitter