Virginia frees a cop killer without input from the police officer's family

Virginia frees a cop killer without input from the police officer's family
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Over the past 10 years, a police officer has been killed in the line of duty in this country every 55 hours on average. As we approach May, a month set aside for nationwide remembrance ceremonies of America’s 21,000 fallen law enforcement officers, the state of Virginia shockingly has decided to release on parole a man convicted of the premeditated capital murder of a young Richmond police officer in 1979.

Well, you might be tempted to think, “That was 40 years ago; what’s the big deal?” There are several considerations that make it a big deal, particularly the board’s failure to adequately consult either the murdered officer’s family or his police department before making its decision. Just last year the board had decided it was too risky to release the killer. Why the stunning reversal?

The facts of the case are worth knowing.

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In the darkened early morning hours of Nov. 13, 1979, 23-year-old Vincent Lamont Martin and some accomplices robbed a convenience store on West Grace Street in Richmond. This was not Martin’s first offense. He was convicted for using a sawed-off shotgun during two robberies in late 1972; he shot at least one person during those robberies. Martin was sent to Virginia State Penitentiary for those earlier crimes until he was paroled in 1979. Three months later he was committing robberies again.

After fleeing the 7-Eleven that morning, the getaway car in which Martin was riding traveled the wrong way down a one-way street and was spotted by Richmond police officer Michael Patrick Connors, who was on patrol, in full uniform and riding in a marked police cruiser. Officer Connors pulled the getaway car over but was unaware of the robbery that had just taken place, since details had not yet been broadcast. As Connors exited his police car, Martin got out and stood at the rear of the getaway car.  

According to testimony, Connors correctly ordered Martin to get back into his car. Martin refused, pulled a gun and shot Connors five times. Forensics indicate that Connors likely was struck once in the neck and fell to the ground, his sidearm still strapped in its holster. Martin then moved forward, stood over Connors, and coldly executed him with four shots at close range into his head.

Connors was 23, new to the force, with a long promising life in store. He lost his life doing his duty as one of the few among our citizenry willing to step forward and take on grave personal risk in order to protect the public. He left behind grieving parents and two sisters. He was popular in the department, admired for his sense of humor and commitment.

Martin, the man who killed him, was about the same age and already a career criminal. He was tried and convicted for the premeditated capital murder of Connors and sentenced to death by electrocution. The facts of the case were established at trial and not in dispute. And yet, attorneys for Martin appealed and got his conviction and sentence vacated, and a new trial ordered. The reason might surprise you.

Our legal system is immensely complex — made so on purpose by lawyers who are then paid handsomely to untangle it. Thus it provides, at times, loose threads that can be pulled in long-shot efforts to benefit the convicted. In this case, Martin’s attorneys zeroed in on a technicality involving jury selection in the original trial.

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One of the prospective jurors was a woman, a normal citizen like you or me, who was questioned aggressively in confusing legal jargon about her views regarding where the burden of proof lies in a trial, i.e., with the prosecutor or defendant.  

Her answer did not sit well with the defense attorney so he asked that she be removed from jury consideration. The trial judge, sensing confusion in the woman more than prejudice, declined the request. The defense then exercised its rightful privilege to exclude the woman from being seated on the jury. In other words, she was never part of the convicting jury.

However, the appellate court decided that the trial judge was at fault for not excluding the woman directly and so ordered a new trial — even though she had no involvement in the original jury’s verdict. Shakespeare’s commentary on lawyers springs to mind at this point.

The second trial reaffirmed Martin’s guilt but lowered the sentence to life in prison. One might expect that an original sentence of death that is changed to life in prison would reasonably preclude consideration for some future parole. But apparently one would be wrong.

Fast-forward to April 10, 2020, just two weeks ago. The Virginia Parole Board voted 4-0 in favor of granting Vincent Martin freedom on parole. As recently as 2019 his release was deemed too risky and he had been denied parole. What changed? We’re not sure. This radical, appalling shift deserves closer examination.

Martin is now 64. It is not out of the range of reasonableness that he might live another 30 years. That means he did not receive a life sentence for purposefully killing a police officer. He received a little over half of a life sentence.  

Michael Patrick Connors suffered his death penalty on Nov. 13, 1979. No mercy, no legal technicalities to give him wiggle room — just five brutal shots to the head. He was deprived of a bright, promising life, and his family was deprived of his love and presence.

A family, by the way, who was not adequately consulted by the Virginia Parole Board — as is customary — before the board made its decision. The family was informed that the decision basically had been made before they had a full opportunity to make statements regarding the impact of the loss of their son and brother on their lives.

Almost as startling, the Richmond Police Department was not invited to provide input to the parole board. The RPD is a proud department that has sacrificed many of its brave officers to protect Richmond’s citizens. Its voice deserves to be heard before such parole decisions are rendered.

There’s too much that doesn’t add up with this atrocious ruling.

Any premeditated, capital murder merits stringent caution before the murderer’s parole is considered. But the murder of a law enforcement officer should rightfully require even more restrictions on possible parole decisions.  

Those in law enforcement voluntarily assume immense personal risk, for not much pay, so that we don’t have to. Anyone who wantonly kills a police officer should have no hope for parole. It is at least some measure of deterrence that might help prevent even more police murders.

Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democrats draw red lines in spending fight Manchin puts foot down on key climate provision in spending bill MORE (D-Va.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Va.), as well as Virginia representatives, should ask Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to swiftly overturn the ill-advised, poorly handled decision to free Martin. This matter transcends the borders of Virginia. It is being closely watched by national police organizations around the country with deep interest and concern.

Rescinding Martin’s parole would be a gesture of appropriate justice that would add to the remembrance this May of Michael Patrick Connors’s sacrifice and the thousands of other deceased officers who perished in the line of duty, protecting the rest of us.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.