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Northam Pardoned 604 Prisoners But Critics Say the System Is Broken

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Virginia abolished parole in 1995. People convicted of crimes after that time would have no way to win early release except to appeal to the governor and thousands have done so. During his term, Terry McAuliffe got 15-20 requests a week – about 900 in a year, and some families complained that loved ones waited years to be considered.

When Ralph Northam took office, he promised to do better.

“There is a very large work load. I take each one of these individually," he told RadioIQ. "It’s very time-consuming, but we’re doing everything we can to get through that list of folks.”

So far Northam has reviewed about 2,000 cases and pardoned 604.

But there may still be problems with the way Virginia handles pardons. Take the case of Elizabeth Farinacci who has served 20 years for the murder of her husband near Lynchburg. He belonged to a violent motorcycle gang known as The Pagans, and she claims she was framed by two of its members who were actually responsible for the crime.

“My husband and I had gone to the sheriff’s office about a month or two beforehand, and told them individuals were planning on taking care of him – in other words murdering him," she recalls. "They told us they told us that we had to wait until a crime was committed in order to place a complaint.”

A jury didn’t believe her, but a lawyer in Floyd thought this 68-year-old grandmother deserved a second chance. Alan Stuart Graf, who normally charges $350 an hour, offered to prepare an extensive pardon request for Farinacci at no charge.

“I submitted a petition in April," he says. "I called the office a few weeks ago, and they said, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any record of her at all. You never submitted it to us,’ so I sent them an e-mail and said, ‘Here’s your e-mail saying you got it.’ Then I got a call from the pardons office saying, ‘Oh yeah – we do have it. Maybe the next governor will look at it. We don’t know how long it will be.'”

Graf is upset. He says Farinacci’s been a model prisoner. Her family wants her back, and – frankly -- she’s too sick to hurt anyone.

“She has congenital heart failure. Her kidneys are going. She can barely walk,” Graf says.

Because she’s over 60, Farinacci could be considered for geriatric parole, and at the height of the pandemic her jailers announced she would be freed, but six weeks later the prison was informed her parole request was denied.

“My family was more devastated than I was, and I was pretty tore up about it,” she says.

The parole board wouldn’t say what happened, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth – who oversees pardons -- would not comment on Farinacci’s case or tell us how many inmates were still waiting for a review of their request.

There is still time for Northam to issue additional pardons before his term ends in January. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who hopes to succeed him, says he believes in second chances, but Republican Glenn Youngkin supports what’s called Truth in Sentencing – the current policy that requires inmates to serve the full term handed down by a judge or jury.

At least one Democrat plans to introduce legislation that would reinstate parole when lawmakers meet early next year. But if Republicans win control of the House of Delegates or the governor’s office, that change is not likely to get very far.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.