Why is Rojai Fentress still in prison?

7/9/2020, 6 p.m.
On April 13, 1996, Thomas W. Foley was shot in a breezeway of an apartment building on Midlothian Turnpike while …

On April 13, 1996, Thomas W. Foley was shot in a breezeway of an apartment building on Midlothian Turnpike while trying to purchase crack cocaine.

Rojai Fentress, who was 16 at the time of the crime, was convicted of first degree murder in Mr. Foley’s death and given a 53-year sentence. He has now served almost 24 years in prison.

There was no DNA evidence in the case, no ballistics, no serology, no hair fiber or trace evidence, no confession— nothing except the testimony of Julie Howard, a friend of Mr. Foley who did not identify Mr. Fentress as the shooter until he appeared in court in handcuffs.

In fact, the prosecutor said in his closing argument to the jury: “This case hinges on whether or not you believe Julie Howard ... it all boils down to (that).”

The case against Mr. Fentress was so weak that just prior to trial, the Commonwealth offered Mr. Fentress a five-year plea if he would plead guilty. Mr. Fentress rejected the deal and stated unequivocally: “I’m not guilty. I was never there.” Thereafter, and based solely on the testimony of Ms. Howard, Mr. Fentress, who was 17 at the time, was convicted and sentenced.

Nineteen years after the conviction, the Commonwealth’s case began to unravel. First, the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law got involved and it was discovered that a recorded conversation between Ms. Howard and the lead detective of the case, the late James Hickman, conducted in 1996, was never turned over to the defense.

During this recorded conversation, Ms. Howard was shown two photo spreads by the police and she identified an individual other than Mr. Fentress as the shooter. Contrary to the Rules of Discovery, this tape was never turned over to the defense prior to trial. Ms. Howard would later take her own life.

On Aug. 6, 2014, another individual, DeAnthony Doane, came forward and signed a sworn affidavit confessing to the murder of Mr. Foley. In the sworn affidavit, Mr. Doane described a drug deal gone bad, resulting in Mr. Foley’s death.

Mr. Doane currently is incarcerated for unrelated convictions of murder and robbery.

Despite overwhelming evidence that exonerates Mr. Fentress, Attorney General Mark R. Herring has refused to acknowledge evidence of Mr. Fentress’ innocence and has fought lawyers with the Innocence Project every step of the way.

Additionally, a petition for a conditional pardon has been filed by the Innocence Project with the state secretary of the commonwealth, but this petition has languished in that office for approximately three years.

The tragic plight of Rojai Fentress underscores why pa- role needs to be re-established in Virginia for everyone. Pardon requests, which Mr. Fentress deserves, are rare. Parole may be his only option.

The 2021 General Assembly must act decisively to pass legislation reinstating parole in Virginia.



The writer represents the 16th District in the Virginia Senate.