Another Murderer Freed in Virginia

by Kerry Dougherty

Let’s see, who’s next on the Virginia Parole Board’s Get-Out-of-Jail-Free conveyor belt?

Oh look, it’s Irvian Cotton. Another murderer serving a life sentence.

They’re getting out of prison so fast, I’ve lost count of how many violent criminals have been sent home in recent weeks.

If you were in these parts back in 1985 you may remember Cotton. He reportedly roughed up his wife on Dec. 3, 1985. She had him arrested and moved out of their house with her two kids.

On December 17, 1985 – the day before prosecutors say 28-year-old Zsa Zsa Cotton was scheduled to testify against her husband – Irvian forced his way into her parents’ Suffolk home.

According to news reports, Cotton shot her three times at point-blank range in front of her children, ages 4 and 8.


Who wouldn’t want someone like that to get a second chance at happiness?

Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson, for one. He’s the prosecutor who helped put this killer in prison.

“This is the kind of inmate the parole board is releasing,” he fumed yesterday. “These are not friendly, nice people. These are the worst of the worst… He should never get out of prison.”

Cotton pleaded guilty to first degree murder and a weapons charge in September of 1986 and was sentenced to life plus two years.

“What more brutal act can any person commit than the systematic execution of a mother in the presence of her two children?” Ferguson asked the court at the time.

The brutality of Cotton’s crime didn’t matter to the parole board though. On April 3, the board sent Ferguson a form letter telling him that Cotton would be released within 30 days “or after the completion of a re-entry program.”

Ferguson said he didn’t know if Cotton had yet been released.

At the time of his parole hearing, the prisoner was residing at the Greensville Correctional Center. When I searched for him by both name and inmate number on Virginia’s “Inmate Locator” website, he didn’t show up.

That could mean he’s already out.

“How the parole board can justify this is beyond me,” Ferguson said. “But this isn’t just the parole board, this is coming from the Northam administration.”

No doubt.

In fact, yesterday afternoon The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the governor rejected a plea from GOP lawmakers for a moratorium on the freeing of violent felons.

“The Governor and his administration have worked tirelessly to create a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system, and safe parole is an important part of that work,” a Northam spokesman said in response to the request.

The Suffolk prosecutor said he had no problem with the governor until Ralph Northam lurched to the far left after his blackface scandal.

“Now he’s listening to groups like the ACLU,” Ferguson speculated. “And the ACLU doesn’t think like normal people do. They don’t care about victims or the family of victims. All they care about are criminals.”

He has a point.

Alarmed by the death of five inmates from COVID-19, the ACLU of Virginia yesterday ramped up pressure on the governor to release even more prisoners using his clemency power rather than waiting for the parole board.

A pandemic should not be an excuse to free felons who committed heinous crimes.

And killing a mother in front of her kids? That’s as heinous as it gets.

This column was published originally at

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37 responses to “Another Murderer Freed in Virginia

  1. “Now he’s listening to groups like the ACLU,” Ferguson speculated. “And the ACLU doesn’t think like normal people do. They don’t care about victims or the family of victims. All they care about are criminals.”

    Wait, What? Convicted Cold Blooded Killers of their wives in front of their children have their Me Too rights, too. Tyrants feeling their oats, always open their prisons, setting Killers free. Recall Saddam Hussein, his nation in chaos.

  2. This was getting old three outrages back….Keep it in mind next time some GOP candidate rises up in a church pulpit to express how they will legislate with “Christian Values.” Forgiveness and redemption are high on that list of values, whereas Scripture is clear: Vengeance is the province of the Lord.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    This looks like criminal justice reform. I suspect this will become a permanent part of Mr. Northam’s crime and punishment policies. Can the elimination of long jail terms, end of capital punishment, banning of excessive crimes, end of bail, and a commitment to release prisoners lead to a society at peace with itself? I explored this and I thought this paper by Bruce Western explains it well. He seems to think that by lessening penalties of all forms and recreate the social compact of offenders and victims can make a difference. Another component Western believes to be essential is the creation of material and social security for the poor, coc, etc. This will lessen the conditions that create crime.

