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State appeals court hears exoneration case of man convicted of police killing despite a federal jury finding him not guilty

Two photos with two people each
Terrence Richardson with mother Annie Westbrook (left), Ferrone Claiborne and his mother (right). (Photos courtesy the the law offices of Jarrett Adams, PLLC)

Clarification: This story was updated May 10 at 3:40 p.m. to clarify that Richardson and Claiborne were convicted in federal court of conspiring to distribute cocaine - not the murder of Officer Gibson. However, the judge used their guilty pleas in state court as a factor in his decision to sentence Richardson and Claiborne to life imprisonment.

On Friday, a panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals heard the case of a man seeking exoneration from the murder a Waverly, Virginia police officer nearly 25 years ago.

Terrence Richardson is one of two Black men sentenced to life in prison in connection with the murder - despite a federal jury finding them not guilty of the crime.

New York civil rights attorney Jarrett Adams has been working to raise the profile of the “Waverly Two” case for the last five years.  Adams says he’s perplexed as to why it hasn’t gained more attention - especially in the aftermath of nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd.

“You got an injustice right in your backyard,” Adams said in an interview before Friday’s hearing.

Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne pleaded guilty in state court to the 1998 killing of Waverly Police Officer Allen Gibson. They initially pleaded innocent, but Adams says his clients were convinced by their attorneys at the time to accept plea agreements in order to avoid the death penalty. At that time, murdering a police officer in Virginia was a capital offense. 

Richardson was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, while Claiborne pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of being an accessory to the crime after the fact - a misdemeanor. 

A year later, the men were taken to federal court and charged with the same murder. Prosecutors also tacked on a slew of new drug charges. The federal jury found them not guilty of murdering Gibson but convicted them of conspiring to distribute cocaine. However, Judge Robert E. Payne stated that he considered their guilty pleas in state court as a factor in his decision to sentence Richardson and Claiborne to life imprisonment. 

The two men are now serving time in a federal prison in Petersburg. They’ve filed petitions for writs of innocence in a Virginia Court of Appeals, but only Richardson’s case is currently before the court. 

Adams is asking the three-judge panel to waste no time granting Richardson’s petition. 

“With the federal jury acquitting both men of this murder, I don’t believe there’s anything that we don’t know in terms of exonerating evidence,” he said.

Adams says local police ignored critical evidence, including Gibson's dying declaration that the assailant had dreadlocks, which neither of the men had. He added there is no evidence to support the charges that they were selling drugs.

Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring used his last days in office to back  Richardson’s appeal. His successor, Attorney General Jason Miyares, pulled the state’s support soon after taking office. He asked the court to dismiss Richardson’s petition.

Miyares’ office said in February that it convened an internal working group of former commonwealth’s attorneys to review Richardson's petition and former Attorney General Herring’s position. That group concluded the facts of this case do not support Richardson’s innocence claim. 

Miyares spokesperson Victoria LaCivita added that an executive clemency request to President Barack Obama was also denied. The case was being evaluated by attorneys in Herring’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which Miyares dismantled upon taking office. 

It’s unclear when the appeals court will rule on Richardson’s case, but Adams says he expects it to come down in the next couple of months.