It was August 1994 and Virginia Gov. George Allen’s administration had devised a vigorous “tough on crime” plan, estimated to cost $850 million, that would abolish parole, increase sentences for violent criminals by as much as 700 percent, and require the construction of dozens of new prisons over the next decade (if you build it they will come). The General Assembly applauded the throw-away-the-key proposal in response to a rising fear of crime amplified by the drumbeat from the Clinton administration at the national level.
The Allen legislation placed a tremendous strain on an already overburdened state budget and prison system. Elements of the plan had been tried with mixed success in other states, and did not address how Virginia would pay for such massive construction or how a burgeoning inmate population would be handled in the meantime. But it sounded good to the ears of voters: Tough on Crime.
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Rojai Fentress was arrested in 1996 and convicted in Richmond the following year on charges of first-degree murder and use of a firearm. He was just 16. There was no physical evidence linking him to the killing of a 28-year-old, slain during a crack deal. There was no DNA evidence, no ballistics, no serology, no hair fiber or trace evidence, no confession, and just one unsure eyewitness, who did not identify Fentress as the shooter until he was actually escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs at his preliminary hearing six months later. The witness, the only one to implicate Fentress at his trial, would later admit that she was “pretty well lit” on the night in question having accompanied the victim to score drugs. Nevertheless, Fentress was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
For 24 years while he sat behind bars, Fentress, now 40, continuously proclaimed his innocence. However, his pleas wafted in the breeze of a system that is quick to convict but painfully slow to rectify its mistakes. In 2016, another inmate in the Virginia Department of Corrections admitted to The (Staunton) News Leader that he was the killer, not Fentress.
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In 2016, Fentress sent more than 50 letters across the state to the media and politicians detailing his plight. Nobody took him up on his story except one outlet, The News Leader. “It started with a stamp,” he said. “One stamp to the right person at the right time. It moved mountains.”
An article published in The News Leader in September 2016 detailed his case, and included the confession by another inmate that he killed the individual, not Fentress. That, along with the suspect testimony from a key witness, prompted the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia to take up Fentress’ case. It was also prodded to do so by an interested party.
In 2018, Brian Wainger, the prosecutor who helped put Fentress away for the 53-year prison term, wrote a letter to the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth in support of a conditional pardon for Fentress.
Then in 2018, Brian Wainger, the prosecutor who helped put Fentress away for the 53-year prison term, wrote a letter to the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth in support of a conditional pardon for Fentress.
“I am now aware of substantial evidence of extraordinary circumstances that require me to advocate on behalf of his Conditional Pardon and immediate release from prison,” Wainger said, 22 years after he prosecuted Fentress. In the letter, Wainger said he never could imagine that years later “I would be confronted with the possibility that a person I prosecuted may well be innocent of the charges for which he was convicted.”
The interested party urging the Innocence Project to take up Fentress’ case was an award-winning author, Yale educated attorney, and public speaker, Reginald Betts, who had occupied a prison cell next to Fentress at the Southampton Correctional Center’s receiving center in Capron, VA, in the 1990s, when both were juveniles in the adult system. Convicted of a Fairfax County carjacking as a teen, Betts spent about eight years incarcerated before release in 2005.
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Fast forward to February 2020. Gov. Ralph Northam’s push to reinstate some form of parole in Virginia stirred anger among some crime victims and prompted dire warnings from Republicans about the danger of letting criminals go free.
25 years after the Commonwealth, in its wisdom, eradicated the practice of releasing prisoners who had served a portion of their sentences, thousands of inmates could be eligible to get out under bills making their way through the Democratically controlled General Assembly.
Now, 25 years after the Commonwealth, in its wisdom, viscerated the practice of releasing prisoners who had served a portion of their sentences, thousands of inmates could be eligible for release under legislation that made its way through a reform-minded General Assembly.
Prison reform advocates cheered the effort to dismantle the 1995 parole ban—one that Northam said led to crowded prisons, escalating medical costs for aging inmates, and inequities in sentencing that disproportionately affected people of color.
Opponents argued that the possibility of releasing offenders before their sentences expired would force families to relive their traumatic experiences. That criticism assumes that a fixed sentence is justice without consideration of rehabilitation or other good behavior factors.
Virginia became the 23rd state (plus D.C.) to ban sentencing youths to life without the possibility of parole.
Fortunately, the governor was not swayed—and neither was the legislature. Governor Northam signed a bill that had sailed through the General Assembly that granted parole eligibility to those sentenced as children (under 18). Virginia became the 23rd state (plus D.C.) to ban sentencing youths to life without the possibility of parole. The law, granting parole eligibility to juveniles after serving 20 years in prison, gave over 700 people incarcerated for decades a chance at petitioning for release.
Virginia had been one of only six states that had not moved to implement U.S. Supreme Court decisions protecting youth from being sentenced to life without parole. In 2012, the high court held in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment prohibits sentencing children to life without parole unless the judge has considered whether the offense “reflected unfortunate yet transient immaturity” or if the accused is “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflected irreparable corruption.” In 2016’s Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that the 2012 case was retroactive.
On July 1, 2020, Fentress was released from prison.