Enders Fire Hall was packed last Saturday afternoon, but not because of a multi-alarm blaze requiring an army of fire-fighters. Over 400 people welcomed home Saifuddin Al-Khalili and Quincy Wilkins after 12 long years away in prison. Family, friends, and the Berryville and Clarke County community offered forgiveness and support to both men during a four hour reception that included singing, praise, prayer, and the hope that two wrongs sometimes can make a right.
The first of the two “wrongs” happened on September 3, 1997, when three local men decided to rob the Bank of Clarke County.
On that autumn Wednesday Al-Khalili and Wilkins walked into the Bank of Clarke County’s Boyce branch and pulled an armed take-over. Duane Clarke waited outside in a stolen get-away vehicle.
“This wasn’t a robbery where someone just walks in and hands the teller a note asking for money. This was a violent bank takeover,” said Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper from his Berryville office. “These men brandished weapons to control the people who were in the bank at the time. It was like something out of a bank robbery movie.”
Just prior to the robbery a fictitious bomb-threat was phoned to Grafton School. The bomb-threat was designed to create chaos for local authorities and divert attention away from the planned crime scene at the other side of the county.
All three men were charged with three counts of robbery, entering a bank while armed, and use of a firearm in a robbery. Wilkins and Clarke were additionally charged with grand larceny auto theft for the stolen vehicle used during the heist. Wilkins received the lone charge for making a false bomb threat.
Unlikely Bank Robbers
For many long-time Clarke residents, the circumstances surrounding the robbery didn’t make much sense at the time and still don’t today.
The first oddity was the selection of a bank located in the same community where all three men lived and went to school. It’s hard to be anonymous in Clarke County, especially when you’re robbing a bank. Debra Edwards, branch manager at the Boyce bank that day, had lived in Clarke County for 47 years and had known all three of the men her their entire life.
The selection of the “weapon”, by some accounts a pellet gun by other accounts a starter’s pistol, was odd as well. A teller at the bank immediately realized that the gun being brandished during the hold-up wasn’t real. Even so, she followed bank policy and handed over the money to Al-Khalili and Wilkins.
Another puzzling circumstance was that Saifuddin Al-Khalili’s mother Adeela, a teacher at Boyce Elementary, was across the street with a classroom full of fourth graders at the time of the robbery. Adeela Al-Khalili became caught in the same wave of fear that swept everyone else in the small community as police swarmed the area looking for the robbers.
The men also defied the stereotype of criminals as social drop-outs; All thee completed their high school educations, Al-Khalili and Clarke graduating from Clarke County High School and Wilkins from Handley High School. Clarke had been a record-setting quarterback at Clarke County High School and even had college football playing time under his belt. Neither Clarke nor Wilkins had prior criminal records.
Perhaps the hardest thing for most people to understand was just why the three broke a heritage of family and community service that, at least in Al-Khalili’s case, carried back four generations to William Cross, a freedman, whose 160-acre Clarke County farm is still owned by his descendants. Both the Clarke and Wilkins families also have strong traditions of family and community service. Duane Clarke’s father, Mark, has a successful insurance business, is a member of the Clarke County Chamber of Commerce and is an associate pastor at St. Luke’s Baptist Church. The Wilkins family has long been active in the community and Zion Baptist Church.
Quincy Wilkins summed up just how far he and his accomplices strayed from their roots in a letter penned from prison; “In my youth, if I were disobedient my father would discipline me [â€¦] But what I remember most from those punishments are his words. He would tell me that if I continued to stray and go against the law, that when I became a man, the punishment that I would receive from the world would be far worse [â€¦] I couldn’t conceive of such pain in those days gone by, but the physical pain of yesterday’s rebuke pales in comparison to the distress I live with today.”
Al-Khalili said that the robbery wasn’t ever really about the money (he still doesn’t know just how much money they walked out of the bank with that day). Regardless of the amount or the motive, both men agree that nothing can ever compensate for their twelve years spent behind bars. “No amount of money could be worth what we lost,” Wilkins lamented.