    • The arguments over these policies are as old as dust. Both sides have valid points to make. People conveniently forget that the Allen Administration parole reforms, “Truth in Sentencing,” include a lessening of the length of may terms. No parole, but a shorter sentence going in. (Time off for good behavior was retained, I think.) But those changes did not impact prisoners already in the system, who are some of these people now getting parole. And the recent General Assembly made other changes to offer early release, hotly debated but then passed and signed. The “tough on crime” and “law and order” themes are always popular with GOP candidates, but these geezer offenders as a rule are not a threat.

      If the parole board releases somebody who goes out and kills again, then the political fallout will change the next election. Count on it. So I suspect they are looking closely at who gets out.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Maybe it is time for Virginia to get out of the crime and justice business. Penalties for crime do not seem to have any impact. It doesn’t matter the issue. Speeding, parking, shop lifting, murder the list goes on and on.

  4. Northam sold his soul to the radical leftists to keep his seat, although it’s pretty likely he has no clue how to assess the impact, socially or economically of any of the awful legislation pouring out of the General Assembly. Whoever thought a doctor’s resume qualifies a person to manage anything?

    Norquist said it well in his recent opinion piece.

  5. Another new soon-to-be registered Dem voter who won’t live in Northam’s neighborhood — nor Tonya D. Chapman’s, Rev. A. Lincoln James’, Kemba Smith Pradia’s, Sherman P. Lea, Sr’s, or Linda L. Bryant’s neighborhoods.

  6. Kerry – thank you for providing these updates. Early release of murderers in Virginia is newsworthy. The fact that the parole board released a killer that executed a woman in front of her children is appalling. The fact that this was done to silence a witness against him is beyond the pale. Anybody who murders a prospective witness should never see the light of day, virus or not.

    How many crimes are never solved because neighbors are afraid to “snitch”? How often are those unsolved crimes committed in poor neighborhoods whose residents Northam claims he wants to protect? How does early release of a murderer who executed a witness scheduled to testify against him help protect the residents of poor neighborhoods?

    “The Governor and his administration have worked tirelessly to create a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system, and safe parole is an important part of that work,” a Northam spokesman said in response to the request.

    Freeing witness killers does not create a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system.

    My governor is an idiot.

    • Northam’s presence in the Governor’s Mansion and the Democratic majority now controlling the General Assembly reflect choices made by voters, and this time nobody on that side was running from the word liberal. Nope, no bait and switch here. So the largest group of idiots will be found elsewhere in the other party, who do not seem able to field or fund candidates or win elections any more. They can blame their unpopular President, but it’s way more than that.

      • There are plenty of Republican idiots holding elected office in Virginia. The non-competitiveness of our state elections tends to allow incompetents to remain in office for a long, long time. However, I agree with the Suffolk County prosecutor – Northam changed after the blackface scandal. He got caught being an adult racist and has run headlong to the left in an effort to restore his legacy.

        As for the Republicans – you are preaching to the choir.

  7. Steve,
    What you say is true, although the Democrat candidates haven’t been qualified for this job either.
    You have been observing the political scene for a long time. It’s been true since before Trump; so that can’t be a significant factor.
    Why do you think this is the case?

  8. re: ” .. the other party, who do not seem able to field or fund candidates or win elections any more.”

    so the GOP has the same message but voters have moved “left”?

    And, here’s the money question: If voters HAVE moved left what must the GOP do to win again? Will they win by lecturing the voters that they need to adopt the GOP’s viewpoints and values?

    Now, the GOPPERs will say that they have PRINCIPLES – and that is true – but do you want to govern or do you want to rule?

    • It has been made totally clear in the last few weeks which party is happy to rule with the iron whip of government power.

      • no, no… not once you’re in office,… how you get elected!!!! Especially in NoVa and other urban areas.

