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December 19, 2011

Record setting(?) prison inmate on verge of parole release in Texas

This AP article, headlined "Texas inmate paroled after 60 years," reports on a remarkable and record-setting prisoner on the verge of finally being released from prison.  Here is how the piece starts:

When Harvey Stewart first went to prison 60 years ago, gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, a postage stamp cost three pennies and Harry Truman was president.  Now, as perhaps one of the longest-serving inmates in US history, the convicted killer is looking forward to the perks of freedom when he is released on parole in the coming weeks or months.

An IPod or cell phone perhaps? Not for this 83-year-old. Stewart simply wants a root beer and a good meal. "Imagine that! Sixty years being down in this damn hole," Stewart recently told The Associated Press from the Beto Unit in East Texas, one of his many stops in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "I wouldn't recommend it. Man's a damn fool to even stick his foot in here."

Stewart, awaiting his release to a halfway house or nursing home after being granted parole earlier this year, recalled his youthful days of robbing brothels in Southeast Texas for quick $3,000 pay days, of getting shot in the back while holding up a junk yard and murdering a man in what he insists was a self-defense killing.

But the six decades in prison haven't been nearly as eventful. He counts among his highlights his brief escape in 1965 and a recurring headache from a prison van wreck a couple years ago. Besides those short-lived respites from monotony, Stewart has served his time isolated from the outside world. He doesn't recall receiving a single visitor in more than a decade. He's outlived most or all his immediate family.

His parole was approved in April, with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considering his recent history of good behavior, his age and declining health. "I'm too damn old to do any robbing," said Stewart, his blond hair now a balding gray brush cut. "I think I am anyway. My old ticker might kick out on me."

Stewart is the longest-serving inmate among the 155,000 prisoners in the Texas system, though it's unclear if he is the nation's longest-serving inmate now or ever. Prison officials and historians say they're unaware of any agency or organization that keeps track of all inmates' jail time.

Among other states with significant prison populations, convicted murderer James Moore, 78, has been locked up in New York since 1963.  In California, 80-year-old Booker Hillery first went to prison in 1955 for rape and was returned in 1962 for a murder earlier that year while on parole.  Norman Parker is Florida's longest-serving inmate, arriving in 1967.

Stewart was first sent to prison in spring 1951 after a junk yard heist in Houston got him a 10-year sentence.  He was paroled after serving six years but was convicted in 1958 of murdering a man in Beaumont and received a life sentence.  Seven years later he broke out of prison for several days, then waited another two decades before being paroled a second time to a halfway house and worked as a dishwasher.  He used his freedom in 1984 to eat a Big Mac for the first time, but by summer 1986 he was back behind bars, busted for a robbery plot.

Because this offender was free for various periods during his six decades of incarceration, his story is not quite as remarkable as those of other offenders confined for nearly a half-century without even a moment of freedom.  Still, this story tells what seems likely to be an increasingly common tale of a serious criminal getting finally released from state once getting too old to do much other than cost the state a lot of money in medical bills if kept in prison.

December 19, 2011 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Media coverage of GOP contenders' clemency records

ProPublica has this notable new piece in its padron reporting series headlined "Perry More Generous With Pardons Than Romney."  Here are excerpts:

As governor of Texas, Rick Perry ... has turned away the majority of applicants recommended for a pardon by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.     Still, Perry’s record of clemency is more generous than Mitt Romney’s.  As governor of Massachusetts, Romney refused to grant a single pardon....

Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, so Romney never faced that ultimate decision. But among the pardon applicants Romney denied was a decorated veteran of the Iraq War whose only offense — at age 13 — was shooting another child with a BB gun. (According to news reports, the shot didn’t break the skin.)

The veteran, Anthony Circosta, had been awarded a Bronze Star and wanted a pardon so he could become a policeman. Romney denied Circosta’s pardon application twice, according to an Associated Press article.

The contrast between Romney and Perry stood out in a ProPublica review of past clemency actions by Republican presidential contenders....  The president’s power to pardon someone’s crime or to commute his or her sentence is absolute.  But states handle clemency in a variety of ways.  Some, like Perry’s Texas, temper a governor’s authority by requiring recommendations from an outside review board.  In others, like Jon Huntsman’s Utah, clemency decisions are issued by a board and not the governor....