The Plea Deal
The second “wrong” occurred when the unlikely bank robbers received their sentences.
There’s an old adage; “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Perhaps fearing Clarke County’s reputation for harsh sentences handed down from juries, all three men followed the advice of their legal counsel by admitting guilt and entering into plea bargain negotiations with then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Geoff Cole.
When the plea bargain agreement was announced, everyone involved, including the Clarke County legal community, was stunned by the sentences;
Wilkins was sentenced on his 21st birthday to 50 years with 27 years suspended. 23 years in prison.
Al-Khalili’s sentence was 20 years in prison.
Duane Clarke, 23 years old at the time of the robbery and the only one of the three to retain a local attorney as counsel, received 48 years with 35 suspended. 13 years in prison.
“Just about every local attorney that I spoke with believed that the sentence should have been five years at most,
” says Tyson Gilpin, the local attorney who ultimately won clemency for all three men. As with many people in the local African American community, according to Gilpin, neither the Al-Khalili family nor the Wilkins family had had experience with local lawyers, opting instead to retain counsel from outside of Clarke County. Only Duane Clarke chose a local lawyer, Eugene Gunter.
Gilpin believes that because the two outside lawyers that represented Al-Khalili and Wilkins didn’t have much experience with local court practices and, more importantly, no working relationship with Clarke County judges and prosecutors, it may have been expedient to simply push for plea bargains for their clients and minimize the amount of effort spent on either case.
Clarke County Commonwealth’s Attorney Suzanne Perka agreed that, while there is no ethical issue with hiring non-local counsel, practically speaking it is better to have “home field advantage” when it comes to negotiating the judicial process. According to Perka neither of the two outside lawyers had much influence in negotiations with then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Geoff Cole.
Even though Duane Clarke’s local lawyer, Eugene Gunter, knew Geoff Cole well and may have been able to help co-ordinate a plea agreement for all three men, a heart operation that coincided with Al-Khalili and Wilkins’ sentencing made Gunter’s participation impossible. In fact, although Gunter was able to win a sentence for his client significantly shorter than that given to the other two men, Duane Clarke still received a longer sentence than he might otherwise have because the presiding judge, John Prosser, may have felt the need for uniformity in sentencing three participants involved in the same crime.
In short, the severe sentences received by Al-Khalili and Wilkins worked against Clarke despite his attorney’s “home-court” advantage.
The Statistics of Sentencing
At the time of sentencing it’s unlikely that any of the three men understood just how statistically severe their sentences actually were. Violent crimes committed by other defendants, both before and after the Boyce robbery, resulted in less severe sentences.
The severe sentences were due, in part, by the decision to charge the men under Virginia statutes rather than federal statutes. Under Virginia law, a “person” is robbed rather than a “place” even though the bank robbery itself was a single act. Relying on Virginia’s criminal code allowed then- Commonwealth’s Attorney Cole to charge each of the men with three individual counts of robbery, one for each teller who was robbed. The multiple convictions carried cumulative sentences that even exceeded sentences imposed by area courts for other violent crimes which, in some cases, resulted in death to the crime victims.
For example, take the case of James Lee Cosgrove and his wife Tawana Bittinger, linked to at least 11 bank robberies in the Shenandoah Valley. Cosgrove, who claimed to have actually lost track of the number of banks he may have robbed, and Bittinger received 19 years and two years respectively, less time than either Al-Khalili or Wilkins despite the Boyce crime being either man’s only robbery.
Or consider Samuel Theodore Weaver who robbed four banks (including two in Winchester) in 1997 and 1998 using a gun while wearing a disguise. Weaver’s sentence was 9 years.
According to sentencing data presented during the clemency petition the average sentence time handed out for 14 Shenandoah Valley area bank robberies from 1997 through 2006 (not including the sentences for the Boyce robbery) was just under four years.
Despite the inherent violence associated with the Boyce armed robbery, fake gun not-with-standing, there were no injuries or deaths associated with the hold-up. But not all crimes in our area have ended as peacefully. On at least four occasions since the Boyce robbery sentencing, criminals who took the lives of others received lesser sentences from Clarke County Circuit Court than did either Al-Khalili or Wilkins.
