RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The attorney for Terrence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne, two men serving life in prison for the 1998 murder of a Waverly police officer despite being acquitted by a federal jury, filed a petition for appeal in the Supreme Court of Virginia on Tuesday, the latest move to release the defendants from prison.

Jarrett Adams submitted the court filing with the goal of having Richardson’s sentence overturned, or at least an evidentiary hearing.

“The most important thing that we’re able to show the Supreme Court in Virginia is that there was at least five appellate court judges who agreed that we deserved an opportunity to have our argument heard before the entire appellate court,” Adams said Thursday. “What we’re simply asking the court is this: Does innocence matter?”

This stems from an incident on April 25, 1998, during which 25-year-old Officer Allen Gibson Jr. was shot in the abdomen with his service weapon near the Waverly Village Apartments. Gibson made it to a hospital in Petersburg but later died from his injuries.

According to the latest court documents filed Tuesday, “Although Mr. Richardson and his co-defendant, Ferrone Claiborne lived in the area, the record does not reveal why they eventually became the chief targets of the investigation, as neither matched Officer Gibson’s description — Mr. Richardson was shorter than Officer Gibson and wore his hair in corn rows; Mr. Claiborne was tall and bald.”

A previous court filing, entered in the Court of Appeals of Virginia on June 21, included testimony from Virginia State Police (VSP) Trooper T. Jarrid Williams, who stated at a hearing at the Sussex County General District Court that he received an alert the morning Gibson was shot, informing him of the incident. When he responded to the scene, he noted that Gibson was conscious and speaking to a corporal with the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office.:

I asked him, I said Allen, who did this to you? He stated that there were two black males. One sort of medium build with short, balding hair. Real short, narrow. He described one as tall and skinny. He described one of them with hair that would resemble dreadlocks pulled back into a pony tail. He said they were both wearing dark jeans. One of them had on a white T-shirt. One of them had on an old blue baseball cap. He said that he had got in a scuffle with them and one of them got his gun. He referred to the one that had the gun as the skinny one. He said that he was fighting with him and he was – he was trying to move his hands and show me. He said, ‘I tried to move the gun away from me’ and he said ‘they shot me with my own gun.’

Facing capital murder charges in 1999, Richardson and Claiborne pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the 1998 killing of Gibson. They said fear of facing the death penalty led them to make their guilty pleas then.

“I did a five-year investigation into this case, and we spent an abundant amount of resources and time, and we actually had a conversation with the Commonwealth’s Attorney who tried the case and who entered into the plea agreement in Sussex County,” Adams told 8News. “He reviewed the evidence and he said that he had never seen or heard of anyone identifying any other suspect. That should matter. That should matter, and not only should it matter; it should trump all. Does no one want to know what truly happened to Officer Gibson?”

In 1999, Richardson received a five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, and Claiborne pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact. In 2001, federal prosecutors pursued charges of drug trafficking in connection to Gibson’s death. The jury in federal court found the men guilty of the drug crimes but acquitted them of the murder. The judge in the case, however, decided to use their pleas in state court to sentence them to life. Claiborne pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in state court, so his charges are not eligible for a writ of innocence.

“The family of Officer Gibson, having the false belief that these were the true perpetrators, said that there’s no way they should get a sentence of five years and the other one with time served. I just want you to think about that for a second. Since when have you ever seen someone accused of killing a cop, or even shooting a cop, get five years and the other one gets time served?” Adams said. “The federal authorities started to investigate. But they needed to have a jurisdiction hook. They couldn’t just retry them for the murder of Officer Gibson on its face.”

That’s when Adams said the drug charges came into play.

“They found him not guilty of murder, and found him guilty of one single drug conspiracy count,” he said. “Had they just been sentenced for the drug count, they would’ve been out of jail 15 years ago.”

New evidence uncovered in court filings in 2021 pointed to another suspect, something Adams said was not made clear to the defendants or the Commonwealth’s Attorney when they entered into the plea deal.

“They’ve never had a day in Virginia state court to call witnesses and prove that police withheld the only identification of the true suspect from them, and they deserve that day,” Adams said. “The Appellate Court of Virginia is denying them that opportunity to ever have a day in court.”

Adams argued that law enforcement in Sussex County must have withheld evidence from both the prosecution and the defense, as it later emerged that an eyewitness, young Shannequia Gay, shared a suspect description and picked a different individual out of a lineup.

In April 2021, Richardson filed the petition now before us. Richardson’s claim of innocence centers on three pieces of evidence: (1) a “handwritten statement of an eyewitness, Miss Shannequia Gay (‘Miss Gay’), who identified the perpetrator as man with dreads wearing a white t-shirt”; (2) a “photo array identification procedure conducted by state investigators with Miss Gay identifying a man named Leonard Newby as the ‘man with dreads’”; and (3) a “911 call to the Sussex County hotline identifying Leonard
Newby as the perpetrator.”

Excerpt from petition for writ of actual innocent in the Court of Appeals of Virginia on June 21, 2022

In the most recent court filing, Adams called on Virginia’s highest court to examine Richardson’s case, in the hopes that it would also allow for the review of Claiborne’s case.

“They would be resentenced to a release,” Adams said. “What we found in the state investigation, it was a baton that was handed along with the federal investigation. So what we plan to do is take the whole thing down.”

During then-Attorney General Mark Herring’s time in office, his team drafted a document in support of Richardson’s innocence plea. However, when current Attorney General Jason Miyares came into office, that stance was reversed.

“I wish it was about something else, but this is all about politics,” Adams said. “For Miyares’ office to come in, and in 30 days, reverse course, with having no new information at all, it goes against centuries of law in the state of Virginia and in the Commonwealth.”

But a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office disagreed.

“The Office of the Attorney General stands by its position, guided by the rule of law, and now confirmed by the Appeals Court ruling: the facts of this case do not support the claim for a writ of actual innocence,” Victoria LaCivita, Miyares’ spokesperson, said in a statement to WFXR’s sister station, WRIC, back in June.

With this latest court filing, Adams said he and his team are now waiting for the court to decide if there’s going to be an argument and when that might be, or to make a final decision.

“But we’re not just waiting on that,” he said. “We are submitting our petition to President [Joe] Biden. October 1 is when we plan to have our petition here to commute their sentence. They need to come home. This is wrong.”