Romney, who served as Massachusetts governor from 2003-07, has proudly advertised his record of granting no pardons at all, saying he did not want to overturn the decision of a jury.  Romney received requests for 172 pardons and 100 commutations.  The state’s Advisory Board of Pardons recommended that he approve more than a dozen, according to the Associated Press....

Texas records show that Perry has routinely pardoned a handful of applicants every year — typically older people who had long ago committed minor offenses.  In 2010, Perry pardoned nine people.  One pardon was posthumous: Tim Cole had died in prison after being wrongfully convicted of kidnapping and raping a fellow Texas Tech University student....

Some critics have called Perry “stingy” with pardons.  An analysis last year by The Texas Tribune found that Perry had granted pardons to only about 30 percent of those who had been recommended by the pardons board.  But Perry has been less tight-fisted than his predecessor.  According to The Tribune, Perry has pardoned 178 people in his nearly 11 years in office.  In his six years as governor, George W. Bush pardoned only 21....

The records of other Republican primary candidates offer less of a barometer on pardons. Because an independent board grants pardons in Utah, Huntsman never issued one.  He did appoint Clark Harms, the current chairman of the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole, a former prosecutor who told ProPublica, “If someone made a mistake and has done everything they can to ameliorate and has lived a law-abiding life, people ought to be forgiven.”

As members of Congress, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum had no power to grant pardons but did have the ability to write letters in support.  

Our pardons investigation found that Rep. Bachmann, R-Minn., had written an enthusiastic letter in support of granting a pardon to one of her campaign donors, Frank Vennes Jr. He and his family had given more than $26,000 to Bachmann and her political action committee....

Less than a year after she wrote the letter, FBI agents raided Vennes’ home to look for evidence that he and an associate had been participating in a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. Vennes was charged with money laundering and multiple counts of fraud. Bachmann wrote another letter to the pardons office rescinding her support.

Rep. Paul, R-Texas, wrote a letter in support of Dr. Jeffrey Rutgard, a California eye doctor convicted of defrauding Medicare. “He fully served his sentence long ago and has devoted his life to charitably helping others ever since,” Paul wrote, calling Rutgard “one of the most compelling candidates for a presidential pardon I have ever seen.”

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, passed along information about two constituents seeking pardons: Richard A. Winner and Michael S. Pecora.

Our records request for pardons correspondence from members of Congress covered letters from 2001 to this year, a period long after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s years in office.

I am not especially optimistic that whomever wins the 2012 Presidential election will chart a bold new path with respect to the use of the historic constitutional power of clemency.  But I am at least hopeful that at least some media will continue to badger the resident of the Oval Office concerning the use and misuse of this power.

Meanwhile, Scott Henson over at Grits has this new post, titled "Pardons push positive Perry press: More this week?," speculating that Gov. Perry might seek to garner some more good press by issuing some holiday pardons in the days ahead.  Indeed, with the Iowa evangelical vote still up for grabs in Iowa, Perry might try to make hay by finding a few very appealing stories of redemption to spin around a few high-profile clemency grants.  I am not counting on such a development, but I sure like the notion that for once a politician might start granting, rather than consistently deny, clemency requests in an effort to curry political praise.

December 19, 2011 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Interesting local data on LWOP sentencing and capital cases in Texas

Thanks to this post at Grits for Breakfast, I saw this fascinating local article from the Odessa American in Texas. The piece is headlined "Capital cases up since 2005 law change," and here is how it begins:

Capital murder cases are on the rise ever since a law was enacted to allow for an automatic punishment of life in prison without parole. However, District Attorney Bobby Bland said it may not necessarily be a cause/effect situation.

In the six years prior to a 2005 law that gives automatic life in prison for capital murder convictions, only six capital murder cases were filed, according to the Office of Court Administration.  From the time after the law was enacted through October, 35 capital murder cases have been filed.