For instance in Commonwealth v. Hudson, a second degree murder conviction that included use of a firearm resulted in a sentence of just 15 years.
So, with each of the young men admitted to guilt and locked into an improbable sentence deal, the three were shipped away to serve their time; Al-Khalili and Clarke to nearby Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County and Wilkins to Haynesville Correctional Center located 150 miles southeast of Berryville in Tappahannock, Virginia.
A Hitchiker’s Guide to Clemency
No one disputes that Saifuddin Al-Khalili, Quincy Wilkins, and Duane Clarke somehow managed to lose their way in a small, rural Virginia county that each had known since childhood. But, it’s also clear that the three were never forgotten, not by their community, and surely not by their families.
In a way, Saifuddin Al-Khalili, Quincy Wilkins and Duane Clarke’s path out of prison began on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike in 1965. A young man named Tyson Gilpin was hitching home to Virginia from college at Princeton when he was fortunate enough not just to get a ride, the vehicle that pulled over to give the young man a lift also just happened to be driven by a man (“an operative” according to Gilpin) active in soon-to-be president Richard Nixon’s Virginia Republican campaign.
Gilpin struck up a friendship with his newly acquired traveling companion during the long ride back to Clarke County. Somewhere between New Jersey and Berryville the subject of the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on Virginia politics came up in conversation. Gilpin’s new friend offered to introduce Gilpin to a young republican named Linwood Holton who was gearing up to take on Virginia’s powerful Democrat machine in the upcoming gubernatorial election.
“I liked the idea of two party politics coming back to Virginia so I started working on Holton’s campaign,” Gilpin reminisced. Holton went on to become the 61st governor of Virginia, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. As a member of the mountain-valley Republican Party, Holton spent considerable time battling Byrd Democrats which, said Gilpin, “Seemed like a good thing to me at the time.”
Gilpin later went on to law school at the University of Virginia and has practiced law in the Berryville-Winchester area since 1972. His career has focused on criminal law including a period as assistant Commonwealth Attorney for Clarke County. During Gilpin’s term as a prosecutor he forged strong professional relationships with all of the key players in Clarke County’s criminal justice system including then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Geoff Cole, Deputy Sheriff Tony Roper (prior to Roper’s election as sheriff) and Judge John Prosser, the judge who presided over plea bargaining and sentencing for the Boyce robbery.
Many things in life change over time, especially political parties and ideologies. But Gilpin’s work on Holton’s campaign lead to a life-long friendship with Holton that remains strong to this day. After retirement, Holton continued to support moderate Republicans, including John Warner. But as the Virginia Republican Party became more conservative Holton found himself more in line with the state Democratic Party ultimately endorsing several Democrats for statewide office, including his son-in-law, former Governor Tim Kaine.
So when the Al-Khalili and Wilkins families approached the Coalition for Racial Unity for assistance with a clemency effort for their sons, Gilpin, a long time supporter of the Coalition’s work, was in an excellent position to help. Not only did Gilpin have an expert understanding of Virginia’s criminal justice system, he also carried a deep conviction for promoting civil rights and correcting the institutional flaws that he believes played a role in the excessive sentences received by Al-Khalili and Wilkins.
“I just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Gilpin replied when asked why he had spent nearly ten years on the pro-bono clemency effort. “You can’t just stockpile people away. The community wanted them back and I wanted to help.”
Building a Clemency Coalition
Gilpin’s understanding of both the criminal justice system and the Clarke County community played a key role in what ultimately became a successful clemency petition signed by Governor Kaine just two days before leaving office. Gilpin had known the families of all three men, as well as most of the victims, for nearly all of his life. His role as a trusted-advisor to Clarke County’s African American community combined with a familial and social reach into Clarke County’s traditionally white political and economic circles allowed Gilpin to broker a freedom deal that probably could not have been accomplished by anyone else.
