Virginia court denies appeal of Terrence Richardson, who was convicted in Waverly police killing
The Virginia Court of Appeals has tossed out a petition to exonerate a man convicted of killing a Waverly police officer during the late ’90s. But his attorney said he’ll continue to fight for his client, Terrence Richardson’s, release.
In April 2021, Richardson filed a petition with the court to overturn his 2000 state conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the death of 25-year-old Officer Allen Gibson. A federal judge would later use the conviction to sentence Richardson to life in prison.
In Richardson’s petition, his attorney, Jarrett Adams, presented what he said was new evidence proving his client’s innocence. It includes a handwritten statement from an eyewitness who was nine years old at the time of the initial investigation, a photo lineup from which she at the time identified a man named Leonard Newby as the shooter, as well as a 911 call that names Newby as the assailant. But the appeals court's three-judge panel declined to grant the petition or call an evidentiary hearing, in part, because it asserted that the evidence wasn’t new.
In Virginia, a person can only petition the appeals court for writ of actual innocence if they can present evidence that was unknown or unavailable at the time they were convicted.
In 1998, Gibson was shot in the abdomen with his own gun in a wooded area outside a Waverly apartment complex while allegedly intervening in a drug deal. Just before he died, Gibson told another police officer that two Black men had shot him following a scuffle. He described one as having short, sparse hair and the other dreadlocks; the 9-year-old witness, Shannequia Gay, also described one suspect as having dreadlocks. Richardson had cornrows at the time while his alleged accomplice, Ferrone Claiborne, had no hair. Claiborne was also sentenced to life in prison.
A state grand jury indicted Richardson and Claiborne for capital murder; Richardson reached an agreement with the commonwealth, pleading guilty in exchange for prosecutors reducing his charge to involuntary manslaughter. Claiborne pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of accessory after the fact. In March 2000, the court sentenced Richardson to five years in prison. Claiborne served no jail time.
A year later, a federal grand jury indicted Richardson and Claiborne separately on crack cocaine distribution and gun charges related to Gibson’s death. Both were convicted of the drug offenses, but the jury acquitted them of murder.
Despite the acquittals, the federal judge lengthened Richardson and Claiborne’s sentences to life in prison, deciding their guilty pleas in state court were "clear and convincing evidence" that they "killed [Officer Gibson] under circumstances that would constitute murder."
Decades later, after multiple attempts at the federal level to overturn their convictions, the Virginia Appeals Court accepted Richardson’s request to hear his exoneration case. Adams said he hoped that reversing the state-level conviction would make it possible to have the federal life sentence overturned.
The court sought the opinion of then Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, whose Conviction Integrity Unit spent months digging into his case.
Herring’s office submitted to the court a 78-page brief backing Richardson’s petition.
“It is clear from the record that some information and evidence presented in Mr. Richardson’s federal trial was unavailable to him when he pled guilty in state court, including information that a key witness lied to state investigators and lied during the preliminary hearing,” Herring’s office said in the court filing.
Virginia’s new Attorney General Jason Miyares, a Republican who took office in January, also looked into the case but arrived at a different conclusion.
“The Office of the Attorney General calls balls and strikes and makes decisions guided by the rule of law,” Victoria LaCivita, a Miyares spokesperson, told VPM News in February. “The Attorney General’s Office, including an internal working group of former Commonwealth’s Attorneys with over 76 years of combined prosecution experience, has carefully reviewed the petition for a writ of actual innocence and former Attorney General Herring’s position in the case. We are now of the view that both Virginia law and the facts of this case do not support the claim for a writ of actual innocence.”
The disparate opinions were a red flag for Adams.
“How is it that one attorney general, who has years of experience, spent a year working on this case, was able to come to that conclusion, and within 30 days, a Republican comes into office and he says, ‘No, we’re not going with that,’” Adams told VPM News.
The court determined Richardson’s legal team was aware of the evidence at the time of the conviction but didn’t make a diligent effort to obtain it. Adams argued that local police never turned it over and that it wasn't introduced at trial. He’s asked the appeals’ court to rehear the case with all judges present.
Adams claims state law bars the commonwealth from legally changing positions in the middle of litigation, according to a 2006 Supreme Court decision. Miyares’ office declined to comment on the legality of the commonwealth changing course.
“How do you have a police officer dead, all of these questions remain, and nobody really cares about the truth,” Adams asked.