This is a summary of the arguments Stephen Northup and Tony Troy made to the Parole Board during their meeting with Board member Adrianne Bennett on April 19, 2016


According to the home page of its website, the Parole Board’s “mission is to grant parole to those offenders whose release is compatible with public safety.” By that standard, Joe Giarratano is a strong candidate for parole.

While Joe stands convicted of a serious crime, it should be noted that there is sufficiently strong evidence of his innocence that Governor Wilder granted him a conditional pardon in early 1991 commuting his death sentence to a sentence of life imprisonment. Joe’s conviction rested almost exclusively on his contradictory confessions that were inconsistent with the crime scene until he was interrogated by Norfolk police who knew the facts of the crime. No probative physical evidence linked Joe to the crime. We recognize that as a general rule the Parole Board does not consider the possibility of innocence in deciding whether to grant parole. However, the Board can — and should — consider the strong possibility of innocence in determining the length of time Joe should be required to serve. Joe has now served more than 37 years. By any reasonable measure, that should be considered a sufficient period of time.

Joe is unique. There is almost certainly no one else remotely like him within the DOC. A self-educated man, Joe has worked hard to change himself and improve the lives of others during the time he has been incarcerated. The list of his accomplishments while in prison is a long one. We will mention only a few of them here. They include helping other inmates advance valid legal claims, including those of Earl Washington, who is alive today because of Joe’s advocacy. Joe’s efforts have resulted in the improvement of conditions in a number of prisons, both in Virginia as well as in Utah and Illinois, where Virginia sent Joe in the past. Joe wrote and then taught a successful Peace Studies/Alternatives-to-Violence program at Augusta Correctional Center during the 1990s. Over the years, Joe has assisted Colman McCarthy in teaching his peace studies classes at several universities in the DC area. Joe is a published author. His work has appeared in a number of periodicals, including the Yale Law Journal. We could go on and on, but this will give you an idea of Joe’s uniqueness as a prisoner.

We understand that some members of the Parole Board in the past have had the view that Joe received all the relief he deserves when Governor Wilder commuted his death sentence and that he should not be released on parole. This attitude is contradicted by the express terms of Governor Wilder’s order of conditional pardon. After acknowledging the existence of statutory language providing that those sentenced to death are not eligible for parole, Governor Wilder’s order expressly granted Joe “parole eligibility with the opportunity for parole to be determined by the Virginia Parole Board in the same manner as if, originally, he had been sentenced to life imprisonment under present law[,]” with the proviso that Joe’s eligibility for parole would accrue once he had served a total of 25 years, which Joe completed in 2004. By contrast, in commuting another death sentence a little less than a year after his order in Joe’s case, Governor Wilder ordered that Herbert Bassette would not be eligible for parole. The view that Joe is not entitled to any further relief amounts to a frustration of Governor Wilder’s 1991 order of conditional pardon.

Another aspect of Governor Wilder’s order that has been frustrated is its provision that Joe be given an opportunity to establish his innocence conclusively. Joe’s petition for conditional pardon requested that Governor Wilder commute his death sentence “conditioned on the right of the Commonwealth to retry him.” In other words, Joe’s petition expressly requested an opportunity to establish his innocence through a new trial. Governor Wilder’s order granted that request and asked that Virginia’s Attorney General take “whatever steps are necessary to attempt to secure [Joe] a new trial….” The order also required that Joe waive his right of double jeopardy in order to clear the way for a new trial. Joe did so, but the Governor’s request for a new trial was flatly denied by Virginia’s then Attorney General Mary Sue Terry the day after the issuance of Governor Wilder’s order. Following the advent of DNA testing and the enactment of new legislation, Joe made another attempt to establish his innocence. In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation permitting inmates to request DNA testing on previously untested evidence and, if testing proved exculpatory, to petition the Virginia courts for release via a Writ of Actual Innocence. Shortly thereafter, Joe, through his attorneys, sought to have the biological evidence from his case tested as a first step toward establishing his innocence. However, those efforts proved futile when his attorneys learned, following exhaustive efforts to locate and preserve the evidence from Joe’s case, including litigation, that all that evidence had been either destroyed by the Norfolk police department or lost by some combination of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Thus, through no fault of his own, Joe has been deprived of the opportunity to establish his innocence conclusively, even though Governor Wilder intended that he have that opportunity.

Joe has a solid release plan. He has a place to live in the Charlottesville area, a community of support in that area and throughout Virginia, and an offer of employment as a paralegal from a Charlottesville attorney, Steven D. Rosenfield. Mr. Rosenfield specializes in criminal and capital defense and civil rights law. He has known Joe for many years and has worked with and represented Joe in a number of civil rights actions. Mr. Rosenfield is also familiar with Joe’s numerous pro se efforts on behalf of other inmates, including his initiation of the Giarratano v. Murray litigation and significant efforts on behalf of Earl Washington. Mr. Rosenfield is therefore well aware of Joe’s significant legal talents. He believes that Joe’s addition to his office will benefit his clients and the community, including his substantial pro bono practice.

In addition, Colman McCarthy will invite Joe as a regular guest to speak at his courses at American University, Georgetown Law Center, and the University of Maryland. Mr. McCarthy has been a journalist for forty years, much of that with The Washington Post, where he has written numerous columns about Joe. He has taught courses on non-violence and peace for twenty-seven years. Joe was inspired by Mr. McCarthy to initiate the Peace Studies/Alternatives to Violence course at Augusta Correctional Center. Mr. McCarthy regularly brought his high school, college, and law students to Augusta to be taught seminars by Joe. For nearly twenty years, Joe has written hundreds of letters responding to Mr. McCarthy’s students who wrote to him and he has had a positive influence on them. Through Mr. McCarthy, Joe will be able to continue his contributions in the classroom.

Finally, Marney Morrison, a retired school teacher in Albemarle County, a former Amnesty International volunteer, and a long-time supporter of Joe, will create a “Circle of Support” for Joe, where community members will provide him with structured meetings for the purposes of social interaction, brainstorming toward reaching his goals, and resolving any issues he encounters. Ms. Morrison’s plan for a support circle is based on a model implemented by Anne O’Bryan, an internationally recognized advocate for the disabled and a facilitator in England who provides support to disabled individuals facing transition issues similar to those Joe will face. Ms. Morrison plans to invite Anne O’Bryan to Charlottesville to assist in creating a support circle for Joe in the local community.

With support from the vast network of individuals who have advocated and struggled on Joe’s behalf over the years, Joe will be able to make a successful transition to society after he is granted parole. Moreover, his release will relieve the Department of Corrections of the responsibility of continuing to provide him housing and adequate medical care at a time when the cost of medical care continues to rise. At Joe’s age (he is almost 60) and with a recently- amputated leg, his health care needs are significant and will only increase in the future. Joe’s many supporters are committed to ensuring that he receives appropriate health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and that his medical, emotional and living needs are met.

Joe’s release on parole will be more than “compatible with public safety.” Because of his unique skills and commitment to improving the justice system, as well as his large network of supporters, his release will result in significant enhancements to the justice system, the community in which he will live and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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