During March and April 2020, while Southwest Virginia like most of the rest of the world was reeling in shock from a new virus from China and people were in fear of illness, dying, and what lay ahead, Virginia’s Parole Board (VPB) seemingly took advantage of the distraction and went on an unprecedented, illegal releasing spree.
At the time, Virginia’s governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general (AG) were all Democrats. Then-Governor Ralph Northam was working to restore his image damaged by his twin scandals: seemingly excusing infanticide in a radio interview and his racist yearbook photo from his medical school days.
There is no evidence that Gov. Northam or then-AG Mark Herring sought to stop or correct the rogue parole board. If anything, that administration’s professed claims of “social justice” may have helped create the environment that fueled the parole board to break so many laws and norms and release criminals illegally.
Despite Covid grabbing most headlines during those early months of 2020, by that summer some news stories began reporting on a seemingly out-of-control parole board, such as this Roanoke Star column from August.
As the public gradually became more aware of the news of murderers and rapists being released early without victims’ families being notified, outrage grew. In addition to a renewed support for parental rights and safe schools, the parole board scandal was another factor that helped trigger the surprise GOP November 2021 sweep of the state’s top three offices. In fact, then-candidate Glenn Youngkin pledged repeatedly on the campaign trail, if elected, “On Day One I’m going to fire the entire parole board and replace them.”
Immediately honoring his campaign promise, newly-elected Gov. Youngkin on his first day of office, January 15, 2022, issued Executive Order Number Three in which he charged the new Attorney General, Jason Miyares, to conduct a thorough investigation of the scandal and make sure it never happened again. Moreover, Youngkin unceremoniously fired the entire scandal-plagued Parole Board, which included Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. (D), and replaced them with five new members.
Last week AG Miyares, the first Latino to hold that position in the Old Dominion, fulfilled his duty on January 25 by issuing a 69-page report detailing the scandal. The report singles out former Chair Adrianne Bennett as primarily responsible for allowing the Parole Board to go rogue and repeatedly break both the law and procedures in multiple incidences.
Attorney General Miyares issued the following statement on the report:
“Under Chair Adrianne Bennett, the Virginia Parole Board endangered public safety and abused its power by releasing dozens of violent felons against Parole Board policies, and frequently in clear violation of a court order or Virginia law. Judge Bennett’s brazen abuse of her power put Virginians’ safety at risk so that she could promote a criminal-first, victim-last agenda without regard for victims or their safety.”
“I thank the hard work of my team to compile this report and look forward to working with the General Assembly and the current Parole Board to promote trust and transparency in its actions and ensure the victims of violent crime are never again ignored, silenced, or overlooked. The reckless disregard for the law described in my office’s report must never again be repeated.”
For everyone’s safety, early releases for a parolee require many steps: a parole officer’s request; information if the parolee has pending charges, positive drug screens, or is employed; notification of the victim or his or her family, and many other requirements. However, the Parole Board repeatedly violated those safeguards.
One of the more bizarre examples cited in the report is an April 7, 2020 email exchange between Chair Bennett and Parole Board administrative assistant Laura Hall that is listed on page 22. It states: “Hall confirms the established understanding that early discharges from parole could not be initiated without a parole officer’s request: (…) Chair Bennett, however, was seemingly undeterred by any Parole Board or VA Department of Corrections (VADOC) policy regarding early discharges (emphasis in the report’s text). Though she placed her official imprimatur as Parole Board Chair on the certificates of early discharge from parole supervision, she conducted little, if any, oversight to determine whether her staffer had selected appropriate candidates for final discharge.”
“In an email exchange with Laura Hall, Bennett says ‘I will release anyone you say to release!’—and she meant it. She later says ‘Waive (sic) that wand of power and let’s cut them loose. There needs to be a silver lining to all this! Give me more!!!’” (emphasis in the report’s text)
In that same April 7 email chain Hall wrote Bennett: “Ugh!! I thought you were looking behind me. Pleze (sic), I feel drunk with power.”
