RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam rounded out the first week of his ‘Thank You, Virginia’ tour by touting a record number of pardons during his term. It comes as Northam is standing by a controversial decision to grant a conditional pardon to a woman convicted of second degree murder.
Northam has granted more than 700 pardons to Virginians over the last four years. That’s more than the last nine governors combined.
Several of those formerly incarcerated individuals shared stories of redemption at a press conference on Friday in the shadow of the Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown’s Island in Richmond.
“It was a blessing to me when I saw that Governor Northam and his staff recognized my change,” said Emerson Stevens, who was granted a conditional pardon last month after being sentenced to 61 years for selling drugs.
“If you have people that are incarcerated and they are constantly rehabilitating themselves…and at the end of the day you still get doors slammed in your face, it takes a lot to continue that change,” Stevens added. “We have to make freedom an incentive.”
The returning citizens explained how being pardoned empowered them to open small businesses, buy property and become advocates for criminal justice reform.
Shawn Weneta described the emotional moment when he learned his pardon request would be granted.
“For the first time during my 16 years in prison, I shed tears. I did it in front of 75 other men that were incarcerated with me,” Weneta said.
The event comes as Northam is under fire for his decision to grant a conditional pardon to Margaret Blair Dacey, the Colonial Heights woman serving 20 years for second degree murder for the 2013 death of Rusty Mack.
In a statement on Friday, Former House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Delegate-elect Mike Cherry (R-Colonial Heights) said, “The sheer lack of input from Rusty Mack’s family is wrong, and once again confirms that the Governor’s version of ‘justice’ ignores victims.”
Asked to respond after the event, Northam expressed sympathy for the family but declined to explain the specific reasons for his decision.
“I work with families that have lost a loved one, especially a child and I don’t think there is anything more difficult,” Northam said.
“Each case is individual. They are very complex. It takes listening to a lot of different people but, you know, we have given over 700 pardons and I believe in second chances and I really don’t want to comment any further on each individual pardon,” Northam furthered.
Northam’s administration also created a clemency system that makes the process equitable, transparent, and timely, according to the governor’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky.
Yarmosky explained that the state now has a “user-friendly” pardons website with a portal enabling individuals to electronically submit a pardon petition, check the status of a pending petition, and provide support or opposition for a petition.
However, some family members and advocates who showed up to the event on Friday argued that the system still is not working as it should.
Cynthia Sydnor, the mother of Hassan Shabazz, came looking for answers on why her son’s pardon petition was denied last month after four years of waiting for a response. She accused the state of failing to properly investigate his request and criticized a lack of transparency throughout the process.
“I just want them to see that there is another side of this picture. There are other families who want their loved ones to come home,” Sydnor said. “My son, we haven’t been able to hold him in 22 years.”
Northam said his administration will continue to review pardon applications through his last day in office, Jan.15.