The victims of violent crimes, rightly, have a strong voice in clemency proceedings. Gilpin began his clemency investigation with the people most traumatized by the crime, the tellers and customer that were in the bank at the time of the crime followed by conversations with managers and board members at the Bank of Clarke County, the institution that was robbed. Gilpin’s remembers the conversations as long and complex. After all, banks have a responsibility to protect the assets of their investors. But after many conversations and one-on-one meetings Gilpin’s persuasive abilities began to bear fruit.
In the final clemency document submitted to Governor Kaine, the Bank of Clarke County did not take a formal position either for or against an early release for the three men. However, Gilpin was successful in convincing bank management not to oppose statements from any employees wishing to comment on the clemency petition. Both Debra Edwards, the Boyce branch manager and Frederick resident Cheryl Cooper, the only customer in the bank at the time of the robbery (and who incidentally knew Quincy Wilkin’s family) wrote statements supporting the early release for the three men. “I believe that justice would be served if the Petition [for clemency] is granted to be effective immediately” Cooper’s letter read. Edwards’s letter expressed similar sentiments.
It Takes a Support Network within a Village
Once it became clear that the victims of the robbery supported his efforts Gilpin sought the support of local clergy. But Gilpin wasn’t seeking just a clemency endorsement, he wanted a support network in place that could provide tangible assistance to the men during the transition back into the Clarke County community. Reverends from Berryville Presbyterian, Duncan Memorial United Methodist, Cunningham Chapel Episcopal and Grace Episcopal Churches pledged early support in the clemency process not only to provide pastoral and family counseling, but financial planning and career placement assistance as well.
Reverend Dwight Brown, rector for both Grace Episcopal Church and Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church for 25 years, has known all three men’s families for many years. Brown also has a great deal of respect for Tyson Gilpin. For Brown there was no thought of hesitation when Gilpin reached out for support from the Clarke County pastoral community.
“The Clarke family lives next door to me and are my neighbors. My son was in Adeela Al-Khalili’s fourth grade class at Boyce Elementary. After I heard facts it seemed like a blatant case of injustice. The sentences didn’t seem to be balanced given what other people had received for similar crimes. As Christians we are called to care about justice, mercy and righteousness so I offered my support.”
Reverend Brown has continued to provide counseling and guidance to the men since their release.
In addition to the support from the church community, broader support was also being demonstrated in the community-at-large. Ethel Doherty, a Winchester resident, and Dee-Dee Liggins of Berryville teamed together and collected 1,100 local signatures asking Governor Kaine to release the men from prison immediately.
Doherty recalled becoming involved in the clemency effort after meeting Adeela Al-Khalili at a Tai-Chi class in Winchester and hearing the sadness in Adeela Al-Khalili’s voice when she spoke about her son’s plight. “I remember asking myself “If this were my son what would I do?” That’s when the petition idea came to me.” Doherty said.
Dee-Dee Liggins organized volunteers who collected the signatures of support that were ultimately delivered to the Virginia Parole Board in Richmond. When it appeared that the petition was stalled in Richmond, Doherty telephoned every elected representative and bureaucrat that she could think of until she received an audience. “They agreed to see me so I drove to Richmond. After the trip it seemed like things finally started to move.”
For Liggins the progress couldn’t come soon enough. “Duane Clarke is my nephew so this was personal for me, you see as the young men did their time the families did the time with them.”
With agreement from the robbery victims and support from the community in place, Gilpin believed that he was in a good position to approach Clarke County’s criminal justice professionals, Sheriff Tony Roper and Commonwealth’s Attorney Suzanne Perka.
Most sheriffs are probably better inclined to place someone in jail than they are to retrieve someone out of jail once after a conviction. But Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper is a pragmatist when it comes to criminal incarceration. When Gilpin asked Roper to support the clemency bid Roper’s response was “No” followed by “But as Sheriff I will support reviewing the process to see if any mistakes were made.”
Like any good lawman Roper wanted to investigate the facts before making a decision. “I knew that I needed to look into the situation and answer my own questions first before making any decision one way or the other” Roper said in his Berryville office on a recent spring day.
