In a decision without recent precedent, the Minnesota Department of Corrections has approved parole for a prisoner convicted of murdering a police officer.
Timothy Eling, 63, was notified this week that his life sentence for the 1982 killing of Oakdale police officer Richard Walton has ended after 29 years.
Eling killed Walton during a gun battle inside the pharmacy of the then-Mounds Park Hospital in St. Paul. Walton, a father of five children, was off duty and moonlighting as a security guard when, responding to a burglary call, he stepped out from an elevator and was shot in the head.
Eling must still serve roughly four more years at the Stillwater prison to complete a separate 1996 sentence for drug smuggling while imprisoned. He was diagnosed with myeloma several years ago, and he said in an interview he might die before being freed.
The extraordinary parole decision follows months of review at the department's highest levels and reflects the belief of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy that some violent criminals have the capacity to redeem themselves through their actions in prison.
"As you've repeatedly stated, you realized many years ago the devastating impact your crime has had on your victim, [his] family, friends, the law enforcement community and your own family,'' Roy wrote in a letter notifying Eling of his decision. "Your rejection of criminality and pursuit of positive activities ... has been your testament to your victims.''
Eling's parole, which was not disclosed by the department until the Star Tribune inquired, marks the fourth time in nine months that Roy has paroled a murderer serving a life sentence.
The decision triggered an immediate and critical reaction from the 8,500-member Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
"If I were to poll the membership, there'd be overwhelming sentiment [for] having capital punishment for cop killers,'' executive director Dennis Flaherty, the association's executive director, said Wednesday. In 1993, while a member of the Brooklyn Center police force, Flaherty lobbied the Legislature to pass one of the nation's tougher laws on the sentencing of police killers.
From that year forward, no one convicted of killing an officer in Minnesota is eligible for parole and must die in prison. At the time Eling was sentenced, he was still eligible for parole after serving 17 years.
Walton's survivors had a more muted reaction to Eling's parole.
"He was held up as an example of a prisoner who has changed, that he represented himself well in prison,'' said MaryAnn Walton, 74, Walton's former wife and the mother of their children. "If [parole officials] honestly feel he has repented and there is no danger he will reoffend, then I will accept their decision. I'm not his final judge. In our spot, we're not able to judge. All we have is our feelings.''
At the same time, one of Walton's grandchildren, Josh Yates, said he doesn't believe Eling deserves a second chance just because he's been a model prisoner.
"It's gotten nothing but harder,'' he said. "I'm glad he's a model prisoner, but that doesn't give him the right to have a second chance. My grandfather didn't get that kind of chance.''
A killer repents
In a prison interview this week, Eling said he understands the family's feelings.
"I'm sure this is one of their hardest days,'' he said tearfully. "I'm sorry for what happened. I cannot undo what happened. I'm not that same person.''
Eling said he hopes that his years mentoring offenders in the prison's chemical dependency unit, as well as his service as a senior elder in the prison's Restorative Justice Program, will prevent others from taking his own destructive path.
Besides Eling, another notable parole granted by Roy is that of John Scruggs, a Minneapolis gang leader during the 1980s. Scruggs is widely thought to have set the tone for gang warfare in the Twin Cities when he ordered the execution of a teenage girl who he believed was a police informant. Scruggs, leader of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation at the time, was paroled in March after serving 25 years in prison, according to Department of Corrections records.
Since his appointment, Roy has heard 22 parole cases. Corrections officials said they don't know the last time a murderer who took the life of a police officer was released from prison because the department does not keep such records.
Roy said in an interview that he expects to face harsh criticism over the Eling parole.
"This is the heavy lifting of my job,'' he said in an interview this week.
"The taking of human life is as egregious a crime as we have. The taking of the life of a police officer obviously is significant. It reflects on society that we are all victimized to a degree by the death of an officer.''
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745