Imagine being put in prison for a crime you didn’t commit and then being pardoned over 20 years later under the condition that you don’t raise complaints you may have against the arresting officers, prosecutors, or your imprisonment.
This may very well be the story of 40-year-old Rojai Fentress from Richmond, Va., who has maintained his innocence of a 1996 drug-related murder that he was convicted of and sentenced to 53 years when he was just 16 years old. He was pardoned for the murder on Wednesday.
Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Gov. Ralph Northam granted Fentress clemency noting that the parole board recommended the pardon under several conditions, including three years of supervision by the probation and parole office and that he “release all claims he may have against officials for his arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.”
That last condition is particularly troubling because if Fentress’ claim of innocence is true, there’s something truly nefarious about him being made to choose between his silence and his freedom.
In fact, even Brian Wainger, the former assistant commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted Fentress in 1997, appears to be unsure of his guilt.
From the Dispatch:
In a Nov. 9, 2018, letter to the governor’s office on Fentress’ behalf, Wainger wrote that at the time of the trial, he was convinced of Fentress’ guilt, but that even for the crime of murder, a 53-year sentence for a 16-year-old was unusually harsh. A more moderate sentence of 20 years might have been more fair, he wrote.
He added: “Whether or not Mr. Fentress actually committed the crimes for which he was convicted, the interests of justice now require his release from confinement, with certain safeguards to ensure that he is not a threat to society, and assuming that he has been a model prisoner.”
Then, of course, there’s the fact that someone else confessed to the murder and the prosecution’s main witness was a probably drunk woman who didn’t see the shooting and didn’t identify Fentress until six months after it took place.
Another inmate has said it was he, not Fentress, who fired the fatal shot — once in a 2014 affidavit and twice more in conversations with news reporters. But a federal judge did not find the man’s confession in the affidavit credible.
Fentress was convicted of the April 13, 1996, slaying of Thomas William Foley, 27, of Colonial Beach, who was shot while attempting to purchase crack cocaine at about 2:45 a.m. in the Midlothian Village Apartments in South Richmond.
The murder and related firearm convictions for which Fentress was convicted hung largely on the testimony of a witness who admitted she had been drinking, who did not see the shooting and who did not identify Fentress until six months later.
Fentress has been adamant that he had nothing to do with the killing.
Suddenly the fact that Fentress’ pardon came with any conditions at all sounds like some bullshit.
In March, Fentress and his 68-year-old disabled mother, Bessie Fentress, were featured in a Dispatch article when Bessie and her 49-year-old daughter Melissa were living in a homeless encampment in Shockoe Valley.
For months, they kept news of their homelessness from Fentress so that he wouldn’t worry but he found out about it in February when he saw a quote from his mother in an article about the encampment, also covered by the Dispatch.
Deirdre Enright, who works with the UVA Innocence Project, picked Fentress up from the Augusta Correctional Center Wednesday evening. She told the Dispatch that she wasn’t made aware were of Fentress’ pardon until that afternoon and that it “is not known if Bessie Fentress has learned of the development.”