RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office has asked a Virginia court to deny an innocence petition from a man serving a life sentence despite being acquitted of killing a Waverly police officer in 1998.
Miyares’ office sent a letter to the Virginia Court of Appeals last week to reverse the state’s position in the case of Terrence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne, two men serving life in federal prison after a jury found them guilty of drug offenses but not guilty of murdering officer Allen Gibson.
Virginia was backing Richardson’s effort to clear his convictions in state court, which the federal judge cited and used during their sentencing, under his Miyares’ predecessor Mark Herring.
Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said in a statement that the state’s position has shifted after the AG’s office and “an internal working group” of former local prosecutors reviewed the petition and Herring’s stance.
“We are now of the view that both Virginia law and the facts of this case do not support the claim for a writ of actual innocence,” LaCivita said. “We no longer adhere to the claims because they fail to prove innocence, which is necessary for a successful writ of actual innocence.”
Crissianna Gibson, the daughter of officer Gibson, said in a statement provided by Miyares’ office that she always believed that Richardson and Claiborne were guilty and she was “shocked and hurt” by Herring’s decision to back Richardson’s innocence claim.
“At that time, I forced myself to consider the possibility that someone else might be responsible for my father’s death, but I fully support the new Attorney General’s decision to stand behind the guilty pleas these men made almost 25 years ago,” she said. “Terrence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne pled guilty to killing my father because they are guilty, and they should remain guilty in the eyes of the law.”
The men contend they did not kill Gibson with his own handgun over two decades ago in a wooded area behind an apartment complex and questions have emerged over their case.
Gibson told a state trooper who arrived at the scene after he was shot that the gun “just went off” during a struggle with two men, one of which had dreadlocks. Richardson and Claiborne did not have dreadlocks at the time of their arrest and the lawyer asserts there are other suspects who could be responsible.
Fearing a potential death sentence after facing capital murder charges in Gibson’s death, Richardson and Claiborne said they pleaded guilty to lesser charges in 1999 to avoid trial in Sussex County Circuit Court.
Richardson received a five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and Claiborne pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact.
In 2001, federal prosecutors pursued charges of drug trafficking in connection to Gibson’s death. The jury in federal court found the men guilty of the drug crimes but acquitted them in the murder. The judge in the case, however, decided to use their pleas in state court to sentence them to life.
Their appeal efforts have failed in federal court, including the Supreme Court, and then-President Barack Obama denied an executive clemency request.
Their attorney, Jarrett Adams, filed a writ of innocence in the Virginia Court of Appeals on Richardson’s behalf. Claiborne pled guilty to a misdemeanor in state court, so his charges are not eligible for a writ of innocence.
Adams believes politics is in play and he believes someone is trying to hide the truth. He asked, “Why would a candidate who ran on law and order not want to be absolutely positive that they got the right people?” He and others also question how the AG’s office could have fully reviewed the case. An attorney who reviewed the case under Herring is on the record saying it contained thousands of pages with evidence spanning over decades. Adams said, “There’s no way in the way in the world that this office came in and within 30-45 days they made it through almost 10 thousand pages of documents. That I know, because I went through each and every page.”
Adams wrote in a letter to Herring. “Unfortunately, the new administration is now seeking to reverse the position taken by your administration.” He has asked Herring and attorneys from his Wrongful Conviction Integrity Unit that worked on the case to join them in an upcoming hearing. Adams said, “We believe that Mr. Richardson’s chances of success on the merits of his Petition would be greatly enhanced if you issue a public statement in support and also appear alongside us at the upcoming hearing to argue the position set forth in your administration’s Answer.”
When he took office, Miyares fired and replaced all of the members of the four-person Wrongful Convictoin Integrity Unit. The current unit is being led by Theo Stamos, a Democrat and a former commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington, according to Miyares’ office.
There will be oral arguments in the case at the Virginia Court of Appeals on Feb. 22. After the hearing, the court could grant Richardson’s request or deny his petition. The court could also order an evidentiary hearing, as Herring’s office requested, for more facts to be discovered in the case.
This story is developing. Check back for updates.