        What are you selling? leadership for their values or imposing your views on them?

        the iron whip thing – geeze… after decades of the GOP “ruling” … man, give me a tissue…

        you guys act like the Dems stole the governance from you.. NO, you gave it away… whiners…

      • It is? Have you taken your hydroxychloroquine?

  9. How many “murderers row” stories do we have to endure? I’ve covered crime in virginia and elsewhere and trust me, you can drudge up a “parent shoots kids in front of spouse” just about anywhere. What’s the real objective here? Trash Northam during a pandemic? Who how pissed you are that virginia has moved to the political left? My advice? Get over it or get gone.

  10. Getting a bit tired of the murderers’ row gimmick. You can find such types anywhere. Us the game to make Northam look bad? Is it to conflate Virginia’s rising progressive nature with murders and rapists?

    • Seeing people who kill witnesses scheduled to testify against them get paroled is not commonplace.

      • There is confusion – a lack of agreement – over what prison is , it’s purpose and role …

        anyone who killed a witness to a trial is not forgivable. That’s basic evil and I don’t see folks “rehabilitating” from it – at least not so others can say with any certainty that the person has gotten over that kind of behavior. If they spend 40 years in prison and never did another thing… perhaps…but there are some bad folks in this world and once they kill others… I just don’t know…

        People who end up on a parole board need to be stiffly vetted.
        We don’t want folks on parole boards who really don’t know where they are on the issues.

        When we select a jury, we have a fairly rigorous process for rejecting those we are not convinced will be fair and objective and we have the ability to reject them – summarily – preemption..

        I don’t know the process for parole boards – but it needs to be just as rigorous – and it should have law enforcement, judges and prosecutors on it along with some victims, felons and ordinary folks.

        Having said this – Virginia has a long and terrible history of imprisoning people for decades over much lesser “crimes”
        and I’m wondering if that history is getting tangled up in what’s gong on right now.

        • Parole Board members are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. By law, one member has to either a victim of crime or have family member who is a victim. One of the current members, Linda Bryant, is a former prosecutor. The new chairman, Tonya Chapman has a law enforcement background, most recently as chief of the Portsmouth police department. Another member, Sherman Lea, retired after a 35-year with the Department of Corrections, leaving as one of three regional administrators, a senior level management position. That should take care of most of your categories.

          • It does. Thanks Dick. Are these categories formal or by tradition?

            I still find myself thinking that those of lesser crimes are better candidates for parole than those who have killed and done so in particularly egregious ways that most citizens would not really embrace.

            And someone needs to be looking at the political ramifications because ultimately the entire program or the parole process itself could be adversely impacted if a large percentage of the public disagrees with it.

            I’m not a “keep them locked up forever” guy.. I think after people have served their time, they are entitled to some consideration.

            We’re hearing about these seemingly egregious cases. When they come up, how many others are also in the que for consideration?

            Is it like 5 or 10, or 50 or 100.. and one or two are these high profile cases and the rest are not very controversial and so don’t get much attention?

            Is there a list of inmates that are waiting to be considered that the public can see and weigh in on?


  11. Sorry. Same basic comment. Just didn’t see first one post

  12. Mr. P.G. Wait a minute. The point is not ““parent shoots kids in front of spouse,” it’s the confessed killer’s release far short of his sentence of “life plus two years.” We should endure as many of these stories as it takes to recognize and retain extreme sentences for extreme deeds. If Northam and whatever others want to support these releases, then they do look bad to those we used to consider “normal” people.

  13. Cjbova. Not to dismiss the horror of this crime — there are many like it around the globe —but what is point? Northam should keep all Virginia prisoners cooped up where they may contract and die of the virus? What purpose does that serve? Not a life sentence but now a death sentence. Where are the ethical values in that? Please tell me.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Mr. Peter I have been conflicted on this topic. I can see both sides. I am starting to lean on letting everyone out. And don’t put anyone back in. Ever. Maybe small fines, counseling, mediation, community service, free housing, free food, a check to stay home and behave. Clearly what we have been doing for the last 400 years in Virginia doesn’t work very well. I want to see Virginia go all in on Criminal Justice Reform. Lets see how it works out. What the heck? What do we have to lose?

