Parole for cop killer? If that's what the law said, then OK

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2011 - 9:47 PM
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Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told a panel of legislators Thursday morning that parole hearings for murderers are the "dark, dark days in my life,'' but defended his recent decision to parole a convicted cop-killer as consistent with state law and the practice of his predecessors. Roy, whose decision to parole 62-year-old Timothy Eling prompted an angry response last week from Republican leaders at the Legislature, testified at a hearing crowded with lawmakers, observers and police officers.

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She was found at 7 a.m. in Martin Luther King Park, shot twice in the head. The year was 1985, and the victim was a 16-year-old by the name of Christine Kreitz. Grailon Williams shot Kreitz because the leader of the Black Gangster Disciples -- "The Sheik" -- thought she was snitching on them.

The murder shocked the Twin Cities. At the time, community leaders and street cops were arguing over whether there was a gang problem and what to do about it. For a lot of people, a "hit" on a 16-year-old girl was proof positive that there was. That would be confirmed over the next several years as rival gangs shot it out in the streets.

The man who ordered that hit, John Kevin Scruggs, (a.k.a. "Johnny Dillinger"), lives today in a small home in a tidy neighborhood. Quietly, discreetly. Since he moved into the home in March, there have been no police calls and, in fact, police in the area were unaware of his past. Prior to being paroled for his 1986 life-in-prison sentence, he had been in the community for a year on a work-release program.

Scruggs' background may be unknown to his neighbors, but he was infamous at a hearing in the Minnesota Legislature on Thursday as politicians grilled Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy over two recent paroles.

It was the other one that got the attention: Timothy Eling, 62, killed a police officer in 1982. Eling is still being held on another charge, but could get out in a few years. Someone who kills a police officer today faces life without parole, but that was not the case when Eling committed his crime.

Legislators went after Roy pretty hard. You know you're in for it when they start the proceedings with: "This isn't a witch hunt," a phrase that often signals that it is.

Roy began his testimony by talking about how difficult parole decisions are, and added, "The last place this issue should be discussed is in the media."

Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with Roy, in order to agree with his decision to not block Eling's and Scruggs' paroles. I agree with Roy not because I think they deserve to be, or are safe to be, on the streets. I agree with Roy because I think he was simply doing the job that was established by the very body roasting him on a spit Thursday.

As Roy put it: "I would have abused my position. I would have had to abandon statute, I would have abandoned my professional ethic to do that."

Exactly.

Hank Shea is a former federal prosecutor who has put a lot of bad guys behind bars. He is also involved in restorative justice issues at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. His gut reaction to the parole of Eling was "no way." The killing of an officer is a threat to society as a whole, he says.

Yet, it was the Legislature that at one time set the rules for parole of people like Eling and Scruggs. That Legislature had the wisdom to leave a decision to parole in the hands of the commissioner, who has decades of experience in judging prisoners, instead of an elected official whose motivations may be emotional or political, Shea said.

"[Roy] could have said, 'I visited with him for an hour, and I think he's dangerous,''' said Shea. "But the way the system is supposed to work is we lay out what is expected of [inmates] and if they are meeting all the requirements, is there any legitimate basis they should be kept in?"

Eling was judged by some pretty hard-core corrections workers -- for years -- to determine whether he is ready for society. So was Scruggs. Here's what the previous commissioner, Joan Fabian, wrote to Scruggs in a letter:

"The advisory panel and I are very impressed with the progress you've continued to demonstrate ... your discipline-free behavior, positive programming and your work within the community ... all contribute to our determination of your preparedness for work release."

Murderers rarely re-offend

If you simplify crime and believe in an eye for an eye, then capital punishment is an easy answer for any murder. It's when you talk about life sentences and the idea of redemption that it gets more complicated. As Roy pointed out, there are now 45,000 people with life sentences in U.S. prisons. The cost is astronomical and "the difficulty of managing those who have nothing to lose is significant," he said.

On the other hand, recidivism among murderers is the lowest of any offender group; only 1.6 percent returned to prison within three years, and none for violent crimes, according to a recent study.

Personally, I think the Legislature was right when it changed the law to mandatory life for cop killers. I also think Roy was right in following statutes that set the rules for Scruggs and Eling.

Shea says five states now spend more on corrections than on higher education. California has been forced to release thousands of prisoners because their health costs are so high as they age.

"Some offenders do need to be locked up forever," said Shea. But others can, and do, reform: "As a society are we willing to house them and pay for them when they no longer present a serious risk?"

Fortunately, Roy didn't have to make a decision about Kreitz's killer. Like a lot of criminals, he died in prison.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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