VIRGINIA (WAVY) — Are violent offenders getting released from prison because of COVID-19?
The Virginia Parole Board has come under fire for recently releasing some violent convicted felons including a man who killed a police officer in Richmond, and two other people who killed while they were minors in Suffolk. All three have been in prison for decades.
The state parole board says COVID-19 is a consideration to release even those who have been convicted of some of the most violent of crimes, and the board “worked tirelessly to review all parole-eligible individuals and release those whose return to the community was compatible with the interests and welfare of society.”
Kathy Ramage is still in pain.
Her brother, Tommy Runyon, was shot while in a car with his cousin. On July 23, 1995, 17-year-old Dwayne Markee Reid pleaded guilty of capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
“He’s got beautiful children, 6 and 4, and when he died, I think about them and him all the time,” says Ramage said through tears.
Kathy described what happened.
“My cousin saw a flash, and he took off. Got to where the Planters building is, and looked over and Tommy had been shot in the back of the head,” she said. This was near the corner of Culloden Street and Van Buren Avenue in Suffolk.
Ramage also said Reid had killed before, when he only 14.
“Reid killed someone when he was 14 years old, and he went to juvenile detention. They let him out. Now he’s back on the street, and then killed someone else, my brother… they’ve let him out again. Will he kill again?” she asked.
About 25 years after Runyon’s murder, the Virginia Parole Board set Reid free. He is now 43.
“It made me livid. I was so upset. They didn’t even have the common courtesy to give any of my family members a call about his parole. We heard nothing,” Ramage said.
Ramage found out Reid was out of prison from his Facebook page. We reached out to Reid, but he did not respond.
“How do you like that? He got out of prison, and now he’s got a Facebook living [his] life like [he] did nothing,” she said.
Reid walked out of prison April 17, and 13 days later on April 30, so did Patrick Schooley Jr.
Now 57 years old, Schooley was serving three life sentences for the 1979 stabbing death of 78-year-old Bessie Rountree in her home. Schooley was 15 at the time and robbed, abducted, raped and stabbed Rountree for a little over $10.
Johnathan Brinkley was about the same age as Schooley at the time when Schooley killed Brinkley’s grandmother.
“The way I see it, an eye for an eye. He should stay behind bars, and should stay there until he dies,” Brinkley said.
Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson said he finds “the release atrocious and unbelievable.”
Both families say they were not contacted about the releases, although state code says they should be informed. Ferguson says he only got a one-day notice on Schooley’s release.
“These are the most violent serious crimes in Virginia, and they are releasing them with no input from the commonwealth’s attorney and no input from the victim’s family,” Ferguson said.
In response to a request for information from 10 On Your Side, the Virginia Department of Corrections pointed out the governor’s budget amendment has this wording on notifying victims’ families:
“The Director shall develop procedures for implementing the provisions of this section which shall include provisions addressing reentry planning in accordance with § 53.1-32.2 of the Code of Virginia. To the extent practicable, the Director shall comply with all provisions of the Virginia Code relating to providing notice of a prisoner’s discharge; however, any failure to comply with such notice provisions shall not affect the Director’s authority to discharge a prisoner pursuant to this section.”
The COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in the releases.
The newly-appointed chairwoman of the parole board, former Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman, was not part of these parole decisions, but she responded to an email from WAVY News:
“Although, I didn’t assume the position as Chair of the Virginia Parole Board until April 16, 2020, it is my understanding that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during the month of March and April, the Parole Board worked tirelessly to review all parole-eligible individuals and release those whose return to the community was compatible with the interests and welfare of society.”
Ramage not impressed with the efforts to remove scores of inmates from prisons across Virginia.
“What is wrong with you all? Because we have COVID-19, they feel like you need to let killers back on the street to kill again?” Ramage asked.
Ferguson was also surprised to learn about this effort on the part of the parole board to grant these pardons,
“I simply can’t believe it. The people you are reporting on that are now out of prison. They are compatible with the interests and welfare of society? I think not.”
Those two have been released, and it’s believed another man convicted of killing a police officer will soon be released, but the DOC says there is no official date for that.
The Virginia Parole Board paroled 64-year-old Vincent Martin, who served 40 years for killing 23-year-old Richmond Police Officer Michael Connors.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted,” says Portsmouth Attorney Bob Merhige on Martin’s release. He worked with Connors on the Richmond police force.
“They shot Connors once, and he went down and then the guy stands over him and shoots him three or four more times in the head and executed him,” Merhige said.
Ramage is distraught, and cries thinking about it.
“Is there anything I can do? No. There’s nothing I can do about this situation,” she said.
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