      • I think most folks want those who are violent towards others kept away from harming people but they do not want them kept in inhuman conditions… they do not want them essentially tortured the rest of their lives.

        For those who committed one-time crimes of passion – domestic violence or even other encounters with others – it’s harder.

        A bar fight , and no other violence towards others…
        killing a girlfriend or spouse or other relative or acquaintance

        verses killing a stranger – who did not know you or did nothing to you,

        even those who were part of a group and one person in the group committed a truly cold-blooded murder and others looked on and did not stop it or report it…

        it gets complicated …

        but what is going on right now is twice dumb:

        1. – I think they are out of touch with a lot of ordinary Virginians including folks who vote Democratic

        2.- politically, it’s really dumb. It’s don’t matter how right they think they are – they’re getting killed by the politics –

        So its time to do something. This is not working.

    • Peter – stop it. Northam’s parole board could release burglars, people convicted of drug possession, people who dealt drugs, bank robbers and many other criminals without releasing a single murderer. Especially a murderer who killed a witness scheduled to testify against him. Lots of ways to alleviate prison overcrowding in the era of COVID without letting killers walk free.

      • Most of, if not all of, the burglars, drug violators, and bank robbers committed their crimes after 1995 and, therefore, are not eligible for parole. Those left who are eligible committed their crimes before 1995, 25 years ago. Having such long sentences means they, for the most part, committed violent crimes.

        • After 1995 – there is no parole what-so-ever?

          So that basically means the only folks eligible are prior to that
          and probably most of the lesser crimes folks have already been paroled and all that is left is the felony murder folks?

    • “Not a life sentence but now a death sentence.”

      First of all, only five people in the DOC have died, according to Dick’s latest report. That’s five too many, but in a system with thousands of inmates, staying “cooped up” is hardly a death sentence.

      Second, what would you call nursing homes, where tens of thousands of older people are cooped up and can’t get out — and dozens have died? Have we subjected them to a “death sentence?” Do we have a moral imperative to let them out?

  14. “I am starting to lean on letting everyone out. And don’t put anyone back in. Ever. Maybe small fines, counseling, mediation, community service, free housing, free food, a check to stay home and behave. … What the heck? What do we have to lose?”

    Our safety, our lives, our property, our families, our civil society and communities governed by laws not men, inc. criminals.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Your right Mr. Reed. Citizens must be governed. It is necessary to protect life, liberty, and property. The tools we are using to govern crime and punishment seem to have no effect on some citizens. Yet we continue to use the same basic crime and punishment tools since 1607. One of the key parts to the criminal justice reform efforts of today is the dismantling of fines, incarceration, penalties, etc. Reinvest in the social institutions that produce a peaceful society and somehow increase participation in those social institutions. So we are talking about school, work, community service, the neighbors, church, the Elks Lodge, the rescue squad. Investments here and in citizen participation will produce a predictable safe community. That’s what the experts of reform say at least.

  15. Release others with lesser crimes and equal time served. Use the space for the remaining prisoners that should not be released due to the nature of their crime and sentence. Enforce whatever lockdowns are necessary, meals in cells, screening staff, etc to control the disease getting a foothold. The ones kept inside share the same or less risk as innocent residents of nursing homes. Those residents have no option of parole to a safer environment. Where’s the ethical value in treating those convicted of heinous acts better than someone whose only crime was getting old and needing help with daily care? Reality is not always ideal.

  16. Here is a Quote for the Ages. It speaks volumes about our squalid and preening age.

    “Where’s the ethical value in treating those convicted of heinous acts better than someone whose only crime was getting old and needing help with daily care? Reality is not always ideal.”

  17. Ok reed. Note your point

  18. We screwed up when we allowed Georgia to become a State. It should have been the first American colony and retained its original purpose.

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