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Miyares drops wrongful conviction case that Herring was championing

Two photos of two people standing
Terrence Richardson with mother Annie Westbrook (left), Ferrone Claiborne and his mother (right). (Photos courtesy the the law offices of Jarrett Adams, PLLC)

The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia has decided the state will not support the case of two Waverly men who are serving life sentence in federal prison - despite a jury finding them not guilty of murder.

This announcement came about three weeks after Attorney General Jason Miyares fired every attorney in his office that had been working on the case.

Terrence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne were convicted of murdering Waverly police officer Allen Gibson in 1998 .  Both men, allegedly fearing the death penalty, took a plea deal in state court to charges of involuntary manslaughter rather than capital murder.

Shortly after, the duo was indicted by federal prosecutors for Gibson’s murder as well as  for drug trafficking. The jury found them guilty of the drug offenses but not of the murder. Yet, in an unusual move during sentencing, the judge used the plea deal they’d taken in state court to give them life in prison.

Both men maintain their innocence and have asked the Virginia Court of Appeals to rehear their cases.

In November, former Attorney General Mark Herring filed a 78-page brief , on behalf of the state, in support of Richardson’s appeal.

The court granted the request for a hearing, which is scheduled for Feb. 22.

But last Friday, the state’s new attorney general, Miyares, notified the court that the state had changed its position. He asked the court to dismiss Richardson’s petition for writ of actual innocence.

Miyares’ campaign was largely defined by the assertion that his office would focus on victims rather than people who are convicted of crimes. He’s claimed he hopes to be the state’s chief crime fighter.

The Attorney General’s office provided a statement from Crissianna Gibson, whose father was the slain Waverly officer, saying she approves of the AG’s decision to drop the state’s support of the case. She had previously signaled support for the justice system leaving “no further question” about her father’s murder but now argues Richardson and Claiborne’s guilty pleas should be upheld.

"When staff from the previous Attorney General administration contacted me without warning to tell me they were abandoning support for the convictions, I was shocked and hurt that this decision had been made without consulting me or anyone else from my family,” she said. “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."

Jarrett Adams, an attorney for both Richardson and Claiborne, argues Miyares didn’t intend to take on the case from the outset for political reasons. 

“Explain to me how they came into office in January and in three weeks they got a handle on this case,” he said. “They knew all along that they wanted to take a different position.”

Adams sent a letter to Herring, asking the former AG to join him in court to argue the position he stated in his brief. Herring could not be reached for comment by deadline.

In an email, Miyares spokesperson Victoria LaCivita said Richardson and Claiborne have failed to prove their innocence:

The Office of the Attorney General calls balls and strikes and makes decisions guided by the rule of law. The Attorney General’s Office, including an internal working group of former Commonwealth’s Attorneys with over 76 years of combined prosecution experience, has carefully reviewed the petition for a writ of actual innocence and former Attorney General Herring’s position in the case. 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 added that an executive clemency request to President Barack Obama was also denied.

The case was being evaluated by Herring’s Conviction Integrity Unit,established the unit in January 2021 to investigate an anticipated increase in the number of petitions for writ of actual innocence. A new law, passed in 2020, made it easier for people to try to have their convictions overturned.

It was staffed with three attorneys and an investigator.

When Miyares took office Jan. 15, he fired 30 staffers total on the day before his inauguration, including the entire Conviction Integrity Unit.

Seth Shelley was one of the attorneys investigating potential wrongful convictions. He spoke to VPM on the day Miyares announced the layoffs.

“My unit alone had 20 cases that were pending before the court of appeals and Supreme Court of Virginia. All of us are now gone,” Shelley said.

Another attorney on the unit, Emilee Hasbrouck, said over the last year, the office has helped two people get absolute pardons in addition to signing onto Richardson's petition. She said those cases are thousands of pages long - with evidence spanning decades.

“When you think about the minutiae of what needs to happen for people to take over cases, this is really mystifying,” she said.

Miyares’ office says it has actually expanded the Conviction Integrity Unit to include special investigations and cold cases. It will be led by former Arlington prosecutor and Democrat Theo Stamos.

But former staffers say they’re worried the office may not have the focused resources and independence to do the work they started just last year.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Emilee Hasbrouck's name. We have updated the story and apologize for the error.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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