Gov. Doug Wilder ordered Allen Iverson released from jail Thursday, freeing the All-American athlete eight months before he was scheduled to be paroled.
In what one Wilder aide called an "extraordinary" move, the governor granted conditional clemency to Iverson, a high school star convicted of three counts of mob violence. The order does not pardon Iverson but allows him to remain free on furlough until Aug. 23, 1994, the date his parole becomes effective.
Wilder attached several conditions to the order, including requiring Iverson to pursue his high school diploma and not play sports.
Iverson's attorneys would not say what school Iverson plans to attend.
Iverson returned home Thursday afternoon, wearing a green and gold sweatsuit - the colors of Bethel High School, the school Iverson led to state championships in football and basketball as a junior. When Iverson walked through the door of his family's home in Hampton, someone inside shrieked, "Oh my goodness."
Iverson, 18, did not talk to the media, but released this statement through one of his attorneys: "I am extremely grateful that Governor Wilder has given me a chance to continue my education, and I intend to make every effort to ensure that I complete my education. I also thank all of my family and friends that supported me during the last few months."
Along with three other teen-agers, Iverson was convicted of mob violence charges stemming from a racially divided bowling-alley brawl that occurred around midnight Valentine's Day and sent three people to the hospital. Hampton Circuit Judge Nelson T. Overton found Iverson guilty of three felonies and sentenced him to five years.
Protesters called the punishment unduly harsh and alleged that racism prompted authorities to charge only black youths involved in the melee.
Joyce Hobson, a spokeswoman for SWIS, an organization that has pushed for the four teens' release, heard the news of Wilder's order while driving home Thursday. ``I heard it over the radio, and I screamed at the top of my lungs," Hobson said. "I was 15 minutes from home, and I screamed for 15 minutes. ''
She was so excited, Hobson said, that she had difficulty getting dressed for a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The Rev. Marcellus Harris, another SWIS member, welcomed the governor's order but said he wished it had been a full pardon instead. "I'm happy for him and his family that he will have the opportunity to get out and continue his education," Harris said of Iverson. "I think that the governor has acted wisely in that respect. I wish he had acted sooner."
Iverson has been in jail since being sentenced Sept. 8.
Hobson and Harris said they want Wilder to grant clemency as well for the other three teens, Michael Simmons, 19, Samuel Wynn Jr., 19, and Melvin Stephens Jr., 18. "Furlough one, furlough all," Harris said.
Simmons and Wynn are serving their sentences at the Hampton City Jail. Stephens, the only one to be convicted only of misdemeanors, was released on an appeal bond and has been attending school in Missouri.
Governor's aides said Wilder is reviewing clemency requests that he recently received for Simmons and Wynn.
Stephens' attorney, James Ellenson, said he did not make a request on Stephens' behalf because he's already free while his appeal works its way through the courts.
Colleen Killilea, an assistant commonwealth's attorney who prosecuted the four teens, called Wilder's order "surprising," particularly since it was issued before the appeals process had been exhausted.
"If he does it just for Iverson, I certainly will be more upset than if he does it for all four of them," she said. "Otherwise, I think he's sending the message that if you can play basketball, you will get clemency from this administration."
On Thursday night, Simmons and Wynn said they were happy for Iverson and expressed no resentment over what some people have called special treatment.
"I just want to tell him go out there and hit the books," said Simmons, interviewed at the Hampton City Jail. "Go by everything they say. Please don't come back in here. He's got too much potential to be in here."
The order marks the only time Wilder has granted conditional clemency to someone for reasons other than illness, said Wilder's chief counsel, Walter A. McFarlane.
"He's probably granted fewer pardons than any governor in the history of Virginia," McFarlane said. "The reason is, he's very particular."
Wilder, who leaves office Jan. 15, has granted furlough to several inmates suffering from a terminal disease, including at least one convicted murderer.
Such conditional releases are not unusual, but it is rare for a governor to offer one while the case is still on appeal, aides to past governors and former parole board members said.
That early intervention is particularly unusual for Wilder, who has always been reluctant to get involved in any matter still in court - for example, the debate on whether women will be admitted into the all-male Virginia Military Institute.
"It's an extraordinary measure," a source close to Wilder said of Iverson's conditional clemency. "This governor has never intervened until the courts have acted."
The order does not overturn Iverson's three convictions, which Iverson's attorneys continue to fight. On Thursday, they mailed their appellate brief to the Court of Appeals of Virginia.
Wilder acted after becoming convinced that Iverson was treated unfairly, the source said. State legislators and others lobbied Wilder on Iverson's behalf, and Iverson himself wrote a letter to Wilder in which, the source said, Iverson admitted wrongdoing and asked for a second chance.
"That's what the governor's doing: giving him a second chance," the source said.
A statement released by Wilder's office quoted the governor as saying that "while there is not sufficient evidence at the present time for me to grant the extraordinary relief inherent in a traditional pardon, there is sufficient doubt to merit that Allen Iverson be granted limited freedom and the opportunity to continue his education."
State Sen. W. Henry Maxwell, D-Newport News, is among those who lobbied state officials - though not Wilder directly - on Iverson's behalf. He said he did it out of a sense that Iverson's case was bungled by the system.
"A lot of people dropped the ball for the young man," Maxwell said. Besides, he added, "We furlough a lot of people out of prison for a lot more serious offenses.
"The lesson of life has been learned," Maxwell said. "It does no one any good to have a young man not be able to finish his education."
News of Iverson's release caught Hampton school officials by surprise. Superintendent Raymond G. Washington learned about it Thursday afternoon from a news broadcast.
Washington said he had no idea if Iverson wanted to return to Hampton schools, but if he did, he would have to do what any student in his position has to do: meet with a special school committee that decides whether he returns to a regular high school or enrolls in an alternative program.
If the school committee is asked to consider Iverson's case, Washington said, ``We are going to treat him like any other youngster.''
The pardon is not without a political payoff for Wilder. Elected officials and independent analysts said the governor's action is likely to bolster his support in the black community at a time when he needs it most.
"It reminds his African-American constituency that he cares about fairness," said Robert Holsworth, a political analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Wilder is taking some concrete steps to shore up his support."
Wilder is preparing to challenge U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb in a Democratic primary next year, and the black vote is critical to the success of any Democratic candidate.
Though polls consistently show strong support for Wilder among blacks, some have been criticizing him recently for not doing enough for the black community during his four-year tenure. Wilder has never had to run in a primary, so his strength among blacks has never been tested in that arena.
"These things take on added importance given that criticism and his upcoming Senate race," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst from the University of Virginia.
No one on Thursday was suggesting that Wilder acted solely out of political considerations when pardoning Iverson, and some noted that there could be political peril in the move.
"Anytime anyone does anything for anyone who has committed a crime, there is going to be someone who says you're soft on crime," said William P. Robinson Jr., D-Norfolk, chairman of the General Assembly's black caucus.
Maxwell, who called Wilder's action a "fine gesture," dismissed suggestions that Wilder was politically motivated.
"Anytime a politician is involved people will say it's political," Maxwell said. "The governor did it out of concern. He tried to right a wrong."
Staff writers Matt Murray, A.J. Plunkett and Leslie Postal contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, CT Now