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Watchdog agency: Parole Board violated law, policies

(AP) The Virginia Parole Board and its former chairwoman violated state law and its own policies and procedures in granting the release of a man convicted decades ago of killing a Richmond police officer, according to a report from the state’s government watchdog agency that was initially withheld from the public.

Republican legislative leaders made public a six-page report from the Office of the State Inspector General about its investigation into the release of Vincent Martin. The Aug. 6 disclosure came a week after the inspector general’s office provided a version of the report to the media that was almost entirely redacted apart from making clear that at least some allegations against the parole board had been “substantiated.”

According to the report, the inspector general’s office found that the board did not initially provide notification of Martin’s release to the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney within the required time frame, did not “endeavor diligently” as required by law to contact the slain officer’s family before making the decision to release Martin, and did not allow the victim’s family or other interested parties to meet with the board in accordance with the board’s own policies and procedures.

Republicans legislative leaders lambasted the parole board, saying the report showed a pattern of willfully ignoring state law and victims’ rights.

“The degree to which the law was violated is shocking,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert said

GOP leaders said all of the Parole Board’s current members should resign. If they refuse, Republicans said Gov. Ralph Northam should fire them. Republicans also wanted Martin’s parole immediately repealed and him returned to prison, where he could await the new board’s decision on whether he should be set free.

One of the sisters of slain Officer Michael Connors said the report’s findings were “horrific” and “devastating.”

The report said the board’s former chair, Adrianne L. Bennett, was “reluctant” to contact the family of Connors at all.

“The Parole Report prepared by the Victim Services Coordinator noted that Bennett stated she ‘had been working on this case for four years and the family’s input was the last piece of the puzzle and the Board was reluctant to reach out, but is required by law,’” according to the report.

Several Parole Board employees told the inspector general’s office that state law and board policies and procedures regarding victim notification “were not always followed under Bennett’s tenure as Chair,” the report said.

“The employees stated that Bennett was vocal about not wanting to contact victims and particularly not in the (Martin) case due to the expectation of opposition because the victim was a police officer,” it said.

The report found that despite the fact that Martin, who was referred to in the report by his initials, first became eligible for parole in 1994 and received annual parole reviews, Connors’ family had never been contacted for input before this year.

The board also declined to hear input from a co-defendant of Martin’s who had “concerns” with his release, as well as an “alleged prior shooting victim” of Martin’s, according to the report.

“On the one hand, I’d probably say that we are pleased that this has finally come to light. But at the same time, its devastating. … The things she did, the things this parole board did to us, and there’s no recourse,” Maureen Clements, one of Connors’ sisters, said in an interview.

The Associated Press sent a request for comment to the Parole Board’s chair, Tonya Chapman. Chapman previously said in a statement that the findings of the report were based on “are based on factual inaccuracies, a misunderstanding of the Parole Board’s procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code.”

The AP also sent a request for comment to Bennett, who is now a juvenile and domestic relations judge in Virginia Beach.

The redactions in the initial report sparked an outcry from Republican lawmakers and law enforcement advocacy groups who called for all the findings to be made public. Northam’s administration declined requests from AP for a full copy of the report.

Beyond the Martin case, the board has recently come under criticism from prosecutors, victims’ families and members of law enforcement for the types of offenders who were granted parole and allegations that proper notification was not provided under state law.

GOP lawmakers previously called on Northam to issue a moratorium on the release of certain inmates by the board, which the Democratic governor rejected.

The release of Martin, who has previously declined a request to speak with AP, drew particular attention and condemnation from law enforcement groups.

Virginia lawmakers abolished discretionary parole in 1995, so only a small number of the state’s inmates are eligible. Most either committed their crimes before then — and are therefore serving lengthy sentences for serious offenses — or are older than 60 and meet certain conditions making them eligible for geriatric release.

The board is largely exempt from Virginia’s public records law, does not conduct its decision-making in public and does not explain its reasoning for granting releases.

The copy of the report provided to lawmakers asked them not to disseminate it “to preserve the integrity of the investigation.”

It was not immediately clear if the agency, which has a policy of not commenting on potential or pending investigations, is investigating other decisions.

-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press. AP reporter Alan Suderman contributed to this report.

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