Fishback v. Commonwealth WE DEMAND Remedy
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In 1995 Virginia abolished parole and implemented the then new and popular trend of "Truth in Sentencing" laws. However, with the change in law few saw the collateral damage that would occur. For 5 years jurors were never told about parole being abolished, in fact, judges were instructed not to inform jurors of the change, even if they specifically asked about it. By not telling the jurors such critical information Virginia courts made an error violating one of the fundamental rights of our democracy - THE RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL. In criminal cases where justice was not served, such as when juries may have been ill-instructed or lacked the information they needed to make just decisions, the system is designed to provide for a review or even a do over. Jury deliberations are complex, making it vital that participants are aware of and can factor in all relevant information. Justice is said to be blind, however; juries are not supposed to be blind, but instead have their eyes wide open - a clear understanding of the case at hand and the law that applies to it. Between 1995-2000, juries in Virginia imposed heavy handed sentences without knowledge of the State's law.
Looking back, jurors who served during this period have said they would have imposed shorter, fairer sentences, had they known parole release wasn't being offered to prisoners anymore. It wasn't until a State Supreme Court ruling in 2000 (Fishback v Commonwealth) would there be a change in Virginia's practice of keeping jurors in the dark regarding parole being abolished. The Court in Fishback ruled it "simply defies reason" not to give jurors the information and granted Fishback's request for a new sentencing hearing with a properly instructed jury. Despite that victory, the ruling was not made retroactive, it only applied to future cases and those under appeal - not sentences already imposed.
The Virginia Sentencing Commission has said that approximately 471 people sentenced by juries between 1995-2000 have received a prison term of more than 20 years remain incarcerated and may have been affected by juror's ignorance of parole's abolition. These prisoners are seeking equal protection of the law as guarded by the constitution. In a recent Maryland court ruling (Unger v Maryland) nearly 300 prisoners have petitioned the courts for relief from a miscarriage of justice concerning unconstitutional jury instructions similar to Fishback. Between 2013 and 2016, Maryland's courts have ordered approximately 156 of the 300 prisoners released from prison. The disadvantaged Fishback prisoners are likewise seeking for the scales of justice to balance on the side of truth and right. If the light is shined bright enough on the unfair sentencing practices in Virginia the wrong done to these prisoners could be undone, and justice served. An evaluation into Jim Crow Laws needs to be revisited in Virginia because discrimination was the practice being administered on a class of people illegally, and Fishback clearly demonstrates a presence of that.
At this time, lawmakers are openly defiant that they are not going to do anything to correct this wrong because it effects a specific class of people. Lawmakers are not at liberty to openly discriminate against anyone (Equal Justice Act). Where is the contrast between Fishback (a minority and disadvantaged group) and Jim Crow Laws? As you are surely aware, the black population in America is 12-14% but roughly 60-65% in prisons. If the statistics were done on those affected by Fishback I'm sure the numbers would be very much the same.
We are seeking your assistance in the cause of equal rights.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."- Martin Luther King Jr.
Timeline: •January 1, 1995 - Parole is abolished in Virginia. •December 1, 1995 - Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission 1995 Annual report – legislative recommendation #1 “The General Assembly should develop legislation which would allow for jury instructions on the abolition of parole and the 85% minimum time served requirement for offenders sentenced under the new truth in sentencing system. The exact language of the jury instruction should be developed by the existing Committee of the Judicial Conference on model jury instructions.” •June 9, 2000 - Fishback v. Commonwealth – new rule of criminal procedure – Trial judges have been ordered in appropriate case to instruct their juries in ALL non-capitol felonies committed after Jan. 1, 1995, that parole has been abolished in Virginia. •December 4, 2015 – Governor’s Commission on Parole Review – recommendation #16, correct unfair uninformed jury sentencing that affects the length of incarceration for inmates sentenced by juries prior to 2000. •General Assembly 2016 – SB 216 (non-violent only, passed Senate left in House Courts of Justice); SB 223 (failed Senate); HB 390 (left in House Courts of Justice). •General Assembly 2017 – SB 825 (non-violent only, passed Senate, left in House Courts of Justice). •General Assembly 2018 – HB 1314 (House sub-committee passed by indefinitely); SB 100 (non-violent only, failed Senate). •NOW 2018 – What’s next??
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