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New rules for parole hearings force victims to relive crimes more often 7/11/05

New rules for parole hearings force victims to relive crimes more often 7/11/05

New rules for parole hearings force victims to relive crimes more often State board must hear cases at least every 6 years

Mary Martin recounts her rape in 1992 and says she wishes she didn’t have to face her attacker again at his parole hearing.



Staff Writer

Published: Monday, 07/11/05

Editor’s note: The Tennessean does not identify victims of sexual assault without permission. Mary Martin agreed to have her name used to raise awareness about the issue.

She faced him in her bed on the April night he broke into her home. She faced him from the witness stand and on the day he was sentenced. She faced him at his first parole hearing in 2001.

Now Mary Martin is angry because she’ll have to face again the man who raped her — eight years before she thought she would.

“Four times is enough,” Martin said last week.

Her attacker is one of 378 state prison inmates who will be getting new parole hearings in the coming months because the state Court of Appeals has ruled parole hearings must be no more than six years apart.

Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole members serve staggered six-year terms, and the court said putting hearings off longer than six years denied some board members the opportunity to ever hear a case.

Some victims, including Martin, think six years is too short a time between hearings, which they can choose to attend. But some prisoners are celebrating the victory despite skepticism about whether it will actually translate into early release.

“I don’t want to face that mutt again,” said Martin, refusing to refer to her rapist as a man. “I shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to be in the same room with him.”

Many of the offenders whose parole hearings were initially deferred more than six years have committed some of the most heinous crimes — murder, rape, kidnapping. They represent some of the most difficult cases the board hears.

The board often cites the seriousness of their crimes when denying them parole and setting their next hearings out 10, 12, even 20 years in the future.

Nashville criminal de-fense attorney David Raybin represents several clients whose hearings were put off for a decade or more.

Denying inmates a hearing for that long is “a de facto elimination of parole,” he said. “The legislature said that there should be parole in selected cases. Not to allow that is contrary to what the legislature intended.”

One of his clients was denied a hearing for 10 years, even though he had the support of the warden, ex-warden and other prison staff at his hearing, Raybin said.

Since Martin learned there would be another hearing in her case this year, she has neglected her garden and developed a heart condition that she attributes to stress. A former music industry executive, she prefers to be listed as a “retired senior citizen” than to give her age.

Martin says she feels the courts were too concerned with the rights of convicted offenders and ignored the impact the decision would have on victims.

“A result of the rape was that a part of me was murdered,” she said. “And that part that was murdered was related to my soul. And it was difficult to find a path that could be equated to state of grace.”

Martin said she hoped, at the very least, the hearing would be conducted via videoconference, sparing her and her supporters the long trip to East Tennessee, where Marise E. Smith is incarcerated. Martin was raped in 1992.

A 2003 decision in the case of convicted killer Tony Renee Baldwin opened the door for the new hearings. He was sentenced in 1979 and was told at his first parole hearing in 2001 that he would have to wait until 2021 for another.

Baldwin challenged the decision, and the state Court of Appeals later called it “an arbitrary exercise of the Parole Board’s authority.”

The appellate-court ruling put the board on notice that a 20-year deferral “would undermine the very provisions of the parole statutes that empower the board to grant parole.”

The court noted that the “thrust” of the statutes “is that people can change, and that even a convicted felon may be able to live in accordance with the law, if he or she is released before the end of his sentence.”

In a June letter to board Chairman Charles Traughber, state Attorney General Paul Summers recommended the parole board rehear the 378 cases and formally adopt a policy of not deferring hearings for more than six years.

Convicted killer Sam E. Taylor had been behind bars for a little more than five years when the parole board told him at his first hearing in 2001 that he’d have to serve out the rest of his sentence. There would be no more hearings before his scheduled release in 2012, he was told.

Now Taylor could have two parole hearings before that date, one in the coming months and one no later than 2011.

The parole system is based on the notion that he’s a different person now than when he was imprisoned, Taylor said in a recent interview at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

“I’ve changed my perspective on life itself,” he said. “I have more reverence for it. But it didn’t have anything to do with the Department of Correction.”

Taylor said he was able to develop “a relationship with God” because “being here gave me more time to reflect.”

Inmate Danny R. Meeks, who was convicted of especially aggravated robbery, extortion, aggravated kidnapping and other crimes, called the parole board the “resentencing committee.” His second parole hearing was set 15 years from his first one.

Baldwin is a very important case, he said, because it shows that the “law should stand up for everybody.” Without the carrot of parole, there would be no reason for inmates to behave, he said.

Both Taylor and Meeks complained that even six years is too long to wait for a hearing, and Meeks said he was going to challenge the current interpretation of the Baldwin ruling in court.

Meeks said he was also asking the state Supreme Court to stop his next parole hearing, set for Aug. 17, until his other civil litigation has been resolved.

Many victims will attend the upcoming hearings and argue against the inmates’ release, victims’ rights advocates said.

The victims of crime “have their right to complain,” Taylor said. “But they have to move on with life. They can’t change what’s done.”

It is unclear whether the shorter time between hearings will have any impact on the number of people who are released from prison early.

One victims’ rights advocate didn’t think it would.

“They wouldn’t have set it as long as they did if they didn’t feel they were a threat to society,” said Valerie Craig, director of education and development for You Have The Power. “Victims and their supporters will keep reminding the board, ‘This was why you set it at this (amount) initially.’ ”

But, if the hearings are real hearings, as the board has said they will be, and not just a proceeding in which new dates are set, the possibility exists that some inmates will be granted parole, Raybin said.

Published: Monday, 07/11/05