8News Investigates: Not guilty? Sentenced to life

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Last week, an 8News investigation introduced you to two Virginia inmates who some believe are unfairly serving a life sentence in prison. We’ve now learned they will get no help from President Barack Obama.

Ferrone Claiborne and Terence Richardson were eligible for life in prison when charged with murdering Waverly police officer Allen Gibson in 1998. But when a jury acquitted them of that crime, the judge used an unusual procedure to cross-reference the murder charge and sentence the men to life for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine. The normal crack sentence would have been much shorter.

During his final hours in office, President Obama granted clemency to 330 inmates. He commuted the sentences of 11 Virginians. during the final month of his presidency.

Lawyers for Clairborne and Richardson now plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.


ORIGINAL REPORT:

Part I

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It was a crime that sent shockwaves through the town of Waverly: Two men acquitted for the murder of a police officer.

Yet in an odd twist, that murder charge was used to sentence them to life in prison.

It is a crime both men claim they didn’t commit.

“I have been sitting in here for 18 years for something I didn’t even do,” said Terence Richardson, one of the men behind bars.

Now, Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne have filed a Petition for Clemency with President Barack Obama before he leaves office.

On April 25, 1998, Officer Allen Gibson was gunned down in the woods behind the Waverly Village apartment complex. Warren Sturrup, the Waverly police chief at the time, was one of the first to respond. He has never spoken about the incident until now.

765556587“Allen was completely out, he was laying there, his gun on the ground,” Sturrup said, describing the scene.

He then did something unexpected.

“I picked up his gun and took it up the hill to put it in my car and tried to secure it,” Sturrup recalled.

8News asked, why? There could be fingerprints on the gun and it contaminated the evidence.

“I didn’t think about that at the time,” Sturrup explained.

He says his military training kicked in; he was worried other officers and deputies responding could also be in danger.

“I don’t want that gun laying around in case somebody come out, I don’t want the same thing to happen to another deputy,” Sturrup said.

Officer Gibson, just 25-years-old with a wife and daughter, was flown to the hospital but couldn’t be saved. Suddenly, there’s a cop killer on the loose and pressure to find him.

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Within a couple days, 27-year-old Richardson and 22-year-old Claiborne emerged as suspects.

“I didn’t know them,” Sturrup said. “Never heard their names before.”

To this day, from their prison cells, Richardson and Claiborne maintain their innocence.

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The case against them, which was tried in Sussex County Court, had issues from the beginning.

“No evidence to tie him to it,” suggested Curtis Claiborne, Ferrone’s father.

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Curtis Claiborne.

A conviction was in doubt. There were no fingerprints on the gun, evidence was contaminated and the only witness was a convicted felon once on record as saying he didn’t know anything about the murder.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney at the time, David Chappell, declined to go on camera, but sent 8News the following statement via email:

“It was frustrating handling the cases because while I believed we had the right two criminal agents, the evidence as a whole was very borderline [for] proving murder.”

Chappell offered a controversial plea bargain. The suspects’ lawyers urged them to take it.

“He said if you go to trial and you mess around and you lose, you could get the death penalty,” Richardson said.

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“I really didn’t have the funds to go forward with the trial,” Claiborne added.

Richardson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Claiborne pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact — a misdemeanor.

“He said if I tackle the misdemeanor charge, I get time served and go home the same day,” Claiborne said.

And so he did. Claiborne walked out that day thinking the case was now behind him.

“I feel blessed,” he told 8News at time outside the courtroom

Gibson’s grieving and heartbroken family, however, did not feel justice was served.

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Susie Gibson.

“All you have to do is take a gun, shoot a police officer, say it was an accident and you can walk,” Susie Gibson said.

Soon, Claiborne and Richardson would find themselves in federal court facing the murder charges all over again.

“He got a raw deal,” Claiborne’s father said.