Roper’s office is immaculate. Everything seems neatly stowed in place – save for an unloaded assault rifle lying casually within reach beneath a wall covered with professional awards and merit citations. Roper’s workspace seems to signal to visitors that he is a person who pays attention to details.
Although Roper has spent his entire law enforcement career with the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office he was not in Clarke when the Boyce robbery occurred (nor had he been elected sheriff at the time.) At the time of the robbery Roper was on temporary assignment with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Texas. “Because I wasn’t here at the time of the robbery I decided that it wasn’t my place to second guess what occurred at the time of the arrests and sentencing. But I also believed that if an administrative error had occurred we had a duty to correct it.”
Roper’s first concern during his own review process was to make sure that the victims of the bank robbery supported the early release. “Our foremost responsibility is always to the victims in cases like this” Roper said.
Roper’s next concern was about whether the men could successfully transition back into Clarke County society. Roper had lunch with the four Clarke County ministers who had agreed to provide support once the men were freed. Years of experience had convinced Roper that a successful transition from prison life back into society requires a strong support network and a way to make a living. The ministers convinced Roper that the needed support was there.
Still, Roper ultimately decided that his lack of first-hand knowledge about the crime and the legal proceedings prevented him from taking a position either “for” or “against” the clemency. But Roper’s strong trust in the criminal justice system, and particularly in the judgment of Commonwealth’s Attorney Suzanne Perka, helped convince him that the Boyce bank robbery sentences had been severe and should be reviewed.
“I believe that our system of justice should never be above review.” Roper wrote in his letter to Governor Kaine. “If, during that review, there is a determination that the sentence imposed was not appropriate, I believe that we have the responsibility to take action”
When asked about the use of long prison sentences to combat crime Roper is, again, pragmatic; “We all have an interest in the successful re-entry of criminals into our society. We just can’t financially afford to keep so many people locked up for so long when they could be out of prison making a contribution to society.”
Roper also doesn’t shrink away from offering his view on crime and punishment; “If someone said to me that criminals need to serve time for their crime I wouldn’t try to change their mind” Roper reflected. “There are some crimes where the perpetrator should never be considered for release. But it’s also important to look at the fact patterns in each case to see if there is a chance for a successful transition back into society. If so, the community can really benefit. This just may be one of those cases.”
The Commonwealth’s Attorney
Suzanne “Suni” Perka took over as Clarke County Commonwealth’s Attorney in 1998 after the unexpected death of Geoff Cole. Perka stepped in just after the sentencing of Al-Khalili and Wilkins but did handle the final procedural steps in Duane Clarke’s plea agreement.
When asked if the sentences received by the three men had been too severe Perka doesn’t immediately respond. “No” she said after reflecting on the question “this was a shocking and sensational armed robbery. The bank staff and tellers were traumatized and the community was outraged that something like this happened here. When they entered the bank one man jumped on a counter and waved a weapon. There was a bomb threat phoned in against Grafton School. They torched the get-away vehicle. I believe that Geoff [Cole] responded to the feelings in the community at the time and decided to charge the men under Virginia law which is stricter than the federal statute.”
Yet as violent as the crime was, Perka recognized that there were no serious physical injuries and all of the money taken was returned. Perka pointed out in her letter to Governor Kaine supporting the clemency petition that subsequent murder convictions in Clarke County courts have resulted in lesser penalties than were received by either Al-Khalili or Wilkins.
Given that some murder convictions carried lesser jail sentences than the Boyce robbery, had the Clarke County criminal justice system been too severe in its punishment?
“The sentences were consistent with the facts in the case and were within the sentencing guidelines. There were no technical mistakes in the sentencing. The three men needed to be punished severely and they were. Twelve years is a severe and adequate punishment for this crime and that’s why I supported the clemency petition for early release.”
However, Perka does wonder why the Al-Khalili and Wilkins chose lawyers from outside of Clarke County, especially given their decisions to forgo trials and seek plea agreements. Perka believes that there are advantages to being represented by attorneys who are familiar with the local justice system. “They might have been better off working with the local public defender’s office rather than seeking lawyers from somewhere else. The lawyers in our public defender’s office are excellent and I work closely with them all of the time. Whether that was ever a consideration, I don’t know, but it might have made a difference.”
