[originally written for the Incarcerated Women’s Clemency & Support Project (IWCSP)]
I filed about five clemency petitions during the course of my 28 years of incarceration before finally being granted a pardon in 2022, by former Governor Ralph Northam. The first three petitions were filed “pro se,” meaning on my own. The last two petitions were filed with the assistance of counsel and with the support of state legislators. The last successful push for clemency was also aided by the Justice for Uhuru Coordinating Committee – a group of friends, abolitionists and student organizers from the College of William & Mary.
Borrowing from knowledge and practical experience gained from navigating the clemency process over two decades, what follows is a brief outline of what I believe is the most effective strategy in helping an incarcerated person and their loved ones to wage a successful campaign for clemency in Virginia.
Neither the Virginia Parole Board nor any court in Virginia has the authority to grant a petition for clemency.
Pursuant to Virginia (VA) Code section 53.1-229 and Article V, Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution, only the Governor has the absolute power and authority to grant clemency.
However, pursuant to VA Code section 53.1-231,
“the Virginia Parole Board shall, at the request of the Governor, investigate and report to the Governor on cases in which executive clemency is sought. In any other case in which it believes action on the part of the Governor is proper or in the best interest of the Commonwealth, the Board may investigate and report to the Governor with its recommendations.”
There’s a common belief that the Governor of Virginia has the power to grant mass clemency to a group of incarcerated people at one time. However, the Virginia Supreme Court in the case of Howell v. McAuliffe, 292 Va. 320, 788 SE 2d 706 (2016) ruled the Governor has no authority to issue group pardons because Article V, Section 12 of the VA Constitution requires the Governor to give a particular (specific) reason for granting each pardon which is something the Governor cannot do when issuing mass (blanket) clemency.
There are two types of clemency in VA: restoration of rights and pardons.
A petition for restoration of rights restores the rights one forfeits as a result of having been convicted of a felony and can only be sought by people who are not currently in prison. People with nonviolent felonies must wait three years after completion of their sentence before applying for restoration of their rights and people with violent felonies must wait five years. The restoration of rights does not restore the right to purchase or possess a firearm which can only be done by petitioning the appropriate Circuit Court pursuant to VA Code section 18.2-308.2. You can learn more about the restoration of rights process at https://www.restore.virginia.gov/
There are four types of pardons in VA:
- simple pardon
- absolute pardon
- partial pardon
- conditional pardon
A simple pardon, sought after a person’s rights have been restored, is an act by the Governor granting forgiveness for a crime for which one has been convicted. A simple pardon does not expunge the conviction from a person’s criminal record or restore the right to purchase or possess firearms.
An absolute pardon is granted when the Governor is convinced that a person is innocent of the charge(s) for which they have been convicted and freely and unconditionally absolves the person from all direct and collateral consequences of the crime. A person can petition for an absolute pardon only if they plead not guilty during trial proceedings and exhausted all appellate and other post-conviction remedies, including a Writ of Actual Innocence pursuant to VA Code sections 19.2-327 through 19.2-327.13.
A partial pardon can be conditional or unconditional and remits only a portion of the sentence and leaves the rest of the sentence intact. This is the pardon I received.
A conditional pardon is an act by the Governor which modifies or ends the entire sentence imposed by the court when there is “substantial evidence of extraordinary circumstances to warrant it” and does not become operative until the grantee satisfies a prerequisite and can be revoked if that prerequisite is not met.
There is also something called Executive Medical Clemency where the Governor grants conditional release to an incarcerated person who is terminally ill with three months or less left to live.
Preparing and Filing the Petition
It took me, my lawyer and supporters working together as a team about a year researching and collecting all the pieces for my pardon petition. And by pieces, I mean certificates and diplomas earned since I’ve been in prison, supplemental online petitions, and support letters from family, friends and state legislators who recognized the injustice in my sentence and sympathized with my plight enough to be willing to support me. It is important to collect all these pieces and attach them to the petition as supplements and exhibits at the time of filing because they may not be accepted or considered if they are sent in separately at a later time.
Whether the incarcerated person is applying for a pardon on their own or if someone on the outside is applying for it on behalf of the incarcerated person, it is important (and mandatory) for the incarcerated person to first complete the “Virginia Pardon Petition Questionnaire” and mail it to the VA Secretary of the Commonwealth (SOC). This form can be obtained from the prison’s law library or requested from the SOC Office. Unaware of this requirement, my attorney filed my pardon petition, and the SOC rejected it because I had not completed this questionnaire. So, the pardon process does not and will not begin until this questionnaire is completed.
