Group Mounts Campaigns to Block Murderers' Parole
ALBANY - An organization that charges up to $250 to mount an organized campaign to prevent parole release of convicted killers has attracted the interest of defense attorneys resulting in a complaint to state and federal authorities.
Cheryl Kates, an attorney in the Rochester area who has one client who was recently denied parole after Parents of Murdered Children campaigned against his release, and five others who are targeted by the organization, is seeking an investigation.
"Community opposition is being purchased," Kates claimed in a July 10 letter to the inspector general of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and copied to the U.S. Department of Justice. "The parole board is being tricked. This is a violation of due process. Any petitions received from this organization should be removed from the inmate's file."
Peter Cutler, spokesman for the department, acknowledged the agency has received Kates' letter and will consider her complaint.
Beverly Warnock, program coordinator for Parents of Murdered Children, a not-for-profit organization based in Cincinnati, said the group is simply exercising its right to advocate for the interests of survivors.
Parents of Murdered Children, which was founded in 1978 by the parents of a homicide victim, is a support network for survivors. It advocates for victims and victim-rights legislation. There are chapters in every state.
"It is not our intention to 'buy' a parole board," Warnock said in an interview. "Our intention is to show that the family is still devastated 15 or 20 years later. It has been very successful. We have kept over 1,300 murderers in when they were up for parole. We've had parole boards call us and tell us they got tons and tons of letters."
Warnock said many New York inmates are among the 1,300 murderers whose release has been blocked by Parents of Murdered Children, but she did not have the exact number.
The group's website, pomc.com, however, features a letter of appreciation from a client in Brooklyn: "Parole informed me they received approximately 100,000 signatures from all across the United States. Our deepest thanks to the Parole Block Program and all those who continue to make it successful."
Warnock said the Parole Block Program was initiated to prevent early or parole release of individuals convicted of murder or homicide. According to a description on its website, the program "strives to give survivors a sense of control, as well as a positive outlet for the anger, frustration and disillusionment with the criminal justice system."
For a processing fee, Parents of Murdered Children will circulate online petitions; send notices to its chapters nationwide; post information on the parole-eligible offender on its website and in places such as grocery stores; notify the media; help facilitate press conferences; and take other steps that "can increase the likelihood of parole being denied," according to its website.
The fee for a simple petition is $23, plus a $25 deposit that is returned if the organization is notified of the outcome of the parole hearing within 30 days. For $165, a mail campaign can be launched if Parents of Murdered Children has at least three weeks notice. But if the group has less than two weeks before a parole hearing to launch opposition, the cost is $250.
"The biggest concern with the families is the prisoner has a lot of rights they don't think is fair, with all the parole hearings and the insensitivity of not getting much notice" of the hearing, Warnock said. "This is their way of having some control over the murderer who took the life of their loved ones."
Warnock said the group does not consider the facts or merits of any of the cases, and will oppose parole for anyone convicted of murder if asked to do so by a survivor.
"To us, a murder is a murder and to the family their loved one is their loved one," Warnock said. "It is the idea that they don't have their loved one anymore, and it is because of the murderer that they have to redo their whole life. Their life is destroyed and devastated. We don't consider one murder lesser than others."
Two New York inmates on the group's list of 16 current targets—Vincent Vacante and Caleb Hyman—have recently been denied parole.
Kates said in an interview that she became aware of the initiative recently when she inadvertently learned that a parole denial campaign was launched against Vacante, her client, who is doing 18 years to life for killing a man in Brooklyn. Vacante, who has been in prison 23 years, was recently denied parole for the fourth time after Parents of Murdered Children circulated a petition.
After learning of the Vacante petition, Kates investigated, finding the names of five of her other clients on the Parole Block website, and fired off her letter. As of July 27, Kates said she had not received a response.
Right to Petition
Cutler said at first blush it seems Parents of Murdered Children has a constitutional right to petition the government.
"As far as we are concerned, everyone has a First Amendment right to comment on whether an offender should be paroled or not," Cutler said. "Typically an offender will have in their file letters of support and letters saying they shouldn't be released."
Kates acknowledged that citizens have a right to speak out.
But her main complaint is that the names of the individuals and any materials they submit to the parole board are considered confidential, so the inmate generally doesn't know of the opposition and has no opportunity to rebut any inaccuracies or misrepresentations.
"This is an organization that publicly advertises that they are doing this and their statements should not be considered confidential," Kates said in an interview. "If you are obtaining signatures against someone's release and it affects their right to obtain freedom, it is a due process issue if you are representing that case erroneously to get all these signatures to oppose someone's release and you don't have all the facts."
The online directions for requesting a petition ask inquirers to submit a brief summary, and stress that the "information must be accurate." Warnock noted that the organization requires verification, which can be in the form of police reports or newspaper clippings.
Alfred O'Connor of the New York State Defenders Association and Alan Rosenthal, counsel and co-director of the Justice Strategies Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, questioned whether state Executive Law §259-I, which governs parole board policies, permits the panel to keep confidential materials submitted by an organization such as Parents of Murdered Children.
Under the statute, when a "crime victim or victim's representative" submits a statement, the "parole board shall keep that individual's name and address confidential." It defines "representative" as "the crime victim's closest surviving relative, the committee or guardian of such person, or the legal representative of any such person."
O'Connor said he was unaware of the Parole Block Program, which has been in operation since 1990, until Kates recently alerted the defense community. He said he finds the initiative "pretty disturbing."
"The statute authorizes them to hear victim impact statements, but doesn't allow them, I think, to accept things from strangers who are weighing in based only on their feelings when they don't know the participants," O'Connor said. "What is the relevance of that to any of the statutory criteria, and what authorizes them to accept it? It shouldn't be in the file. It is just an attempt to improperly influence and pressure the board."
Rosenthal suggested that "what this organization does should be given no weight whatsoever by the parole board."
Cutler said that is likely an issue for the Legislature.
"We will take a closer look at it based on Ms. Kates' letter, but I'm not sure it is for this department or the board of parole to ultimately decide whether or not this type of information should be prohibited," Cutler said.
Retired Parole Commissioner Thomas Grant said the Parents of Murdered Children petitions belong in the inmate's file and should be considered by the board. "The parole board wants whatever information can be gathered," Grant said. "But certainly the parole board members looking at the case should consider the nexus between the offense and offender with any letter in the file. As a responsible parole board commissioner you have to look at the relationship the person has to the case."
John Caher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org