Perka says that all three men have made visits to her office since being released and have thanked her for her support during the clemency appeal. “One of the greatest things about practicing law in Clarke County is that our community is small and I get to know people on a personal basis.” Recounting her first meeting with Duane Clarke after his release Perka said “We were both going into the Post Office and saw each other. He gave me a hug and was a real gentleman. That was a pretty cool experience and was an important day in my career. Most people are not evil and it gives me a heavy heart when I see young men given long sentences. I know that he’s learned his lesson and now it’s up to him.”
Release at Last
Tyson Gilpin’s hard work on behalf of the three men finally paid off in early 2010, just two days prior to Tim Kaine’s exit from the Virginia governor’s mansion. “Clemency orders are authorized specifically by the sitting governor and are only valid under his authority” Gilpin explained. “Once the new governor takes office any unexecuted clemency order becomes invalid.”
With freedom in sight Gilpin wasn’t about to let anything come between Al-Khalili and Wilkins’s release. (Duane Clarke had been paroled from jail the year before having met Virginia’s “85% of sentence served” requirement but was still included in the clemency petition.) “As soon as I heard that the petition was approved we contacted the prison wardens to make arrangements for release.” Gilpin said.
Gilpin was pleased with the respect and positive send off that both Al-Khalili and Wilkins received from the prison system. “Both wardens treated the circumstances surrounding the clemency very respectfully”. Gilpin also recounted the send-off offered from the other prisoners “As we were walking out a group of prisoners were lined up for roll call behind a fenced in area topped with razor wire. They all began to clap and yell out support as we were leaving. Even the ladies who worked in the cafeteria made a point of expressing support. It was really gratifying to see.”
Because of the physical distance between the two penitentiaries Gilpin spent two days shuttling between Clarke County and Culpeper, then Haynesville. But on January 20th both Al-Khalili and Wilkins were back home and in possession of one of life’s rarest opportunities; the chance to start-over
Can Two Wrongs Lead to a Right?
Tyson Gilpin cares a lot about civil rights and improving the judicial process. Even though shepherding the three men through a successful clemency process was a huge personal reward, Gilpin hopes to leverage the case for even greater good. “I’d like to convene a conference here in our area to look at the impact of issues like poverty and racism in the judicial system.” Gilpin’s vision includes bringing experts in from around the country to look at how institutional prejudices can be addressed and possibly changed, including issues involving capital punishment and sentencing. “It’s interesting when you compare death penalty cases in Texas and Virginia.” Gilpin said. “People think of Texas as a place with tough justice and Virginia as southern gentility. The fact is that Virginia is just as deadly when it comes to sentencing.”
Saifuddin Al-Khalili visited Sheriff Roper in his office not long after being released from prison. Roper was very impressed with Al-Khalili’s sincerity and receptiveness to change. “He has a large number of people supporting himm, there’s every chance for him to succeed.”
At Saturday’s community reception both Duane Clarke and Quincy Wilkins, surrounded by family and supporters, offered heartfelt apologies for their actions and thanks to the community for providing a second chance. Quincy Wilkins delivered an emotional and spontaneous message to 400 family, friends and supporters recounting his early days in prison;
“I remember back in 1998 just after going to prison. Governor Wilder granted clemency to a famous athlete. I called my dad and said “Can you look into this? Maybe I could get the same thing?” My dad said ”Allen Iverson is famous and he has something to offer. Allen Iverson has a skill. What do you have to offer?” I thought about that question in prison for many years. I understand now that the best way to say thank you to our families, all of you and the community is through a life dedicated to selfless service to the community. How we go about doing that, I’m not sure yet. I just know that is what we have to do in order to say thank you.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Perka offered a similar perspective in her clemency request letter to Governor Kaine; “Should these defendants, after being released, violate the terms of their supervision then they will have made their choice to go back to prison.”
Many people in Clarke County are hoping and praying that such a choice is never made.