RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) mistakenly restored the right to vote to several violent felons currently in prison or on supervised probation, as part of his sweeping clemency order, records show.
Among the 206,000 felons who were awarded voting rights are some high-profile killers whose crimes shocked their small communities.
Ronald R. Cloud, 68, was in prison in West Virginia for sexual assaults involving a child when he pleaded guilty in 2014 to the murder of a Fauquier County man in a three-decade-old cold case.
Daniel Harmon-Wright, 36, was a Culpeper police officer when he shot a Sunday school teacher in her Jeep as the vehicle drove away.
When McAuliffe restored their rights and the rights of others amid great fanfare on April 22, he presented it as a way for Virginia to move past the Jim Crow era, because African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement. One in 4 African Americans in Virginia had been banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions.
The administration said only felons who had served their time and completed parole would win back the right to vote and be permitted to resume other aspects of civic life, such as serving on a jury or running for public office.
He was immediately criticized by Republicans and some law enforcement officials, who said the wholesale restoration of civil rights was too rushed and warned that mistakes would result.
McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, attributed the errors to flaws in a system officials devised to identify convicted felons in Virginia.
But officials did not check for felons living outside Virginia, such as Cloud, who is serving the first of two life sentences in West Virginia, and Harmon-Wright, who is on supervised probation in California.
“This is obviously a massive administrative undertaking,” Coy said. “We are working constantly to refine the working administrative database that we’re using to implement this process. As we are made aware of ways we can refine it, we’re executing those refinements immediately.”
The state corrected the errors Thursday after inquiries from The Post about why the civil rights of Cloud, Harmon-Wright and several others were restored, according to a searchable database on the Secretary of Commonwealth website. Their rights were restored on April 22, the day McAuliffe signed the clemency order.
State Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), who is running for attorney general, said the errors confirmed the concerns voiced by critics.
“This exceeds our worst fears,” Bell said. “He did not even comply with his own very, very modest restrictions. At least if you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Last month, Republicans sued the governor, arguing that he does not have the authority under the constitution to restore the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of felons with one sweeping order.
They also expressed concern that McAuliffe’s action simplifies the process felons must follow to win back the right to own a gun.
Jim Fisher, Fauquier commonwealth’s attorney, asked his staff to check the state database for anyone convicted of homicide and sex crimes in the county, which has a population of about 70,000.
In addition to Cloud and Harmon-Wright, they discovered Cecil Leonard Hopkins, 51, who strangled his girlfriend and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He is living in Maryland under supervised probation.
Two others — Virgil J. Dantic, 77, and Frank P. Ferrara, 52 — are serving time in Virginia prisons for sex crimes, records show.
“There’s going to be lots and lots more. That’s part of the problem with rushing this through,” Fisher said.
His search did not capture people in local jails awaiting trail or sentencing, fugitives on outstanding charges or those serving sentences on grand larceny, burglary or narcotics distribution charges.
“This really demonstrates the foreseeable problem with rushing through a mass felon amnesty executive clemency order with no protocols, no scrutiny, just doing it,” he said.
As of Thursday night, McAuliffe’s spokesman, Coy, could not say how many people had mistakenly been given back voting rights while serving sentences in other states.
In the cases of Dantic and Ferrara, data entry errors were to blame, Coy said. In one case, a Social Security number was incorrect; in another, the computer program dropped a “zero” at the start of a Social Security number, he said.
“The folks you brought to us are going to be removed,” Coy said. “None of them have exercised any rights. In the interest of keeping the list clean, it would be nice if prosecutors called us before they called you.”
None of the felons had registered to vote, Coy said. If they had, the Department of Elections voter database would have allowed it, and they could have voted by absentee mail.
Prosecutors have urged the state to release the list of more than 200,000 voters whose rights McAuliffe restored so they can more easily check for errors.
The state has denied Freedom of Information Act requests, citing a “working papers” exemption, and they will not change that position as a result of the errors, Coy said.
“This underscores our point that this is a working list. We are constantly refining it,” he said. “No matter what their motivation was, the work of these prosecutors will help us to refine the list.”
Jim Plowman, the Loudoun County commonwealth’s attorney, has repeatedly been denied a list of the restored felons, and he said blanket restoration is troubling for many reasons.
He pointed to a defendant who was accused of aggravated malicious wounding in 2013, after a previous stabbing conviction in 2007, and the man was found not guilty in 2014 by reason of insanity. The man is now in a state mental hospital, having not yet been restored to sanity, but he has had his rights restored, Plowman said.
“This is why these things deserve individual review,” Plowman said.
In the meantime, the state is relying on prosecutors and felons themselves to spot errors. Coy had this message for felons in prison or under supervised probation who discover that their rights have been restored: “You should contact our office immediately.”