When life doesn't mean life

State law loophole may mean offenders sentenced to life without parole will be freed too soon
2009-10-08T00:05:00Z When life doesn't mean lifeMarisa Kwiatkowski - marisa.kwiatkowski@nwi.com, (219) 662-5333 nwitimes.com

Eddie Lewis believed his freedom ended in 1977 with the slam of a courtroom gavel.

A Lake Criminal Court judge sentenced the Gary resident, convicted of murder, to life in prison for his role in the death of Richard Taylor.

"I thought it meant I would be locked up for the rest of my life," Lewis said. "It drained all of the emotions out of me."

He later discovered a life sentence didn't mean life behind bars, which infuriates some surviving victims and the families of slain victims.

The Indiana Parole Board rebuffed Lewis' first petitions for parole. But in 2002, the board approved his release.

Lewis' case is not unique. Hundreds of other offenders initially sent to prison for life have reappeared on public streets and neighborhoods, a Times investigation shows.

Offenders sentenced to life under an older version of Indiana law served an average of 19.4 years in prison before being released, an Indiana Supreme Court database of offenders released from 1962 to 1973 shows. Only five of the 273 people released during that time served 40 years or more.

Offenders sentenced to life who were released since 2000 served an average of 21.3 years in prison, a Times analysis of Department of Correction records shows. More than half of those people committed new crimes after leaving prison and were sent back to prison.

The Times was unable to gather data on offenders serving life sentences who were released between 1973 and 2000 because the DOC's electronic records only date back to 2000, and the office did not keep tallies of how many were released and what sentences they served during that time span.

Some victims' families said they were shocked that a life sentence failed to keep all offenders behind bars.

And despite efforts to reform older state sentencing guidelines, a loophole in Indiana law has some prosecutors worried that offenders sentenced to life without parole will be set free -- in some cases, sooner than those convicted of lesser crimes.

How they got out

Prosecutors and defense attorneys acknowledge a life sentence doesn't always mean a lifetime behind bars.

Arlington Foley, a former Lake County deputy prosecutor turned defense attorney, said prosecutors would argue for a life sentence under the old state code because it was the harshest sentence available at the time. It likely would give the offender the most years in prison -- even if that person was paroled after 20 years, he said.

"It was pretty common knowledge (for attorneys) back then," Foley said. "That was no big surprise. I don't know if victims' families knew that."

Before the Indiana Criminal Code changed in 1977, offenders sentenced to life in prison could secure release either by seeking clemency or asking prosecutors to change their sentences.

The law now allows offenders sentenced to one term of life under the previous code to seek parole. Inmates serving multiple life sentences are not eligible for parole.

Worthy of freedom?

Lewis said he snatched his second chance at freedom.

The 59-year-old earned his GED and an associate's degree from Ball State University in prison. Now he wants to become a counselor.

Lewis said a fear of losing his freedom keeps him from falling back into old patterns.

But many other offenders who were released from life sentences aren't deterred by a fear of returning to prison.

Since 2000, about 54 percent of the offenders who were sentenced to life in prison but later released ended up back behind bars for new crimes or parole violations, a Times analysis of DOC records shows. That number does not include offenders whose new criminal cases are pending.

Gary resident Ronald Parks was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison for murder. Shortly after his parole, he was back behind bars for 1999 rape and criminal confinement convictions. Parks was released again in July.

But not all life offenders who seek parole are released.

Still behind bars

Records show 141 inmates are still serving life sentences in state prisons under the old Indiana sentencing laws.

Some have died or will die in prison despite multiple pleas for release. Lonnie Williams died earlier this year while serving two life sentences for the Feb. 20, 1971, killings of St. John Town Marshal James "Red" Larimer and Indiana State Police Trooper John Streu.

Attorney David Nicholls, a former Lake County chief deputy prosecutor who practiced under the old code, said prosecutors are notified when someone serving a life sentence is eligible for parole. The prosecutor's office can represent the victim's family and Lake County residents during the parole hearing, he said.

Indiana Parole Board members, who consider petitions for release by offenders sentenced to life, find the responsibility of review a heavy burden.

Parole Board Vice Chairman Randall Gentry said the board considers four major factors in a parole petition: nature and circumstances of the crime, past criminal history, conduct while incarcerated and society's best interests.

"We don't ask these people to come before us," he said. "But if the law allows it and these people ask, it's our job to carry out that review process."

The parole board will use the same criteria it used on Lewis and other offenders sentenced to life under the older Indiana law to weigh clemency for a new generation of offenders sentenced to life without parole.

A new generation

In 1993, the Indiana Legislature created the life-without-parole sentence as an alternative to the death penalty.

Defense attorney Richard C. Wolter said defense lawyers fought for the life-without-parole option. It spared an offender's execution, kept victims' families from sitting through a jury trial and saved money, he said.

"I see its existence as a valuable, very attractive compromise," Wolter said. "I think it's working for what it's intended to do."

There are 102 people serving life-without-parole sentences in the Indiana Department of Correction, including 12 from the region, prison records show. All but one of the 102 inmates were convicted of murder.

Among those was Reggion Slater, who was convicted of the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Kate Pokorny in Porter County.

Pokorny's mother, Clare, said her family has tried to erase the memory of Slater and his heinous act.

"We made a conscious decision to honor Kate's wonderful 18 years of life and not remember her death," Clare Pokorny said.

She said she found comfort knowing Slater was taken from society after his conviction.

But Pokorny was unaware of a loophole in Indiana law that makes life-without-parole offenders eligible for clemency sooner than some offenders serving less severe sentences.

Will history repeat itself?

Under current Indiana law, offenders sentenced to life without parole are eligible to petition the governor for clemency after 10 years of incarceration -- which is faster than someone sentenced to, for example, 45 years in prison for lesser crimes. Offenders serving sentences of more than 10 years can seek clemency only after serving one-third of their sentences, or 20 years, whichever comes first.

Parole board members said they were unaware of that legal loophole until recent Times inquiries.

In general, the parole board reviews a petition for clemency and makes a recommendation to the governor, who makes the final decision.

The parole board's Gentry said none of the offenders sentenced to life without parole has yet petitioned the board for clemency.

Pokorny said giving clemency to such offenders would dishonor the victims' families.

"If by any twist of fate they could see their way to grant (Slater) clemency -- when it's clear he didn't give my daughter any chance to survive -- we would be devastated," she said.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said he doesn't think government officials should be in the business of reconsidering life offenders' sentences unless evidence emerges that the wrong person was convicted.

"Those people don't ever need to be released," he said. "They've proven to society they can't function in society. We should close the book on them permanently."

The Indiana Parole Board

Parole Board Vice Chairman Randall Gentry said the board considers four major factors in a parole petition: nature and circumstances of the crime, past criminal history, conduct while incarcerated and society's best interests. Other factors can also be considered, he said.

Life offenders appear before the Indiana Parole Board every five years for review unless they request it sooner. The board reviews those cases on paper every year.

The Indiana Parole Board is composed of five members appointed by the governor. It has jurisdiction over all offenders who committed their crimes before October 1977 (referred to as "old code" offenders) and controls their parole release. The board also has jurisdiction over all offenders who committed crimes after October 1977 (known as "new code" offenders) whose release to parole is mandatory. The board decides what to do if an offender violates parole.

It also acts as a Clemency Commission for all capital cases and makes recommendations to the governor on requests for clemency or commutation of sentences.

Source: Indiana Parole Board information at in.gov

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