In Terry McAuliffe's final year as governor, the Virginia Democrat's parole board released a violent offender who later attempted to rob a woman and her kids at knifepoint in their own home.
In November 2017, the Virginia Parole Board—led by McAuliffe's appointed chairwoman, Adrianne Bennett—released 44-year-old career criminal Karim Aziz Muhammad, who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery. While McAuliffe has dismissed concerns that paroled offenders could go on to commit more illegal acts, Muhammad soon returned to a "life of crime," according to police.
Muhammad went back to prison after he robbed an eastern Virginia grocery store in April 2020. But he quickly secured bail, and just two months later, he broke into a woman's home—where children were present—while armed with a knife. After demanding cash and other valuables, Muhammad fled the home, leading police on a car chase that ended when he crashed into a state trooper's vehicle and assaulted an officer. Muhammad's own child was also in the car during the chase.
The ordeal exemplifies how McAuliffe—who is running for a second term as governor against Republican Glenn Youngkin—transformed Virginia's parole board. In 2016, the board denied Muhammad's release due to the criminal's "history of violence." Months later, however, McAuliffe replaced the board's chair with Bennett, citing his desire to "make sure that we are moving expeditiously on these parole hearings." Bennett went on to brag to a fellow board employee that she would "wave that wand of power" and "release anyone you say to release," leaked emails show.
Despite Muhammad's violent string of crimes following his release, McAuliffe has defended his handling of the parole board. During a December roundtable, he said he was never "bothered" by the possibility of a parolee committing a crime while out of prison.
"And I'll be honest with you, when you're sitting there as a governor or politician, your staff doesn't want you to do any of this," McAuliffe said on releasing criminals from prison. "The staff, rightfully, always wants to protect you, and if someone gets out and does something, ‘Oh my goodness, they're going to come back.' You know, none of that stuff ever, ever bothered me."
McAuliffe's campaign did not return a request for comment.
Virginia's murder rate climbed under both McAuliffe and his successor, Democratic governor Ralph Northam. In 2013—one year before McAuliffe took office—Virginia experienced 3.9 homicides per 100,000 people. In 2017, McAuliffe's final year as governor, that number jumped to 5.6, a 44 percent increase. In 2020, meanwhile, the state saw a murder rate of nearly 6.2—the highest level in more than two decades.
Muhammad is far from the only controversial criminal released under Bennett. Shortly before she left the board in April 2020, Bennett penned a letter defending her decision to release convicted cop killer Vincent Lamont Martin, whom she called a "trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator, and mentor." In 2020, the state launched an investigation to determine whether the board followed state protocol under Bennett—according to the Office of the State Inspector General, Bennett "unilaterally released more than 100 parolees from Virginia Department of Corrections supervision in violation of long-standing rules."
McAuliffe distanced himself from the scandal during the state's Democratic primary in April, saying he "wasn't there when this was going on." He did, however, defend his decision to prioritize "getting people parole," a policy he turned to Bennett to enact.
"When I was governor, I had to replace the entire parole board, because they didn't believe in doing it," McAuliffe said. "I leaned in hard on these issues, because we have a racist criminal justice system. I have said this forever."
Youngkin targeted McAuliffe's parole board record in a September ad, which states that Virginia "simply won't be safe with four more years of Terry McAuliffe." The pair will square off at the polls on Nov. 2.