He says parole of cop killer is consistent with law and practice.
State 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 cop killer as consistent with state law and the practice of his predecessors.
Roy, whose decision to parole 62-year-old Timothy Eling prompted criticism last week from Republican leaders, testified at a hearing crowded with lawmakers, observers and police officers.
Rep. Tony Cornish, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, opened the hearing by cautioning the audience, "This isn't a witch hunt.'' But he also told Roy bluntly: "I wasn't happy with your decision.''
Roy told lawmakers that the course for Eling's parole was first set by his predecessor, Commissioner Joan Fabian, during the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Fabian, he said, set the date of Eling's parole hearing and told Roy that Eling had abided by the conditions expected for an offender to be considered for parole.
"I would have abused my authority [by denying parole] because he has met the conditions,'' Roy said. "I would have had to abandon the statute and my ethics.''
Eling, who was convicted in 1982 of killing off-duty police officer Richard Walton during a hospital pharmacy robbery in St. Paul, was notified last month that his parole had been granted. It is thought to be the state's first parole granted to anyone convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a police officer.
Eling must still serve roughly four more years at Stillwater prison to complete a separate 1996 sentence for drug smuggling while imprisoned.
Speaking in measured tones, Roy took pains to explain his philosophy.
"I do believe that redemption is possible while you're on this Earth,'' he told lawmakers, many of whom argued that Eling could never do enough good in prison to repay society for taking an officer's life. "I'm using it not as a religious term. Redemption isn't the same a forgiveness. This individual should never be forgiven."
Former Gov. Al Quie, who has been active in prison ministries since he left office, appeared in support of Roy and described two cases of brutal murderers who have redeemed themselves. He urged lawmakers "not to take away hope'' from prisoners who are working hard to earn parole.
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said he has spent 13 years doing volunteer work in jail ministry programs, but still believes Minnesota needs a capital punishment statute for killing a police officer. "The public is fed up with criminals who do terrible acts and are back on the street,'' Gruenhagen said.
'Has to be a consequence'
After Roy and Quie testified, much of the two-hour hearing took on a venting tone for frustrated lawmakers and police groups, who were caught unaware of Eling's parole until it was reported last week in the Star Tribune.
Several wondered aloud whether Minnesota should have a capital punishment statute to replace the 1993 law that requires life without parole for killing an officer. Eling was eligible for parole because at the time he killed Walton, a life sentence actually meant that a prisoner could be eligible for parole after serving 17 years.
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the 8,500-member Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said his office has been swamped with calls and e-mails from outraged officers. A former officer, he described the agony of police who stand at funerals to honor fallen comrades. "Those officers line up and think, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I,'" he said.
Paul McEnroe 612-673-1745