Before the law, those convicted faced a minimum of 40 years in prison for capital murder.

When asked about the difference, Bland said because he was not the district attorney until 2006, he was not able to speak to the number of capital murder indictments before that time.  Bland said it could have been that not as many murders occurred in that time.  According to the Uniform Crime Report website, with statistics compiled by the FBI from local agencies, Odessa police and the Ector County Sheriff’s Office reported 17 more murders from 2005 through 2010, a total of 41, than from 1999 through 2004, a total of 24.

Local criminal defense attorney Jason Leach said the change represented a crucial shift in the way he sees prosecutors throughout the state pursuing cases.  “I think the attractiveness of holding the life sentence over the head of the defendant is going to result in more capital cases being filed,” he said.  If convicted of capital murder, after the death penalty has been waived, a defendant will spend their entire life in prison without the possibility of parole.  “The risk is really high for a defendant when life means life.  It’s the ‘never’ element.”

December 19, 2011 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 18, 2011

What should we make of Newt Gingrich's latest round of court bashing?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by latest comments from the latest GOP front-runner, some of which are captured in this Los Angeles Times piece headlined "Newt Gingrich says he'd defy Supreme Court rulings he opposed." Here is how the piece begins:

Newt Gingrich says as president he would ignore Supreme Court decisions that conflicted with his powers as commander in chief, and he would press for impeaching judges or even abolishing certain courts if he disagreed with their rulings. "I'm fed up with elitist judges" who seek to impose their "radically un-American" views, Gingrich said Saturday in a conference call with reporters.

In recent weeks, the Republican presidential contender has been telling conservative audiences he is determined to expose the myth of "judicial supremacy" and restrain judges to a more limited role in American government. "The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial and far too powerful," he said in Thursday's Iowa debate.

As a historian, Gingrich said he knows President Thomas Jefferson abolished some judgeships, and President Abraham Lincoln made clear he did not accept the Dred Scott decision denying that former slaves could be citizens.

Relying on those precedents, Gingrich said that if he were in the White House, he would not feel compelled to always follow the Supreme Court's decisions on constitutional questions. As an example, he cited the court's 5-4 decision in 2008 that prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had a right to challenge their detention before a judge. "That was clearly an overreach by the court," Gingrich said Saturday. The president as commander in chief has the power to control prisoners during wartime, making the court's decision "null and void," he said.

But the former House speaker demurred when asked whether President Obama could ignore a high court ruling next year if it declared unconstitutional the new healthcare law and its mandate that all Americans have health insurance by 2014. Gingrich said presidents can ignore court rulings only in "extraordinary" situations.

On his website, Gingrich spelled out his views on courts. "While abolishing judgeships and lower federal courts is a blunt tool and one whose use is warranted only in the most extreme of circumstances … it is one of many possibilities to check and balance the judiciary," he wrote. "Other constitutional options, including impeachment, are better suited" to check wayward judges.

"In very rare circumstances, the executive branch might choose to ignore a court decision," he wrote.

Gingrich also said that as president he might ignore a Supreme Court ruling if it held gays and lesbians had the right to marry. "The Constitution of the United States has absolutely nothing to say about a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Were the federal courts to recognize such a right, it would be completely without constitutional basis," he wrote.

While his critique of the courts has been popular on the right, even some conservatives object to Gingrich's proposals on abolishing courts or impeaching judges over their decisions. Conservative legal analyst Edward Whelan called Gingrich's proposal for abolishing judgeships "constitutionally unsound and politically foolish."

Given Gingrich's prior criticisms of a "broken" criminal justice system that relies too much on prison (see here), I cannot help but wonder if this might mean that a President Gingrich might sometimes seek to release some federal prisoners early (or seek to impose some alternative form of punishment) if and whenever he did not like a court-imposed sentence.  Of course, the clemency power in the Constitution makes the use of this kind of executive check on the courts constitutionally sanctioned, but I sure would like to see a President Gingrich breathe a lot of new life into this power to check the sentencing work of courts in our "broken" criminal justice system.

Some recent and older related Gingrich posts:

December 18, 2011 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack