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New Hearing for Man Sentenced to Life in Prison Despite Not Guilty Verdict

In 2001, a jury found Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne not guilty of murdering a police officer. But, thanks to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a judge sentenced both men to life in prison anyway. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Virginia granted Richardson a new hearing to prove his innocence.

This photo shows Terrence Richardson (left) and Ferrone Claiborne (right) in full-size portraits.
Terence Richardson (left) and Ferrone Claiborne (right)Courtesy of Jarrett AdamsCourtesy of Jarrett Adams

The Supreme Court of Virginia yesterday granted an evidentiary hearing in the case of Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne—two men sentenced to life in prison even though a jury found them not guilty of murdering a police officer.

“After over two decades of wrongful imprisonment and nearly seven years of litigating the case, Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne will finally have a pathway to reclaiming their freedom and proving their innocence in Court – again,” their attorney, Jarrett Adams, said in a press release. “By granting the evidentiary hearing in Mr. Richardson’s case, we look forward to the opportunity to bring the critical evidence we uncovered to light.”

The Supreme Court of Virginia’s new ruling allows Richardson to submit new evidence uncovered by Adams that could prove Richardson’s innocence.

In 1998, police officer Allen Gibson was shot and killed with his own gun in the woods behind an apartment complex in Waverly, Virginia. There was no physical evidence linking Richardson and Claiborne to the crime. But the pair emerged as the primary suspects in the investigation after a resident of the apartment complex, Evette Newby, said she saw Richardson and Claiborne go into the woods. However, police had evidence suggesting another man, Leonard Newby—Evette’s brother—may have been involved.

Adams says Richardson and Claiborne’s original defense attorneys never knew the police had evidence pointing to another suspect. The pair have long maintained that they had nothing to do with Gibson’s death. But their attorneys at the time told them that they could be sentenced to death if they went to trial and lost. Out of fear for their lives, they took guilty pleas.

Richardson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to ten years in state prison with five years suspended. Claiborne pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor state-level charge for acting as an accessory to Richardson’s crime.

But Gibson’s family wanted harsher sentences. Following public outcry, federal prosecutors brought additional charges against the pair, accusing them of selling crack cocaine and murdering Gibson during a drug deal gone wrong.

In 2001, Richardson and Claiborne went to trial for the federal case. A jury found them not guilty of Gibson’s murder but guilty of selling crack.

But in an unusual move, District Judge Robert E. Payne sentenced Richardson and Claiborne to life in prison using “acquitted conduct sentencing,” a legal mechanism approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.

In that case, United States v. Watts, the court ruled that a jury’s acquittal does not prevent a judge from using the conduct the defendant was acquitted of against them when sentencing them for another charge.

But now, after 22 years behind bars, Richardson can submit new evidence that he says proves his innocence.

At issue in the upcoming evidentiary hearing are several pieces of potentially exculpatory evidence that police had never previously shared.

Before Gibson died from his injuries, he described his attackers to a state trooper. He said that one man was tall and thin with hair that would resemble dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail. The other was shorter and squatter with no hair or sparse hair. Gibson said the man with dreadlocks was the one who wrestled for his gun. The firearm went off during the struggle and sent a bullet into Gibson’s stomach.

Neither Richardson nor Claiborne had dreadlocks. At the time of the murder, Richardson had cornrows with braids that hung down the back of his neck. Claiborne was bald—but thin and around six feet tall. Richardson, meanwhile, was several inches shorter than Gibson.

Physical evidence recovered from the scene did not link Claiborne or Richardson to Gibson: DNA found on Gibson’s shirt did not match the DNA found on Richardson’s shirt, and Richardson, Claiborne, and Gibson were all eliminated as possible contributors to the hair fragments found on each other’s clothing.

A young witness police repeatedly interviewed, Shannequia Gay, said the man she saw in the woods with Gibson had dreadlocks—though at other times, she said the man had cornrows. Gay, who was nine or 10 at the time of the shooting, said she was playing outside with her cousin that morning when she saw a police officer walk into the woods. Then she heard a loud noise that scared her, saw Gibson on the ground, and saw “the man with the ‘dreads’” running out of the woods, according to police records.

Police showed Gay photos of possible suspects. According to a federal prosecutor, Gay became scared when she saw Leonard Newby’s photo and later picked him out of a photo lineup. The state did not disclose this information to Richardson and Claiborne’s defense attorneys before the two men accepted plea deals.

A few days after Gibson’s murder, someone left an anonymous tip on the Virginia State Police Department’s answering machine. The caller alleged that Leonard Newby had been involved in the murder and then cut his dreadlocks.

Based on this evidence, Richardson’s attorney filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Court of Appeals in 2021, seeking to vacate Richardson’s conviction. (Claiborne cannot file a writ of innocence because he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, not a felony, but if Richardson’s state conviction is overturned, it would also help Claiborne file other types of appeals or clemency petitions.)

In June 2022, the Virginia Court of Appeals dismissed Richardson’s petition, alleging that Richardson was not entitled to a writ of innocence because his prior attorneys failed to do their due diligence to uncover the exculpatory evidence police and prosecutors did not turn over.

Richardson appealed the decision. On November 2, his attorney made his case before the Virginia State Supreme Court.

Adams, Richardson’s lawyer, contended that no amount of due diligence could have uncovered evidence that law enforcement willfully concealed. Further, Adams argued that even if Richardson’s prior attorneys had been able to interview Gay, the child was not the one in possession of the photo lineup, her statement, or the 911 call.

Adams asked the court to order an evidentiary hearing to clear up the inconsistencies in the record—which the Supreme Court of Virginia granted yesterday afternoon. The court has not yet set a date for the new hearing.

“Finally, this ruling will give these men, their families, and the family of Officer Gibson a chance to find the truth about what happened on that tragic day over two decades ago and, importantly, hold those actually responsible for the murder of Officer Gibson accountable,” Adams said.