It almost sounds like double jeopardy, which means you can’t be tried for the same crime twice. Legal analyst Bill Shields explains how that murder charge resurfaced.

“The state can try you, and the federal government can try you for essentially the same thing under the Rinaldi Doctrine,” Shields said.


Part II

Waverly Police Officer Allen Gibson was murdered in 1998 with his own gun. The two men charged say they are innocent, but at the time they agreed to a plea deal to a lesser charge.

In a recent interview, Terrence Richardson explained why he chose to take the plea deal.

“[My lawyer] said if you go to trial and you mess around and you lose, you could get the death penalty,” says Terence Richardson explaining why he took the deal.

Ferrone Claiborne walked out of jail that day. Richardson was given a relatively short sentence.

“I thank God. I think I have been blessed,” said Claiborne as he left the courthouse back in 1999.

Yet, Claiborne and Richardson would soon be back behind back bars, charged again with the murder of Officer Gibson. This time, the case would play out in Federal court.

Officer Gibson’s grieving family was never satisfied with that plea bargain the men got in the Sussex County courthouse back in 1999.

Outside the court, Gibson’s mother Susie spoke to reporters, expressing her anger.

“No, it’s not justice. Those men killed my son,” Susie Gibson said at the time. Just days later, records show the FBI was asked to investigate.

“I just kept on praying,” Susie Gibson said.

In 2000, The Feds announced they had arrested Claiborne and Richardson again, this time charging-them-with-conspiracy-to-sell-crack-cocaine-and-once-again-with-the-murder.

“The justice tripped a little bit in its first journey to bring closure to this incident,” said Jeff Roehn, the ATF Supervisor at the time.

Prosecutors in Federal court argued a drug deal gone bad led to Gibson’s death in those Waverly woods.

“I never messed with the crack cocaine,” Richardson said in a recent interview. “Never, never. I sold marijuana before but I never sold crack,” Claiborne agreed.

8News spoke with Richardson’s federal court attorney Michael HuYoung.

“They did not find any crack or cocaine on their persons or even when they did a search,” HuYoung said. Yet the feds portrayed them as kingpins leading a Waverly drug ring.

“Kingpins? Come on. I never saw them, I never knew them,” former Waverly Police Chief Warren Sturrup said.

Speaking out for the first time since the murder of his friend and colleague, Sturrup says he doesn’t buy it.

“We knew who were the drug players, in the drug scene on the street. Those two, they were not players,” Sturrup added.

Also speaking out for the first time since the Federal trial is juror Dawn White. She recalls the Feds key witnesses as a parade of prisoners.

“They were testifying in orange jumpsuits,” White said.

HuYoung said he believes the prisoners testified in an effort to better their own standing.

“They had records and they had something to gain by coming in to testify,” HuYoung said.

As for physical evidence, there was none. 8News has reviewed the forensic-records and they show there was no blood, no hair and no DNA to link Claiborne or Richardson to the crime scene.

“They weren’t there,” HuYoung said.Claiborne and Richardson didn’t match suspect descriptions.

Claiborne and Richardson didn’t even match suspect descriptions.

8News has obtained a transcript of a state police interview with one of the first deputies on the scene. He states Gibson’s last words were, “They have dreadlocks and one had a pony-tail.” Claiborne had short hair, Richardson cornrows. A handwritten statement from a witness states “saw a man with dreads.”

Claiborne had short hair, Richardson cornrows. A handwritten statement from a witness states “saw a man with dreads.””I always wore cornrows I never had dreads, I never liked dreads.”

“I always wore cornrows I never had dreads, I never liked dreads,” Richardson said.

The jury found the Feds case for murder weak and acquitted both men of the murder.

“As I recall, no one ever really thought they were guilty of murder,” White said. The jury did convict Claiborne and Richardson of conspiracy to sell crack cocaine.

“I would have assumed that they get something … at the most ten years,” White said. It wasn’t until recently that White learned what happened next after the jury was dismissed.