Organizing here refers to any action (before and after a petition is filed) that will raise awareness about a person’s case and gain community support for their pardon request.
Two of the most important things that should be done before a pardon request is filed are 1) creating a social media presence and 2) creating an online petition on http://www.change.org.
With organizing, gone are the days when news of a planned event had to be promoted via word of mouth and crudely handcrafted flyers. In this day and time, social media is king and one post about an injustice that has occurred can quickly go viral resulting in hundreds and thousands of people showing up at a planned protest in opposition to that injustice. We have seen how vital social media has been for the birth and sustainability of the #MeToo, #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter movements. It can be just as effective for a campaign to free someone from prison just as it did for mine.
I would add that social media is more critical to freeing someone from prison than the pardon application itself. Why? Because to be incarcerated for 20 to 30 years is to be erased and rendered invisible to the masses, especially to people born after a person was incarcerated. Case in point, many of the people on the Justice for Uhuru Coordinating Committee (JUCC) were students from the College of William & Mary and were born a decade after I came to prison. So, social media can help bring incarcerated people and their freedom campaigns out from the obscurity of the prison industrial complex and connect them and their campaigns to young abolitionists who are doing most of the on-the-ground agitation and organizing.
Like mine, a change.org petition can function as an abbreviated version of and supplement to the actual pardon petition that will be filed with the SOC Office. With the help of social media, my online petition garnered over 2600 signatures from people all over the county. Others have gone viral (with the help of influencers and celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian) racking up tens of millions of signatures like in the case of criminalized survivors Chrystul Kizer and Cyntoia Brown. These signatures, in addition to character letters from family, friends and state legislators, can show proof that the community at-large supports a person’s pardon request and are not opposed to a person’s early release from prison either because they believe the person was sentenced unjustly or (to use carceral language) has been rehabilitated and will not pose threat to public safety.
Another thing that should be organized are public rallies. My team organized a rally both before and after my petition was filed.
The first one, organized by my attorney before she filed my pardon application, was held at the state capital. Though it received a low turnout, word of it spread to staff in the Governor and SOC offices and members of the General Assembly resulting in a veteran state senator showing up, listening and speaking to those in attendance. This is why it is strategically important to hold a rally at the state capital even if only a small amount of people show up. The second rally, organized by the JUCC after my petition was filed, was held near the Virginia Commonwealth University and managed to draw about 80 people. Posts on social media helped the second rally to achieve a greater turnout and connected the JUCC to other community groups and organizers who decided to sign my petition and support my campaign. It is important to note that all rallies at the state capitol, however small, must be pre-approved by the Department of General Services. The number to call for this department is 804-786-3311.
Another thing that should be organized are carefully timed emails and phone calls directed at the SOC, the pardon staff, and the Chief of Staff for the Governor after a pardon petition has been filed. There is a common belief that contacting the SOC and pardon staff will have an adverse impact on a person’s pardon request and will even result in a pardon application being prematurely denied. This may be the case if the calls/emails come across as demanding or pressuring officials to grant a pardon request. Those are not the kind of calls/emails I am recommending here. Based on my own experience and insight gained from someone working in former Governor Northam’s administration, it is helpful to have a person to make a follow-up email to the pardon staff about six months after a petition is filed to inquire about the status of the petition. [The email to the pardon staff is [email protected]]. Most importantly, all supporters of the incarcerated person (including any political supporters) should make calls to the SOC and the Governor’s Chief of Staff a week before a Governor’s term is set to expire to (politely) reiterate their support for a person’s pardon request and state the reasons the incarcerated person would be a good candidate for clemency. [The phone number to the SOC is 804-786-2441, and the phone number to the Governor’s Chief of Staff is 804-786-2211].
Keep in mind that on any given day, the SOC, pardon staff, the Governor’s Chief of Staff, and the Virginia Parole Board’s Special Investigations Unit tasked with investigating pardon requests and making recommendations to the Governor, are handling thousands of pardon applications, often with limited staff. Making these calls will help make a person’s pardon application stand out, prevent it from being given a rubber stamp denial for reasons other than the merits of the case, or left in a stack of papers on top the Governor’s desk when their term expires which, unbeknownst to many, happens more often than not.
One last note I want to make is that parole and pardon requests are often denied on the basis that early release of the incarcerated person will pose a serious threat to public safety.
Ultimately what needs to happen in order for a clemency campaign to be successful is that the incarcerated person and his/her/their team must garner as many supporters as possible so that the voices of the people who want the person out of prison are louder (and more powerful) than the voices of the people who want to keep the person in prison.