“I’m terrified because McAuliffe puts politics over the safety of Virginians and victims’ rights. … I’m speaking to you as a victim. Virginia simply won’t be safe with four more years of Terry McAuliffe.”

— Former Richmond police officer Cheryl Nici, in a campaign ad for Glenn Youngkin, GOP gubernatorial candidate in Virginia.

This ad is emotional, seeking to tie former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who is seeking his old job back, to a controversy concerning the Virginia Parole Board. Virginia is one of the toughest states in the country to obtain parole, and questions have been raised about whether members of the board appointed by McAuliffe undermined the state’s standards.

Youngkin, given the opportunity to ask McAuliffe a question in last week’s debate, raised the parole board issue and asked whether he would have appointed the same chair who has been accused of ignoring the wishes of victims.

But Nici is an imperfect voice to make these accusations. The parole board has refused every opportunity to let her shooter, a convicted killer, go free. The ad does not explain that and some viewers might get the impression that the parole board acted against Nici’s interests.

The Facts

Speaking to the camera, Nici tells her story at the start of the ad: “Back in 1984, I was 24-year-old Richmond police officer working in uniform downtown when a man wanted for killing three people, and attempting to kill a Hanover County deputy, walked up and shot me in the head. I spent years trying to heal those emotional and physical wounds. Every few years I have to rip those wounds open again to plead with the members of Terry McAuliffe’s parole board to keep the man who tried to kill me off the streets.”

Kenneth Wayne Woodfin was convicted in 1985 of killing his wife, sister-in-law and a friend and shooting Nici as part of a violent rampage. He was sentenced to three life terms plus 116 years, though to this day he maintains his innocence. He claimed in a 2014 interview that he had been abducted by three men and was in a forest when the murders took place. “I was tortured,” he said. “When I get myself together, I wake up and I’m in the woods.”

Woodfin came up for parole in 2014, when he was 67. He was 36 when he allegedly shot Nici.

But Woodfin was denied parole in 2014, when McAuliffe was governor. He was denied parole again in 2017, when McAuliffe was governor. The reasons for not granting release in 2017 were: “History of violence. Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime. Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s). The Board considers you to be a risk to the community.”

And the 73-year-old man was denied parole this year again, a few days after Youngkin held a campaign event in June with Nici to highlight her case. This time the reasons given for rejecting the parole were: “Extensive criminal record. Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime. Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s).”

So how does this saga get tied to McAuliffe?

Virginia abolished discretionary parole in 1995, requiring offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, unless they committed a crime before Jan. 1, 1995. There’s an exception for geriatric prisoners convicted of a felony — those who are at least 65 and have served five years of a sentence or at least 60 and have served 10 years of their sentence. But it’s granted sparingly.

When he was governor, McAuliffe pushed to reinstate parole. He created a commission in 2015 to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations. One recommendation called for “more equity and fairness” in geriatric releases, since evidence suggested people older than 60 are less likely to recidivate and the medical care for elderly prisoners is costly.

But in an interesting wrinkle, then-Del. Chris Peace, a Republican, introduced an amendment to the 2016 budget that eliminated language in McAuliffe’s budget directing the Virginia Parole Board to annually review the cases of eligible inmates for geriatric conditional release. Instead the board was given the option to defer consideration of offenders eligible for geriatric parole for up to three years instead of every year. McAuliffe signed that budget, so the Peace amendment is why Nici has to deal with the possible parole of her shooter “every few years,” not every year.

After Adrianne L. Bennett was appointed in 2017 by McAuliffe to chair the parole board, she indicated geriatric release was a priority, telling the Baltimore Sun that “a 60-year-old in prison or a 70-year-old in prison who committed an offense decades ago is a huge tax liability and is not making our community safer. We are warehousing old men who are no longer a threat.” McAuliffe had said he appointed Bennett because he wanted to “make sure that we are moving expeditiously on these parole hearings.”

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the parole board to consider expediting releases of older and ailing inmates to help prevent the spread of the disease. At the time, a majority of the board members were still McAuliffe appointments, but now it’s a minority. Bennett left the parole board on April 15, 2020, to become a judge, but in July 2020 the Virginia Office of the Inspector General charged that board — and Bennett in particular — had failed to follow state law in notifying victims’ family members and prosecutors of pending releases, especially in the final weeks of her tenure. (Bennett’s replacement, Tonya Chapman, issued a detailed rebuttal of the inspector general’s findings.)

In the ad, after telling her personal story, Nici charges: “Terry McAuliffe’s handpicked parole board has one mission: cut them loose, releasing violent criminals early, including a cop killer.”

That’s a direct reference to a damning email on April 7 between Bennett and her administrative assistant, obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in which Bennett asked who should be discharged early: “Waive that wand of power and let’s cut them loose. There needs to be a silver lining to all of this! Give me more!!!”

The “cop killer” refers to Vincent Martin, who was released in 2020 despite serving a life sentence for murdering a police officer in 1979. The Martin case is one of instances cited by the IG as violating state law and procedures, and Northam ordered an independent investigation. That report in June found that because of “personal bias,” the lead investigator was motivated to see Martin returned to prison and that affected the “tone and substance” of the IG report. (The investigator rejected claims of bias.)

During their debate, Youngkin asked McAuliffe whether he would have appointed Bennett again. He dodged the question. “I always invested in parole. I put more resources in it. I tried to lift everybody out,” he said. “That’s why when I was governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, I had the lowest recidivism rate of any state in the United States of America. I also had the lowest crime rate of any major state in America.”

Earlier this year, a bill that would have restored parole in Virginia was killed in the state Senate.

The Youngkin campaign defended the ad.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of women in Virginia who are forced to live in fear because Terry McAuliffe created a parole board that was more interested in setting free violent criminals and sex offenders than protecting victims and their families,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. “McAuliffe’s extreme, criminals-first policies make women less safe, and Virginians are right to worry that he will put his political agenda ahead of their lives and safety — he did it once and he will do it again.”

The Pinocchio Test

We are not questioning the sincerity of Nici’s fear that the man who shot her might be released from prison. But the fact remains that he always has been denied parole, twice when McAuliffe was governor and most recently this year. The ad misleadingly leaves the impression that McAuliffe somehow affected the parole status of Nici’s shooter. McAuliffe did appoint Bennett, who apparently in an effort to move elderly prisoners out of jail during the pandemic may have cut some corners in state procedures. But she obviously was not working for McAuliffe at the time. So the connection is strained.

Whether prisoner releases were appropriately handled during the Northam administration is certainly a compelling campaign issue. But it’s puzzling why the Youngkin campaign did not feature a family member or victim directly affected by these releases.

Two Pinocchios

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