By Michael Roberts
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By Melanie Asmar
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By Michael Roberts
Dianne Tramutola-Lawson no longer slings French verbs for a living, but the former Lincoln High language instructor still has the occasional teacherly impulse. As she boards the bus in southeast Denver on a sodden, foggy November morning--her bus, mind you, chartered with a personal check for $500--she can't resist addressing the other passengers like a schoolmarm getting her students squared away for their first field trip.
"Even though I'm retired, I can still be as obnoxious as any teacher," she says. "Everyone have their ID? Remember, that's all you can bring in. No jewelry. No change. No hats. Nobody's wearing green or orange, right?"
There are thirty people on Dianne's bus, including her parents, several close friends and a few half-asleep criminal-justice students from Metropolitan State College of Denver. She's taking them all to prison--the Arrowhead Correctional Center outside Canon City, to be precise--for a parole hearing. This requires leaving Denver before dawn and luxury-coach motoring through a hundred miles of traffic, fog and frost, and she's clearly gratified at the turnout.
"I want to thank you all for coming," she says. "They've never had this many people at a hearing before."
As president of the Colorado chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a national organization of prison activists and inmates' families, Tramutola-Lawson goes to as many parole hearings as she can, trying to fathom the mysterious ways of what is probably the least-scrutinized component of the criminal-justice system. Today's hearing, though, is a very personal mission: It's the fifth time before the Colorado Parole Board for a lifer named Hayward "Habe" Lawson, Dianne's husband for the past fifteen years.
Hayward Lawson is a high-profile customer--some might say a royal pain--within the Colorado Department of Corrections. He's spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars, starting with a string of juvenile arrests, followed by a not-so-brilliant career as a habitual thief. Lawson readily admits to pulling hundreds of burglaries in his wild youth, but he's now serving a ten-to-life sentence for the 1973 murder of a Lakewood man during a bungled house robbery, a crime he insists he didn't commit. During his past quarter-century in stir, he's distinguished himself by his many letters to newspapers tweaking prison authorities, as well as by his involvement with Dianne and CURE.
Dianne met Hayward in 1981 through a former student who'd wound up in prison. They were married by proxy two years later. The only time the couple has seen each other outside of prison walls was during a brief period two years ago, when Hayward was allowed to participate in a work-release program out of the Denver County Jail. After nine months, he was inexplicably yanked back into prison despite a clean record in the program.
As the bus rolls down the interstate, a video monitor plays a 1994 TV news report on Dianne's crusade to free her husband. The report includes a cheesy re-enactment of the murder of Larry McVay, a 34-year-old warehouse manager who opened his front door on Super Bowl Sunday in 1973 and was shot by two robbers wearing commissar-style fur hats.
The hats were recovered outside the house and examined by the FBI. Human hairs found in the hats didn't match hairs taken from Lawson or his partner in crime, Jack Wiggins. But that evidence was never introduced at trial. Lawson's attorney, Michael Bender, then a young public defender trying his first murder case, also did not offer the jury Lawson's unusual alibi: that he and Wiggins couldn't have committed the murder because they were engaged in a time-consuming series of burglaries across town that night, for which they were arrested less than three hours after McVay was shot.
Three hours, plus change, was all the time it took for the jury to find Lawson guilty of murder.
Tramutola-Lawson has spent thousands of dollars appealing her husband's conviction, which was based largely on shaky eyewitness identification and the dubious testimony of an informant. The couple's lawyers have argued hair samples and due process and inadequate counsel to six different courts, all without success.
Michael Bender is now a justice on the Colo-rado Supreme Court. Wiggins, who was also convicted of McVay's murder, was released on parole eight years ago. Habe Lawson is still doing time.
Tramutola-Lawson believes her husband's protestations of innocence have cost him dearly with the parole board. The board likes to see evidence of remorse, she says, but how can you be remorseful about something you didn't do?
"The reason he's been turned down before is that he's never admitted he murdered someone," she says. "And he never will. That, and his career record hurts, too."
Tramutola-Lawson is hardly alone in her frustration with the parole process. Although Colorado inmates don't become eligible for parole until they've served almost half of their sentence--or, in the case of violent offenders, 75 percent of their time--the vast majority are routinely turned down on their first or second try. The state currently has more than 5,000 prisoners who are past their parole-eligibility date. Some are considered too dangerous to release; others haven't completed required but overcrowded programs or simply have no place to go. The problem is particularly acute for those convicted of violent crimes, since many halfway houses won't accept such applicants and the parole board won't release them without appropriate placement.