It was almost three years ago that I first got interested in the case of Tara Perry, subject of this week's feature, "The Girl Who Fell to Earth." Perry was among several inmates considered strong candidates for clemency -- all of whom were serving disproportionately long sentences and appeared to pose little public safety risk -- that I ended up profiling in a 2009 article, "The Quality of Mercy." So what's changed since then?
Not much, actually. Although Colorado governors have the power to trim sentences in cases where the punishment was excessive or to reward good behavior by prisoners with a pardon or a commuted sentence, it's a power that's been exercised less and less in the past three decades. A strong clemency policy can serve justice and save taxpayers a lot of unnecessary expense, but it's also politically risky.
Bill Ritter, who sat in the governor's chair when Perry applied for clemency, came to office with big ideas about reforming the state's costly corrections system. He even launched a second clemency board to address the issue of inmates serving long sentences in the adult system for crimes committed as juveniles. Perry would seem to have been an ideal candidate for that process, a sixteen-year-old with no prior record serving forty years for her role in a three-day series of armed robberies engineered by her suicidal boyfriend -- the longest sentence of any juvenile who didn't kill or physically injure anyone.
But Perry's bid for clemency went nowhere, for bureaucratic reasons detailed in my feature. Other inmates mentioned in that 2009 piece had their applications denied, too, or aren't yet eligible to apply. Donny Andrews, a first-time offender who went into the system way back in 1989 at the age of twenty, is still doing an eighty-year sentence for a series of nonviolent crimes. According to a Facebook page put up by his supporters, he's preparing to reapply to Governor John Hickenlooper. Krystal Voss, convicted in the 2003 death of her eighteen-month-old son Kyran, is facing her first parole hearing next month. It's a grim dilemma for Voss; although she's been a model prisoner in many ways, parole board members tend to expect expressions of mea culpa and remorse from applicants, and Voss is still fighting her conviction and maintaining her innocence in the muddled shaken-baby case. As we reported in previous coverage, the original suspect in Kyran's death ended up being the chief witness against Voss, and an appeals court found judicial error and improper conduct by the prosecution at her trial -- but refused to overturn the verdict. That Voss feels some degree of responsibility for the situation that caused her son's death is undeniable, but will it be enough to convince the board that she deserves a chance in society? As for the other inmates doing long sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, one did get some love from Ritter's clemency board -- but only a smidgen. Dietrick Mitchell was sentenced to life without parole for a hit-and-run fatality when he was sixteen. Prosecutors called it a gang slaying; Mitchell's lawyers called it an accident. It was, in any case, the longest sentence of any traffic case in the state, and Ritter commuted Mitchell's sentence to 32 years. Since he'd already served twenty, that made him eligible for parole. But the board turned him down and told him he couldn't reapply for another five years. He did get approved for community corrections -- but then a new law in 2011 snatched that away, since it prohibits halfway house placement of offenders more than six months away from a parole hearing.
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"Who stands a better chance of being rehabilitated, a child or a child molester?" Mitchell asks in a letter to Westword. "Child molesters are being treated as soon as they arrive into the prison system for counseling, therapy and life skills, while we are just thrown in here and left for dead."
For more on the Tara Perry case and clemency issues, check out my interview with Ryan Warner on Colorado Public Radio's "Colorado Matters," which airs today on KCFR, 90.1 FM at 7 p.m. and is available as a podcast here:
More from our Videos archive: "Video: Tara Perry on boyfriend Randy Miller's rampage and suicide."