Virginia Parole Chair Files Libel Suit Over Coverage of Prisoner Release Scandal

After facing months of scrutiny over the release of an elderly inmate during the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia’s parole board chair says a Richmond TV station smeared her in its coverage of the scandal.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The head of Virginia’s Parole Board has filed a $7 million defamation suit against a local TV station and journalist, claiming the outlet misrepresented details of a report related to an ongoing scandal involving the early release of an inmate. 

The complaint, filed Monday in Richmond City Circuit Court, alleges local CBS affiliate WTVR-TV and reporter Jonathan Burkett defamed the character of Tonya Chapman, the chair of the state’s parole board who has come under fire in recent months following the hastened release of an inmate during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The inmate, 63-year-old Vincent L. Martin, was released in June 2020 after serving 40 years in prison for the killing of a Richmond police officer in 1979. Since his release, a report from the Office of the State Inspector General exposed transparency issues within Virginia’s rarely used parole system. The six-page report was given to legislators before being leaked to the press and pounced upon by Virginia Republicans, who have sought to paint the state’s new Democratic majority as soft on crime. 

Further complicating the matter was the discovery and reporting of a longer, 13-page report which, according to the OIG statements, contained additional findings that “may contain allegations that are not completely vetted or supported by facts.” 

At issue in Monday’s lawsuit is WTVR and Burkett’s coverage of the longer report. 

Chapman, through Norfolk attorney Christian Connell, alleges the news outlet described the draft report as the “original report” and said it was “loaded with details about violations of parole board policy and the law.” 

The story published last month included an interview with a retired Air Force Judge advocate and lawyer, Matt Bristow, who claimed the truncated report “definitely looks like information was withheld to avoid embarrassment or other undesirable publicity.” 

“Burkett or someone else at WTVR-TV solicited Bristow’s opinion solely for the purpose of providing a slanted and distorted explanation for why portions of the 13-page document had been altered or removed,” the complaint states.

Chapman further alleges Burkett’s story claimed without a source or explanation that Inspector General Michael Westfall found that Chapman and her predecessor “both violated multiple state codes and policies and violated the constitution of Virginia.”

The lawsuit also points to a recently filed whistleblower complaint brought by former OIG investigator Jennifer Moschetti, who claimed she was put on leave by the agency after she was blamed for the draft report’s release. She has since been terminated by the agency and her complaint was withdrawn. 

In support of her defamation claims, Chapman claims the WTVR report “imputed to Chapman an unfitness to perform the duties of her position.” She seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

While Chapman alleges the station and reporter acted recklessly in publishing the report, noticeably absent from the complaint is any attempt to link Burkett’s story to a bad faith effort to defame the parole board chair, otherwise known as actual malice, which is usually required to sustain a defamation claim. 

Attempts to reach Chapman were not returned by press time. Sheryl Barnhouse, WTVR’s news director, said in an email the outlet does not comment on legal matters.

A spokesperson for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam offered no comment on the dispute. 

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