“I was dumbfounded, I couldn’t believe it,” White said.

In a rare move in the sentencing phase, without the consent of the jury, the judge used that murder charge as a cross reference to lock them up for good.

“But our verdict was not guilty of the murder,” a baffled White said.

8News turned once again to legal analyst Bill Shields for explanation.

“Under the sentencing guidelines, they can have what they call enhanced sentencing based on criminal activity for which you have not been convicted,” Shields said. However, Shields said the way it happened in this case is odd.

“It’s a miscarriage of justice to enhance on something they have actually been acquitted of. I have not seen that before,” Shields said.

“I just feel like he was railroaded and they did whatever they could to get a conviction,” Felisha Claiborne, Ferrone’s sister said about her brother’s case.

Richardson went further.

“They actually knew we didn’t do it. They just needed a scapegoat for it,” Richardson said.

The men appealed. It was initially denied, but now LaQuetta Ruston, founder Of Providing Light, a group dedicated to helping those she believes have been wrongly accused, has now taken the case.

She filed a petition with President Obama asking him to grant the men clemency before he leaves office.

Those documents can be viewed in their entirety here:

“There was never any substantive evidence found to even point the finger at them of even being involved in a conspiracy to sell drugs,” Ruston said.

Shields believes they have an argument.

“This case does have some very serious questions about the legitimacy of what happened to these men,” Shields said. “This is one of those where there might be sufficient evidence for the President to grant clemency.”If clemency isn’t granted Ruston has also filed

If clemency isn’t granted Ruston has also filed a petition for a reduction in the sentence under the drug laws of today.

“If they were to be sentenced under today’s guidelines, they would be out already,” Ruston said.

Gibson’s widow declined to go on camera with 8News, asking we respect her privacy. She did tell us she was in shock. She says the men killed her husband and robbed them of a life together. On a memorial web page dedicated to Officer Gibson, there’s not a Veteran’s day or birthday that goes by where she and his daughter don’t remember a life taken too soon.

But was that life taken by Claiborne and Richardson?

Claiborne’s family prays for the Gibson’s. They understand their pain, but they believe Gibson’s killers are still out there.

“My heart goes out to the family, and I pray daily that they will find the right person who did this and committed the crime,” Claiborne said.

Richardson said his faith is in the evidence.

“They say the truth will set you free … I am relying on that,” Richardson said.

The Claiborne family is pleading for anyone who knows anything about the murder of Officer Gibson, whatever it is, to come forward.

“So many people knew the truth, but so many people was afraid to come forward,” Richardson said.

“I never give up. Especially for something I know I have nothing to do with and don’t know anything about. I will fight this till the end,” Claiborne said.

Currently, Magistrate Judge David Novak is the Federal prosecutor on the case. Novak refused to comment on the case, saying he makes it a practice of not discussing old cases.

The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a statement saying in part, “At sentencing, the district court found that clear and convincing evidence established that Richardson and Claiborne were responsible for the murder of Waverly Police Officer Allen Gibson.”

“In 2001, Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne were convicted by a federal jury of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine,” said Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “The jury verdict on the drug-trafficking offense authorized a sentence of up to life in prison.  At sentencing the district court found that clear and convincing evidence established that Richardson and Claiborne were responsible for the murder of Waverly Police Officer Allen Gibson.  In making that finding, the district court required the evidence satisfy a higher standard of proof than ordinarily applies to other aggravating facts at sentencing and a higher standard than would apply at a sentencing today.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences, and courts have rejected multiple challenges to those convictions and sentences over the last decade and a half.” — US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia

Shields explained while a jury has to use a higher standard of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in criminal cases, the judge at sentencing does not.

“Using a lower standard of proof, the judge said ‘I think they did it, therefore I am going to use it to enhance their punishment,’” Shields explained. Some have speculated that the fact that the men took guilty plea deals in state court may have ultimately factored into the life sentence they received in federal court.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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