Opponents have slim chance of reversing parole board decision releasing convicted killer of Richmond officer

The VACP is appalled and disappointed with the Parole Board's decision to release Vincent Martin. Efforts are underway to block the release.
By MARK BOWES | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Richmond patrolman Michael P. Connors, 23, was shot four times in the head after making a traffic stop.

Vincent Lamont Martin was sentenced to prison 40 years ago.

A loosely coordinated effort by law enforcement groups and individual officers, current and retired, to overturn a decision by Virginia's Parole Board to release a man sentenced 40 years ago to life in prison for murdering a Richmond police officer is likely to go nowhere, officials say.

Greatly troubled by the decision, some police officials and organizations, such at the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, have contacted Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin, with the belief that she can intervene and overturn the parole board's 4-0 ruling that granted Vincent Lamont Martin parole. He has served nearly 40 years of a life sentence for the Nov. 13, 1979 murder of Richmond patrolman Michael P. Connors.

Other individuals and police groups, such as Richmond United for Law Enforcement, are encouraging supporters to email or send letters to the parole board, asking they rescind their decision.

But both efforts appear to have little chance of success.

McEachin, in response to an inquiry from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said she has no legal authority to intervene. “In the past 48 hours, my office has received a number of emails expressing deep concern regarding the Virginia Parole Board's decision to grant discretionary parole to Vincent Martin following his conviction of capital murder for the execution of Officer Michael Patrick Connors,” McEachin wrote in an email. “Some of those emails indicated that the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office had the authority to review, appeal or reverse the decision of the Parole Board. That is incorrect.”

The General Assembly, she noted, has designated the Parole Board as the exclusive and final authority to grant or deny parole.

“While an offender who is denied parole may appeal that decision, or ask for a reconsideration of that decision, there is no such opportunity provided to the victim or the victim's family when the board decides to grant parole,” McEachin said. “Only the board may subsequently rescind its decision to release an offender.”

“In summary, there is currently no law or process which permits any court or appointed or elected official to review or appeal the decision to grant parole,” she said. “Therefore, the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office has no legal authority to review, alter, or effect the decision of the Virginia Parole Board to grant discretionary parole to Vincent Martin.”

Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett, who has taken the brunt of the criticism, has made clear that the panel's action in final, and it will not be reconsidered. “There is no authority to block it,” she said.

In a letter released Wednesday to address concerns about the board's decision, Bennett expressed dissatisfaction with the public opposition and outcry.

“Ignited by the officer's family, the Richmond Police chief, along with other law enforcement organizations have joined a disappointing chorus of opposition to the parole board's decision,” she wrote. “While this tactic has worked with parole boards in other states, this board does not respond to this type of pressure campaign.”

Some officials said they hope Bennett's successor, former Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman, would reconsider the decision when she begins work Thursday as the board's new chair. Bennett, who has been the chair since 2017, is leaving Thursday to begin work as a juvenile and domestic relations court judge in Virginia Beach.

Bennett says the parole board conducted their own investigation of Martin's conviction — reading hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, among other things — and concluded there was a “dark cloud of injustice” in the case. In particular, she noted the “conflicting testimony” of the three co-defendants — Martin's mates on the night of the killing — who all testified against him.

Bennett also highlighted Martin's rehabilitation in prison, where she said he earned a reputation as a “trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor.”

In a letter released Wednesday about the board's decision, Bennett quoted a corrections department staff member who noted that Martin, “over the decades,” has prevented numerous fights, stabbings and deaths of inmates, in addition to helping quell an “uprising” at one state prison.

“He has been infraction-free for over 30 years,” Bennett wrote.

The slain officer's family, who live in New York, said they are shocked and anguished by the decision, and are questioning how the parole board can essentially supersede the work of the jury who convicted Martin four decades ago.

“We don't understand why the parole board, 40 years later, can just say, ‘We looked at the evidence and we think there's a cloud of injustice,' ” said Maureen Clements, who was 17 when her brother was shot and killed in Richmond.

Clements said Martin was convicted of capital murder, was originally sentenced to die, but then was sentenced to life in prison after the Virginia Supreme Court overturned his death sentence.

The brutality of Martin's crime in 1979 “shows the type of person he is,” Clements said. “This kind of person is not capable of rehabilitating.”

According to Times-Dispatch accounts of Martin's trial, a state medical examiner testified that the officer suffered three gunshot wounds to the right side of his head, another to the bridge of his nose and fifth to the right side of his neck. The shots to the head were fired at close range, while the shot to the neck was fired further away.

Two of Martin's cohorts — they were in a car stopped by the officer — said they heard one shot, and after several seconds, three to five more. They testified they saw Martin bending over the fallen officer at close range.

Prosecutors at the time said the evidence showed that Martin first shot Connors in the neck with a .357 Magnum as Connors approached the suspects' vehicle, and then emptied his revolver into the officer at point-blank range, as he lay on the ground.

Martin and his three friends had minutes earlier robbed the 7-Eleven store in the 300 block of West Grace Street, but Connors was unaware of the robbery when he stopped them for driving the wrong way on a one-way street, according to news accounts.

When Martin's friends asked why he shot the officer, he replied, “It was either him or me,” they testified at trial. But Connors never drew his weapon. A police supervisor who arrived after the shooting testified that Connors' service revolver was still holstered at his side.

Clements and several law enforcement officials, in making their case for why Martin should not be released, cited a parole board notation for Martin when he was denied parole in 2018.

In a listing of decisions that are available for public inspection on the agency's website, the listing for Martin said he was being denied parole because of his history of violence and “conviction of a new crime while incarcerated.”

Bennett said that information was incorrect. “Not true,” she said.

Regardless, retired Richmond officer Tom MacKnight, who was one of Connors' close friends on the force in 1979 and was on duty the night he was killed, said there is no justification for releasing the man who gunned down his buddy, who had been on the force for only a year.

That night remains burned into MacKnight's consciousness.

He was working a different area of the city and transporting a man he arrested for aggravated assault when the call came in that Connors had been shot.

MacKnight said fellow officers immediately began cordoning off Broad Street so that the ambulance carrying Connors “could run at warp speed safely” to what was then the Medical College of Virginia Hospital.

“I was there,” said MacKnight, growing emotional as he recalled the scramble to save Connors' life. “It was a very congested area. And I left the person [he had earlier arrested] in my car, and I made sure there was enough room for the ambulance to get in.”

“And once they got in, I held the door open for him,” MacKnight said. “It was the worst thing you ever saw. And that, obviously, was the last time I saw him.”

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