Friday, August 3, 2012

Rehabilitation Isn't an Empty Word

The last post was about the prosecutor who's bound and determined to keep Doug Pride in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
Year after year she argued that he shouldn't be allowed to test the evidence that could prove him innocent.  After the Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ruled in Pride's favor she still managed to drag it out.  But ultimately, the testing was done.  Not him.
And not good enough for the prosecutor.  After all, the jury said he was guilty.  Why should it matter that they were wrong?  Just because the evidence proves it? Because the science makes it clear?  So what if the jury didn't know?  What difference should that make?
It doesn't have to be that way.
I've written about prosecutors doing the right thing before.  Most recently, there was Gary van Brocklin who put Jeff Eley on death row and then, with a powerful letter in the Columbus Dispatch, helped convince Governor Kasich to override the Parole Board's recommendation and grant him clemency.*
Then there was AUSA Jesse Barrett who looked at the evidence, determined that he'd charged an innocent man with a crime, and promptly moved to have the charges dismissed.
And Nicole Habersang who tried, with less than raging success, to dismiss the charges against Virgil Richardson because they were bullshit but the judge said that the interests of justice required the  continued prosecution of a man the state believed innocent.
And there were the prosecutors in Pinal and Yavapai Counties who bravely (really, I mean that) condemned Joe 'n' Andy's abuse of power in Maricopa.
And really, there are others.  Lots in the scheme of things.  For instance, there's John Piasecki and Derek Champagne from Franklin County, New York.
It was Piasecki who prosecuted Noah Lazore in 1976.  John Caher gave some details in the New York Law Journal just over a week ago.
Records show that Lazore, a Mohawk Indian, committed a grisly throat-slashing/multiple stabbing murder during a robbery at Akwesasne, a reservation in Northern New York and southern Canada, where both he and his 69-year-old victim lived.
Lazore pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and then-Franklin County Judge Ellsworth Lawrence imposed a sentence of 20 years to life, five years less than the maximum. The defendant had no prior felony conviction and was a 16-year-old high school dropout and alcoholic who had largely been raised by an older sister until she was killed by a drunken driver, records show.
Lazore was first eligible for parole in 1996.  Denied.  Denied again in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010.  Really, it's not surprising.  Vicious killers don't routinely get released, regardless of what the public believes.
But Lazore's an interesting case.  He got his GED while in prison.  And two associate's degrees.  And a BA with honors.  He has a spotty institutional record if you look at all 36 years he's been in prison, but he's not been in any trouble since 2007, and that time his punishment for the infraction was suspended. He's successfully completed programs in substance abuse and aggression control and has learned several trades.  A required risk analysis shows him 
at low risk of felony violence, arrest and absconding.
But he's a vicious killer.
Which brings me back to Piasecki.  See, in 2002 - and every two years since - the guy who put Lazore in prison for life has written the Parole Board urging his release.  Caher again.
Piasecki started supporting Lazore's parole bid in 2002, when he sent a letter to the board saying it is "evident that Mr. Lazore has used his period of incarceration as productively as could possibly be done."
He noted in a letter to the board that at the time of the crime the inmate was "16 years of age, clearly immature, with a history of substance abuse who grew up in a reservation environment which at the time was on the lower end of the Third World."
Every two years, Piasecki sends a letter to the parole board urging Lazore's release. And every two years, he is rejected.
Piasecki can't figure it out.
"The guy has paid his debt to society," Piasecki who now has a private practice in Malone, said in an interview. He said he has no idea why Lazore has repeatedly been denied parole.
In his most recent letter on Lazore's behalf, Piasecki noted that the Akwesasne community is "ready, willing and able to receive Noah Lazore and to integrate him" into the reservation society.
Piasecki said Lazore can be an asset to his American Indian community, offering "the benefits of his experience to discourage vulnerable individuals from pursuing activity outside the boundaries of the law by providing active, affirmative guidance and counseling."
Somehow, when the parole panel looked at Lazore in 2010 . . .  well, here's the interview and decision, though you can skip ahead if you like to where I quote the bottom line.
After a careful review of your record, your personal interview, and due deiberation, it is the determination of this Panel that if released at this time there is a reasonable probability that you would not live at liberty without violating the law, and your release at this time is incompatible with the welfare and safety of the community and will so deprecate the seriousness of the crime as to undermine respect for the law.
This year, there was another letter.  Derek Champagne has been Franklin County District Attorney for 14 years.  Caher:
"I pulled the file," Champagne said. "I went through the whole file. I had my staff look at the file. We went through everything we have from the commission of the crime. It was a brutal crime, but so much has been developed and so much information has come out about the [adolescent brain]. He has gotten every degree and done every single thing he can. I was convinced that perhaps he is an appropriate candidate to be paroled into the community, to give him a chance."
In a letter to the parole board, Champagne cited "Lazore's significant academic, vocational and therapeutic successes."
There were only two people on the panel that interviewed in July this year, and they couldn't agree about what to do with him.  So there's no decision, just a transcript of the interview.
In New York, a tie means a do-over. So on July 31, a full panel interviewed Lazore again.  And voted 2-1 to grant parole.  The interview and decision doesn't seem to be on-line yet, but Caher has the news.
After a two-commissioner panel split last month on whether to release Lazore, he was granted a new interview on July 31 before commissioners Ellen Alexander, Christina Hernandez and Michael Hagler. Alexander and Hernandez voted for release and Hagler dissented in a determination released yesterday. Lazore is slated for release once officials conduct a field investigation and approve a place for him to live. Lazore, a Mohawk Indian who committed the crime when he was 16, has expressed an intent to return to the Akwesasne reservation in northern New York/southern Canada.
Let's give credit, a lot of credit, to Piasecki and Champagne.  They didn't have to do it.  They chose to.
Not because he's innocent, not because they made a mistake back in '76.  He's not.  Piasecki didn't.
No, it's because at 53 Noah Lazore isn't the same person he was at 16. Because he took all those classes and did all that work. Because he's an honors graduate of the State University of New York at New Palz. 
And because, dammit, it was the right thing for a present and a former prosecutor to do.  You know, act with integrity.  Seek justice (whatever it might be).
Good for them.
Wanna come to Ohio, guys?
Oh, and Noah, good luck!
*Thinking about it now, I was less charitable to van Brocklin than I should have been.  Yes, it would have been better had he not gone after Eley as he did.  But he had the integrity and strength of character to reconsider, and then he took a strong stand.  Good for him.

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