DURING A 1964 speech at Wesleyan University, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
While immediately recognizable today, in 1964, King was repeating something first attributed to Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister, calling for the abolishment of slavery.
For people incarcerated in Virginia during a five-year period when state law did not require judges to tell jurors that parole had been abolished, the arc of a moral universe and justice have remained mere myth.
In 1995, when Virginia Gov. George Allen rushed to implement his “Truth in Sentencing,” laws, few foresaw the collateral damage that would occur.
Truth in Sentencing abolished parole and did not require judges to tell jurors. For five years, thousands were given sentences by jurors who thought parole still existed. Most assumed that those convicted would only serve portions of their sentences.
It was not until 2000, when Richard Fishback appealed his 18-year sentence to the state Supreme Court, that this policy was brought to light. The court rebuked the practice, arguing “it simply defies reason” to not tell jurors that parole was abolished.
The court remedy for Fishback was resentencing. Despite that victory, the ruling was not retroactive or applied to countless others whose juries were kept in the dark.
Sixteen years later, after many have completed their harsh and unreasonable terms, there remain close to 500 people still incarcerated in Virginia, waiting for the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice.
Through a recent Associated Press story, we gain insight into how the state-sanctioned practice of not telling jurors about parole affected the workings of justice. The story told the dilemma of Tom Tignor, a juror who, after finding out that parole was abolished, told AP that the “jury would have recommended a shorter sentence had it known there was no more parole.”
This was clearly the case for Daniel Richard Ford III, who today maintains his innocence. Despite getting a pretrial sentencing recommendation of only six and a half years, he was sentenced in 1999 by a jury to over 300 years for drug charges. Now commuted to 40 years, Ford is scheduled for release in 2034.
While we lack data on sentencing bias for pre-Fishback offenders, the ACLU of Virginia shows “African American defendants are more likely to receive harsher treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, from stops on the street to sentencing, when compared to similar white defendants.”
Symbolically and ideally, justice remains blind. Yet, historically and currently, she has been far from blind, but constantly peeking under her veil prior to dispensing rulings.
Many believe the recent recommendations from 27-member Commission on Parole Review, established by Gov. Terry McAuliffe which calls for “legislation providing an opportunity for sentence modification” for those sentenced wrongly, represents a head nod by the universe that the arc has begun its bend toward justice.
For our organizations, Bill SB223, patroned by Sen. Donald McEachin and others in the House of Delegates, is the simple answer we’ve all been waiting for. McEachin’s bill calls for the same remedy ordered by the court for Fishback and recommended by the parole commission.
As Dr. King’s birthday nears, our hope is that Virginia can transcend its normal political divisiveness to once again bend our hearts toward justice.
Lillie Branch-Kennedy founder of Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged.
Quan Williams is a policy associate for New Virginia Majority.