Page 23 of the report reads: “Hall told us she ‘had no control’ and that she ‘got caught up in what was going on.’ Hall stated that ‘[Bennett] asked and I provided.’ Hall also described Chair Bennett as ‘fly[ing] in on two wheels,’ ‘a hot mess,’ and ‘not calm or collected.’ Hall also questioned why she was involved so much and wondered if Bennett ‘[took] advantage of asking me,’ but believed she was simply helping fulfill the request of the Parole Board Chair.”
In a four-page Fact Sheet that summarized the full report, the Attorney General’s team explained the seriousness behind the scandal. A few examples are cited below.
- In 2020, the Virginia Parole Board’s actions came under elevated public scrutiny
after it released 95 offenders in March 2020 – the highest number of releases
ever granted in a single month.
- The 95 offenders released in March 2020 included:
o 4 capital murderers
o 31 first degree murderers
o 11 rapists
o 33 offenders convicted of robbery
- Of the 134 offenders released between March 2020 and April 2020, 130 of them
were convicted of violent crimes. Only four were non-violent.
- These offenders were not released due to COVID-19 and the Parole Board was
not given authority to release offenders due to the pandemic. Instead, they were
released due to the traceable actions of one person: then Parole Board Chair
Adrianne Bennett. Bennett is now a judge for the 2nd Judicial District Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
- Victims were systematically ignored, disregarded, and silenced. The board violated the mandate to “endeavor diligently” to contact victims 83 times in a two-month period. The Parole Board failed to notify families that the offenders who murdered, raped, and robbed their loved ones were going to be granted parole. Victims were not granted the opportunity to speak at parole hearings.
- For example, the case of Vincent Martin, who murdered Richmond police officer Michael Connors and whose release generated coverage from local media, had 528 instances of victim opposition to his release from 39 different VA localities and 9 different states. (emphasis in the report) VPB policy and procedure allowed for his parole to be rescinded based on significant victim opposition, but no action was taken.
- Hugh Brown was sentenced to life in prison for shooting his pregnant girlfriend to death and setting her body on fire. Chair Bennett called his crime “sociopathic” in 2018 and he was denied parole in March 2020, but Chair Bennett ensured he received an “extra review” in April for his release. She ordered staff to stop the victim notification system from alerting the victims. (emphasis in the report)
- The board failed to properly notify local Commonwealth’s Attorneys of its
release decisions 66 times during this period.
- Chair Bennett unilaterally discharged 137 violent offenders from parole
supervision in her final days with the board – most of whom were convicted of
capital or first-degree murder.
o 70% of these early discharges were convicted of murder,
o 10% multiple murders/manslaughter,
o 7% single capital murder,
o 52% single first degree murder
o The average sentence per offender given early discharge was 104.14
years – life plus 28.
- Chair Bennett committed 111 violations of the Parole Board policy manual for
failing to obey the requirement that parolees be on supervision for 5 years and be
recommended by a parole officer first before early discharge can be granted.
- Under Chair Bennett’s direction, VPB released over 50 violent offenders in
March and April 2020 whom parole examiners had recommended against
releasing because they were still a danger to the community. (emphasis in the report)
- Former Attorney General Herring’s administration made no attempt to publicly or
privately correct the Parole Board’s widespread noncompliance with the law.
Herring took no court action. In the aftermath of the OSIG reports, Herring’s
office acted as the Parole Board’s publicist by helping the Board respond to
negative media coverage, but never counseling the Board to correct illegal
In his January 25 announcement, Miyares announced that the statute of limitations regarding this situation has passed. Therefore, no one involved in the scandal will be held accountable in a court of law. However, in a January 31 email to his constituents, Del. Chris Head (R-Botetourt/Roanoke) wrote: “Tomorrow morning at 8:30am I’ll be appearing on The John Reid Show on WRVA to talk about the Attorney General’s report on the Virginia Parole Board and my calls for Judge Adrianne Bennett to resign.”
The Roanoke Star has reached out to the office of Mayor Lea, asking him if he has any comment or explanation to the reading community about this scandal or his role in it. No response has been received as of publication time.
Read the attached fact sheet HERE:
Read the full report HERE:
This story was updated January 31, 2023.