As Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s term approaches its end and a change of political power is inbound, people across the Commonwealth are making final pushes for clemency.
One of the people petitioning for clemency is Brian “Uhuru” Rowe, who is currently being held in Buckingham Correctional Center. Rowe is currently serving a 93-year prison sentence he received after pleading guilty in 1995 to crimes related to a robbery that turned deadly. He was 18-years-old at the time.
Though he was not the “trigger-man,” Rowe said he took responsibility for his actions and as part of those efforts he pleaded guilty to several charges, including two counts of second-degree murder as an accessory.
“I had a troubled childhood and I committed these horrible crimes that impacted people in a negative way, but that’s not the total of my worth; we’re all so much worth more than that,” Rowe said. “That’s the part of us that they don’t see, the part of us that they fail to acknowledge, that we get to be all these wonderful things and touch people in positive ways.”
Clemency comes in various forms, including: absolute pardons, which remove convictions; simple pardon, which forgive past convictions but don’t remove them; and conditional pardons, which commute an incarcerated person’s sentence without removing their conviction.
In the waning days of Northam’s term, his administration said he has reviewed about 2,000 cases and granted 604 pardons, as of October. An updated figure could not be obtained and a spokesperson for Northam did not respond to a request for comment.
Nearly 27 years after his conviction, Rowe said he is a very different man and has spent the better part of the last three decades learning and trying to make a positive impact on those around him. Rowe said he is no longer the teenager he was when he was sentenced, which is part of the reason he changed his name to Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom.
“When I first came to prison I still had what is called a ‘street mentality,’ but luckily I met some elders who had been there for twenty to twenty five years who impressed upon me the importance of getting too caught up in prison culture and to educate myself,” he said. “It was through the process of my own self-education and desire to learn that I evolved into a new human being and who I am now: a person who desperately wants to have a positive impact on those around me.”
According to Rowe, per sentencing guidelines created by the then-recently created Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, he should have been sentenced to a term between eight and 13 years, a number confirmed via previous work by Charlottesville attorney Beth Norton, who has helped Rowe in the past.
However, Judge James B. Wilkinson sentenced Rowe to 93 years, a move he was able to make because Virginia follows the common law felony murder rule, which states that when a person kills another person in the commission of certain other dangerous crimes, the offender’s accomplices also can be found guilty of murder. Rowe, who is Black, said he believes his race was a factor in the length of his sentence.
Rowe and others have accused Wilkinson, who died in 2011, of racial-bias in sentencing and various 1998 articles from the Richmond Times-Dispatch analyzed sentencing disparities in the Manchester Courthouse in Richmond that Wilkinson presided over.
According to one of those articles, black defendants in felony cases in Wilkinson’s court received on average a 38% longer sentence than did black defendants convicted of a felony on Richmond’s North Side. At the same time, white people convicted of felonies by Wilkinson received on average a 13% shorter sentence than did whites convicted of felonies on the North Side.
With the assistance of several William and Mary students and others who formed the Justice for Uhuru Rowe Clemency Committee, a clemency petition was filed in March 2020. According to a tracker for the U.S. Department of Justice, that petition for a commuted sentence is currently pending before Northam.
Among the committee members are Connor Dendler, Persephone Hernandez-Vogt and Shea Hennum, all of whom said Rowe has positively influenced their lives.
“Since I started interacting with [Rowe] I’ve learned to look inwards and outwards and actually see the people around me as a community which I am responsible for contributing towards,” Dendler said. “That’s not a mentality I would have developed had I not joined this committee and been able to correspond with Rowe and I think the other committee members feel the same.”
Though petitioners are able to track the progress of their petition, the review process is somewhat of a mystery and can take years. However, Rowe is hopeful that his latest push for clemency will be successful due to Northam’s increased rate of approvals and letters of support he has received from state legislators Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.
Northam’s office said he has acted on over 2,000 pardon petitions and that the large number of pending petitions is due to an influx received since he took office, coupled with the thousands of petitions that were pending review when former Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014.
Northam announced new steps to streamline the pardon process in May.
The pardons for the Martinsville Seven appear to be the first posthumous pardons granted in state history. While recognizing the punishments were unjust, they are not absolute pardons. All seven men were said to have confessed to some involvement in the Jan. 8, 1949, attack against the 32-year-old woman. The families, however, said the confessions were made under duress.
When Republican governor-elect Glenn Youngkin takes control in 2022, Rowe said he is uncertain if the new administration will be as open to granting clemency petitions. Youngkin has promised to replace the entire existing Virginia Parole Board, citing a 2020 report from the Office of the State Inspector General that found the board violated the law by failing to notify local prosecutors and victims’ families of some releases.
Regardless of the outcome of his petition, Rowe said that he hopes his situation and work brings attention to positive changes and impact incarcerated people are able to make.
“Once you come to prison it kind of freezes you in time. Your only worth, your only identity becomes that of the person who committed a crime and that perception doesn’t allow you to move beyond that, especially if you’re serving a life sentence,” Rowe said. “But there are so many people in here who have changed, they are no longer that person. There are brothers in here who have become Christian or Muslim, have earned college degrees. These men need to be in the community, not in prison for the rest of their lives.”
While Rowe awaits a decision, a different area man, Jared Brown, was recently pardoned by Northam for a misdemeanor assault conviction he received in 2011 when he was a student at the University of Virginia.
Initially charged with two misdemeanors, Brown said he was originally sentenced to a year in prison with 300 days suspended and then on appeal at the recommendation of the victim the sentence was reduced to 60 days with 30 suspended. Ultimately, Brown would serve two weeks behind bars.
“I think that the arrest and certainly the incarceration was probably the most defining experience of my young adult life,” Brown said. “It sort of shifted my professional interest from being a corporate lawyer to pursuing my life’s work of creating a more equitable, forgiving environment where all young people are able to achieve their full potential.”
Like Rowe, Brown was only 18 at the time of his arrest and also feared a single mistake would end up defining the rest of his life. However, now more than a decade later Brown said that, thanks to community support, he has achieved many great things and gone on to work with Facebook and the Obama Foundation.
“I’ve been blessed to have a lot of educational and professional opportunities and I think that the support offered by my peers, but especially the administrators and faculty at UVa, immediately following the arrest really created a set of circumstances in which I was able to recover pretty seamlessly from this very devastating set of circumstances,” he said.
Brown said he filed his clemency petition in September 2019 and was notified in October that his petition had been granted a simple pardon, meaning that his conviction had not been expunged but his growth had been recognized. Going forward, Brown said that he hopes his situation can serve as an example for other public figures and communities about the need for compassion and second chances.
“Young people make mistakes all the time and governors are uniquely positioned to act on behalf of young people to create second chances and to create the conditions under which they can meaningfully contribute to our society and ultimately achieve their full potential,” he said. “I’m excited that Governor Northam has fully embraced that concept and used his authority constructively. And I believe that there is an opportunity for governors across the country to follow his outstanding leadership and modeling.”