Parole grants spark criticism from prosecutors, families

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Halifax County Commonwealth's Attorney Tracy Martin, right, poses with Kevin Wynn at the Halifax County War Memorial on Wednesday May 6, 2020, in Halifax, Va. Martin has objected to the geriatric release of Debra Scribner, 66, convicted in 2012 of first-degree murder, conspiracy and a firearms charge in the death of her son-in-law, Eric Wynn, who was the brother of Kevin Wynn. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – During a push to accelerate the review of parole-eligible inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia released dozens of violent offenders, including killers, rapists and kidnappers, blindsiding prosecutors and victims' families who say they were not properly notified as required by law, a review by The Associated Press has found.

"I mean, good grief. What, they were never going to tell us and here we are thinking this killer is still in jail?” said Juanita Gillis, who was informed by an AP reporter that the man who fatally shot her brother in 1993 was paroled by the board in March.

Thomas Runyon's killer, Dwayne Markee Reid, was among at least 35 people convicted in killings who were granted parole in March, according to an Associated Press review of parole board records, court records and interviews with prosecutors. Ninety-five inmates were paroled in March, the most recent month for which decisions are public, just over half the number approved in all of 2019.

Many of those released had served decades in prison.

“The Parole Board, already inclined to grant parole prior to the pandemic, felt that expediting certain cases was appropriate due to age of the offender, underlying health conditions, and the Board was confident that the release was compatible with public safety,” board chair Tonya Chapman, who took over that role in April, wrote in an email.

She said that in normal circumstances there’s usually time for prosecutor notification, “however, these are unprecedented times.”

Brian Moran, Virginia's secretary of public safety and homeland security, said Gov. Ralph Northam's administration has full confidence in the board and its ability to decide which offenders have been reformed.

Moran has repeatedly emphasized that only a small number of the approximately 30,000 inmates held in state prisons — about 2,300 — are eligible for parole and that under Virginia's parole system, the majority of those have been locked up for a long time after committing violent crimes.