Virginia prisoners could get chance at release with proposed bills

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CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — Hundreds of inmates given long prison terms in Virginia could get a chance to be released.

Kari Anderson hopes her husband is one of them.

“My husband he’s serving his 20th year of his 130-year sentence,” says Anderson.

Her husband Lemar was 21-years-old when he was convicted of murder and robbery in Virginia Beach, a crime he says he didn’t commit. He was sentenced back in 1998, three years after parole was abolished in Virginia.

Hundreds of inmates given long prison terms in Virginia could get a chance to be released.

“Juries were not informed that parole had been abolished,” explained Anderson.

It wasn’t until 2000, that the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in the Fishback v. The Commonwealth case, that juries – as a matter of fairness- must be told there’s no chance for parole in Virginia.

“When it came down to dispensing sentences they didn’t have all the information to give the proper sentencing,” said Anderson.

“Even today most people believe parole is available to prisoners so when they go to give a sentence they usually take that into consideration,” says Chesterfield resident Rena Wilson. Her husband Greg was also caught in that 5-year parole gap.

Hundreds of inmates given long prison terms in Virginia could get a chance to be released.

“He was sentenced to 47 years,” says Wilson.

The Chesterfield resident’s husband was convicted of second-degree murder and malicious wounding. He claims he acted in self-defense. Regardless, in prison, he’s been working on himself.

“Since he has been in prison he got his GED. He got his journeyman as an electrician,” says Wilson.

Anderson’s husband got his GED too. “He’s maintained a job, he goes to school,” she says.

A bill in the House and a similar bill in the Senate could give their husband’s a chance to be released.

“My bill would make them eligible for parole,” said Senator Jennifer McClellan. The Democrat from the 9th District, which includes Greater Richmond, aims to correct that period of time when jurors weren’t told parole was abolished in Virginia.   

“When we abolished parole the idea behind it was supposed to be, we do truth in sentencing, so if you wanted someone to serve ten years you sentenced them to ten years,” Sen. McClellan explained. 

Hundreds of inmates given long prison terms in Virginia could get a chance to be released.

It’s estimated nearly 300 prisoners could be impacted.

“It’s not a free pass back into the community. You have to work for it,” said Anderson.

Still, others including lawmakers argue there is no evidence juries would have sentenced any differently if they had they been told there’s no parole. Meanwhile, there’s also talk of bringing back parole in Virginia.

Senator McClellan supports a study to consider it. “Things change, people change and part of the whole corrections process is to make people change,” said McClellan.

Meanwhile, Anderson has launched a petition pressing lawmakers to remedy the parole gap. It has more than 600 signatures.

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