Thursday, September 29th, 2016

Life sentence and out of prison

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Jessica McBride continued her excellent report for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute on the state’s early release program. On Friday, she wrote about early releases because of age and/or health. Look for some really interesting characters to be moving to a neighborhood near you.

A little-publicized provision that changes how Wisconsin treats elderly inmates (defined as age 60 or older) could offer some of our state’s most high-profile criminals an early release, according to a WPRI review of the new sentencing law. Under a provision tucked into the budget last year, offenders serving life sentences may now petition for early release based on their age, as opposed to terminal sickness. Furthermore, the power to grant release is vested with a new unelected board, rather than with the court system. Now, bureaucrats are allowed to supercede the authority of judges.

These new provisions could create new uncertainty for victims in some of the state’s most high-profile cases, including those involving the killers of law enforcement officers or even cases like that of Steven Avery.

Pursuant to the 2009-11 budget, an appointed commission, run by the governor’s handpicked chairperson and packed with Corrections employees, will decide whether aged inmates get out early, not a sentencing judge. The bottom line? Life without parole is up now to the Earned Release Review Commission that replaced the parole board, even if that’s the sentence a judge ordered. The release is not mandatory.

Furthermore, a new release possibility based on health – which is different from the expanded release based on age only – is now so expansive that Corrections is defining it to mean that inmates could be released at any age based on mental illness, depending on the type and extent .

Previously, inmates needed to show they had a terminal illness – six months or less to live – to get out for health-related reasons . Now, they have to demonstrate “extraordinary health circumstances” – defined in the state law changes as advanced age, infirmity, disability, or need for medical treatment that can’t be properly met in prison. The first inmate released under the new laws was a Milwaukee woman convicted of homicide and released under the health provision for issues Corrections wouldn’t identify.

So just what type of person would be eligible for release? McBride gave some shocking examples:

The provisions could create new uncertainty for victims in some of the state’s most high-profile cases.

As a demonstration of how the new framework could function, take the case of Curtis Walker. On Sept. 7, 1994, he was lying in wait with a rifle as Milwaukee police officer William Robertson checked out gang activity in a patrol van. Walker, then 17, shot and killed Robertson, who left behind a wife pregnant with twins. Two years later, in a case that drew intense public attention, a judge gave Walker a life term without parole eligibility in 75 years.

At the time, then-District Attorney E. Michael McCann told the news media it was “pretty clear he will never be released” as Walker would be 94 when he reached his parole eligibility date.1 In a column at the time, the officer’s widow said, “”The bottom line is that this defendant won’t be eligible for parole until 2071.”2

But now, due to the 2009 law change, Walker could ask to walk the streets again as a relatively young man, at age 60 – after serving just a little over half of his sentence.

And then there’s Jeffrey Dahmer’s killer, Christopher Scarver. He’s murdered three people – first a job program worker he shot in the head multiple times over a robbery that netted him $15, then Dahmer and wife killer Jesse Anderson. But now Scarver has a chance to walk out of prison at age 65.

The same is true of Steven Avery, who was convicted in the strangulation and stabbing murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, whose body he burned in a fire pit . At age 65, he could ask to be a free man.

Avery is 47 and, since 2007, he has been serving 2 sentences for homicide (a life term) and firearm possession . Corrections confirmed that an inmate must serve the 5 or 10 years for each consecutive offense (that would stop some criminals from ever reaching eligibility to seek release based on the age provision if they were convicted of multiple offenses. Dahmer, for example, was convicted of so many life sentences he could never have asked to get out if he lived based on age – unless, of course, he had asked to get out under the new health expansion, which doesn’t require a certain number of years served and also now applies to lifers).

By age 65, Avery will have served at least 5 years of each sentence and could ask for release. Dahmer’s killer, Scarver, is now 40 and has been behind bars for 19 years. Even though he’s serving time for five offenses, including three homicides, he could ask to get out at age 65.

Kenosha County sheriff’s deputy Frank Fabiano Jr. was shot and killed during a traffic stop in 2007. His killer, Ezequiel Lopez-Quintara, got a life term in 2008. He’s 47 and was convicted of 2 charges. At age 65, he could ask to get out after serving 18 years behind bars.

In 2006, Andrew Krnak, now known as Derek Anderson, was sentenced to a life term for his father’s homicide after the disappearance of his family. At the time of his sentencing, the judge called the crime “one of the most brutal, premeditated crimes that I’ve ever seen” and said that, in another state, Anderson would get the death penalty.3 Now, Anderson could ask to get out at age 60. Total time behind bars? 23 years.

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