June 06, 2010

Convicted of Murder as Teenager and Paroled at 41

Convicted of Murder as Teenager and Paroled at 41, by Trymaine Lee (New York Times, June 4 2010)

A story in the New York Times follows Diana Ortiz through all her parole hearings. Ortiz was sentenced to 17 years to Life for her role in the killing of an off-duty police officer in 1983. Robert Dennison was Chairman of the Parole Board that finally freed her, after she had spent more than half her life in prison.

Brief extracts from the article follow, where Robert Dennison refers to the subjectivity and the pressure of parole hearings, particularly in the case of so-called A1 violent offenders:

... Parole Board members, who must have a college degree and five years of experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work or medicine, can serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, earning $101,600 a year. By law, they must interview inmates in person and are required to consider their criminal histories, prison achievements and sense of remorse. Ultimately, though, parole decisions are subjective. "It's a real hard issue: how much time should you do for taking a life?" Mr. Dennison said. "Many times, the parole commissioners feel differently than the judge and probably say to themselves or say to one another, 'I don't really care what the judge gave the person, I don't feel comfortable letting this person out. And I am going to hold him for two more years.' And that can go on and on and on forever."

... Governor Pataki, a Republican, at one point tried to change state law so that A-1 offenders could not be paroled, and in 2006, a group of A-1 offenders filed a class-action suit claiming his administration had an unwritten policy that violated their rights by denying parole based solely on the severity of the crime. "I never got any direct pressure from Pataki not to let certain people out," Mr. Dennison said, "but he did make it clear in the newspapers that he didn't want violent felons released."

... Mr. Dennison said he witnessed spirited debate and angry outbursts among the commissioners, and developed a keen understanding of the subtle — or not — messages sent from the offices of elected officials about certain kinds of cases. "The way it works is that you are free to make whatever decision you feel is the right decision," he explained. "However, if you were sponsored by a particular state senator and you made a decision he didn't like, it is conceivable that the next time you are up to be reappointed, he may not push your name to the governor."

... "It is an easy job if you don't have courage and you don't have compassion," he said. "Because then you really don't care. And then it is easy to make whatever decision you want without feeling guilty, without feeling, 'Gee, maybe I made the wrong decision.' "

... Mr. Dennison said he loved the job, taking pride in having an impact on people's lives — freeing those he deemed deserving, leaving caged those he determined were dangerous.

... Having left the board in 2007, Mr. Dennison, now 63, spoke plainly about Ms. Ortiz's case in a recent interview. "He was an off-duty police officer," he said of the victim, "and, basically, people didn't want to let her out because of that."