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Court To Reconsider Case of VA Men Sentenced to Life, Despite Jury’s Not-Guilty Verdict

photos of men with their mothers
Terrence Richardson with mother Annie Westbrook (left), Ferrone Claiborne and his mother (right). (Photos courtesy the the law offices of Jarrett Adams, PLLC)

The Virginia Court of Appeals will consider the case of two men serving life in prison for the murder of a police officer,  despite a federal jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict. It’s a complicated case that highlights how federal and state criminal prosecutions are intertwined. 

An attorney for the men is asking why the state hasn’t stepped in to investigate the conviction. 

Terrence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne have already served more than 20 years in federal prison for the 1998 murder of Alan Gibson, a Waverly, Virginia police officer.

Both accepted plea deals in state court to avoid a possible death sentence, while insisting they didn’t commit the murder. They recieved short sentences initially, but in 2002, the FBI indicted Richardson and Claiborne on the same murder charges and tacked on additional drug charges. The federal jury found the men not guilty of the murder but the judge overruled the jury, using their state guilty pleas to enhance their sentences to life in prison. 

Defense attorney Jarrett Adams maintains the guilty pleas were accepted out of duress. And evidence that would have cleared the men wasn’t disclosed before they agreed to the deal.  

Richardson and Claiborne filed petitions with the Court of Appeals earlier this month. Tuesday, the court granted part of the petition, agreeing to have Adams appear before the court to argue the case. 

But Adams says the state could have stepped in long before the appeals process. “The attorney general and the commonwealth has had everything in this filing for the last seven months and they’ve done nothing,” he said. 

Attorney General Mark Herring talked about the case during an interview with VPM earlier this month, saying it was out of his hands. 

“These two men were charged with and convicted of federal crimes and they’re serving federal sentences, not state sentences,” Herring said. “So an ultimate resolution would have to come through federal courts.”

Herring said he was aware the men are challenging their convictions in state court, however. He said, “The next step for those would be for the court of appeals to review those petitions and either resolve them on its own or ask for some response from the commonwealth.”

If the appeals court asks the state for a response, Herring said his new Conviction Integrity Unit will take it up. Herring launched the unit in January to focus on identifying and overturning wrongful convictions in Virginia. 

Jay Jones, who is running against Herring in the race for attorney general, said Richardson and Claiborne’s case should be reviewed. 

Jones claimed it was a pattern of inaction by Herring. “Mark Herring has yet again dragged his feet and failed to move aggressively in the face of potential injustice,” Jones said. “As attorney general, I will be proactive - not reactive - in the fight to right wrongs and bring true reform to a justice system that leaves too many Black and brown Virginians left out and left behind.”

Adams said he’s pleaded with state officials to “do the right thing,” adding, “We have to stop waiting until people die before we step up.”

Meanwhile, he said if his clients did not commit this murder, the person or people who did remain free.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.