Bill Ritter's commutations draw praise, bitter rebukes

Only days after I posted a few remarks about Bill Ritter's play-it-safe approach to pardons and his reluctance to commute excessive sentences, the departing governor delivered a slew of bolder pardons and even a few commutations, stunning some grateful convicts and raising hackles elsewhere.

Ritter won't have to worry about the mixed reviews, though. He's outta there tomorrow, and the inequities in Colorado's justice system are now another guy's problem.

On Friday, Ritter issued nineteen pardons to individuals who've already completed their sentences, mostly for drug, theft or domestic violence offenses. By far the most welcome pardon, though, was a posthumous name-clearing of Joe Arridy, a mentally impaired 23-year-old who was framed and executed for a murder he didn't commit in the 1930s. If there's a hell, the lawmen who coerced a confession out of Arridy (said to have an IQ of 46), then got him to change his story after the murder weapon was found in someone else's possession, should have a very warm seat there.

Commutations are more difficult, since they involve executive intervention in a sentence that's still being served. Ritter trimmed the time of ten convicts, including four who committed terrible crimes as juveniles but were tried in adult court. They range from Dietrick Mitchell, who was serving life for a hit-and-run that occurred when he was sixteen (a case discussed in this 2009 article on Ritter's baffling clemency policy), to Jennifer Reali, who executed her lover's wife nearly twenty years ago in Colorado Springs and was expected to serve at least another two decades behind bars.

Releasing Reali early (she's now eligible for parole in June) drew understandable protests from the victim's family. It's hard to judge the aptness of many of Ritter's decisions, since little information is released about mitigating circumstances or the degree of rehabilitation the offenders have demonstrated. One of the individuals on Ritter's list, Garry Izor, killed a store owner during a robbery in 1977 but so impressed corrections officials with his progress that he made it to community corrections in 1998 -- only to end up back in prison after a brief relapse with alcohol six years later. Ritter slashed six years off the time he was doing for that mistake, giving Izor (a thoughtful man interviewed here about the state's disastrous shipping of inmates to Texas a few years ago), in effect, a third chance.

The complete list of Ritter's last-minute largesse can be found on his website.

But the sharpest criticisms of Ritter's mercy moves have to do with the sentences he didn't commute. None of the 49 prisoners who committed crimes as juveniles for which they're now serving life without parole -- the "LWOPs" -- got any sentence reduction. That distresses Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, which has lobbied long and hard to address the LWOP problem in Colorado and nationally.

"The idea that he didn't find any of them deserving of a reduction in sentence is, we feel, a total betrayal," Johnson says. "It's a big middle finger to us."

Johnson says she's pleased for the convicts, including Mitchell, who did receive some consideration. Pendulum was instrumental in getting legislation passed that gives juveniles convicted as adults parole eligibility down the road, but the law isn't retroactive. Ritter established a juvenile clemency board in an effort to avoid more legislative battles, but Johnson complains that the board's work is so confidential that it was impossible to figure out why the LWOPs kept getting turned down -- and whether it was Ritter or the board who rejected them. Mitchell's application, for example was reportedly rejected by the board last year, but then was apparently granted anyway.

Johnson reels off the names of several LWOPs who have solid, if not perfect, records of good behavior in prison and have already served many years for violent crimes committed in youth. She would like to know more about why they weren't on Ritter's list -- maybe not for immediate release, but for at least a crack at parole at some future date that would give them hope, a reason to keep trying to turn their lives around. But there's no transparency to the process, she says.

And so the prosecutor turned governor ends his term with another head-scratcher.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Darrell Havens: Car thief paralyzed by Arvada police shooting in standoff over parole deal."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast