In previous installments of this ongoing report, WPRI has documented the backgrounds of some of the supposed "nonviolent" criminals being let out of prison pursuant to a law change by the Wisconsin Governor and Legislature in 2009. A closer look at many of these criminals sheds more light on who may being coming back to a neighborhood near you.
One of the inmates released early by the Department of Corrections, Robert Morris, has a violent and weapons criminal history, including convictions for endangering safety by conduct regardless of life, battery, and firearm possession, a WPRI review of circuit court files found.
Just one year ago, Corrections argued to keep him incarcerated, noting, “Confinement in a structured correctional setting is necessary to protect the community from further criminal behavior by the offender.” He’d already had his supervision revoked 6 times and been incarcerated 9 times.
This January, Corrections let Morris, of Milwaukee, out early, as part of the first wave of prison inmates released through a series of sentencing changes.
Another inmate released early by Corrections, Derrick Parnell, had at least 30 prison conduct violations, his court file revealed. Three years ago, a Milwaukee judge told him, “You can’t be supervised in the community.” Four years ago, Corrections agreed, calling Parnell “a serious risk and danger to public safety.”
Another inmate released early from prison time, this time by a state commission, is an illegal immigrant who served 85% of his time. Jose Avalos was caught with what the judge deemed a “very substantial” amount of cocaine and a 100,000-watt stun gun. While in prison, the state paid for him to complete financial literacy and employment training. He’s now on a federal immigration hold.
The prosecutor told the judge at sentencing: “This was ¼ kilo of cocaine. The amount of families that it can destroy is amazing.”
On the other end of the spectrum are inmates like Russel Lesperance, a sickly 85-year-old World War II veteran with little record who was convicted of financial fraud.
These are the details behind some of the 22 cases of state prison inmates released first as part of 2009’s sweeping sentencing modifications, which allow inmates numerous new avenues to seek early release.
WPRI reviewed a sampling of court files, focusing, due to logistics, on Milwaukee County cases.
Using online court records, WPRI reported previously that the 22 inmates together have been convicted of at least 150 crimes and that, in nearly 70% of the cases, judges earlier denied their requests for early release. The circuit court files reveal that, in some cases, the inmates’ misbehavior is even more extensive.
WPRI also obtained additional information about a Kenosha inmate, Gary Brown, called by his prosecutor a “career criminal” serving a “life term on the installment plan.”
A top Milwaukee prosecutor, the office spokesman, tells WPRI that the DA’s office didn’t find out about the Milwaukee County releases (including a homicide offender, Paula Harris) until the inmates were already out.
“We learned after the fact,” said Chief Deputy DA Kent Lovern. “I think the public would want to have their law enforcement representatives have the ability to have some input.”
Statutes show that, in the case of Harris, the Earned Release Review Commission, which replaced the parole board, was supposed to notify the prosecution, defense attorney and victim. Harris was released for health. Avalos was released early from his Wisconsin sentence by ERRC for good behavior, a separate provision which includes a chance for judicial review. However, the judge decided not to hold a review. Statutes say Corrections is supposed to notify the prosecutor’s office in the other 20 cases, called CER (certain early release), as it has the sole release power.
Previously, judges decided cases where inmates sought release under narrower provisions.
“Input from victims is given strong consideration in the decision-making process,” explained John Dipko, Corrections spokesman. “The courts are familiar with the offender and charges at the time of sentencing, but the Department of Corrections is with that offender 24/7 while incarcerated. DOC is in the best position to make a determination whether or not the offender has earned an early release…”
Lovern said his office is concerned because it is not clear what standard Corrections is using. “The whole process is fairly ambiguous,” he said.
The law provides some benchmarks: In the CER releases, the inmates had to be serving time for class F to I felonies, and Corrections had to believe they won’t engage in assaultive behavior. The inmates can’t be more than 1 year away from release from prison (those released under other provisions, like Avalos and Harris, qualify for more time off and can be released for more serious violent felonies).
Although the inmates’ records are extremely convoluted, it appears some were already scheduled for release in a few months. Although this gives them less time to re-offend, it also lowers any savings. It could mean that some inmates can get out after serving only 50% of their time.
Lovern said he is not sure whether notices did not reach the DA’s office or weren’t sent. “Overall, we are concerned,” he said.
DA John Chisholm is considering taking a position in his short-staffed office to monitor early releases of people the office already helped send to prison.
“It’s clear that the certainty that once existed with truth-in-sentencing doesn’t exist,” said Lovern.
Kenosha prosecutor Richard Ginkowski went one step further. “It’s déjà vu all over again. … There is no truth in sentencing anymore.”
Ginkowski prosecuted the case of Gary Brown, a repeat burglar. He argued against Brown’s early release previously. A judge concurred. Corrections let him out anyway.
Brown’s record includes two battery convictions and three prior supervision revocations.
“With little interruption, he’s been in the adult and juvenile system for 22 years,” said the veteran prosecutor of Brown, 38.
Some of the Milwaukee cases are even more tangled, court files show:
Robert Leroy Morris
Morris’ extended supervision AND parole (for different cases, the most recent a burglary) were both revoked in 2008. Corrections noted that he had started doing drugs “within a week of his release. Mr. Morris has…the incapacity to follow directions while on supervision.”
While on supervision, he used cocaine, used PCP, ran from the police, and acted in a “disrespectful, aggressive, and intimidating manner toward the agent.” He walked toward his agent with a clenched jaw.
“Confinement in a structured correctional setting is necessary to protect the community from further criminal behavior by the offender,” stated Corrections.
In 1987, he was convicted of endangering safety by conduct regardless of life and escape (a firearm charge was read in). Between 1993 and 1996, he was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon, intimidating a victim, and battery. His convictions continue to a 2004 burglary.
“There were 10 other cases not issued,” the prosecutor, Terry Magowan, told the judge in a 2004 burglary sentencing. “Most of them were battery cases.”
Morris’ police contact sheet is five pages long, the prosecutor said. He had, at that time, 32 adult arrests, 5 known aliases, and 4 different dates of birth. A homicide notation appeared in error, the prosecutor and defense attorney said.
In 2006, Judge Dennis Moroney denied Morris’ request for sentence modification, saying it was not in the public interest.
Morris told the judge, “I now can see all the positives of working, and all the negatives of drugs, alcohol, and criminal activity.” However, from 2000-2005, Morris had 9 violations of prison conduct rules.
In 2003, Parnell was sentenced for a burglary. The prosecutor, Doug Simpson, told the court Parnell’s MO was to break into people’s homes through windows, stealing “quick resale property” such as jewelry.
Parnell blamed his latest burglary offense on Corrections releasing him too early before. It took only a few weeks for Parnell to re-offend on parole.
“He perceived himself in need of certain things as he called it to survive. … To do that within 50 days, 5-0 days, of being paroled is just shocking,” Simpson said.
Parnell needed to go back to prison to give the “community a moratorium from his behavior,” Simpson said.
Jolie Semancik, Parnell’s attorney, told the judge that he had been incarcerated since 1994 for yet another burglary. “He did not know how to handle himself on the outside.”
The attorney said Parnell was serving a revocation on another sentence when paroled and that Parnell had completed an associate’s degree and alcohol and drug programming.
Parnell told the judge, “DOC did somewhat let me down by not putting me gradually back into society… It’s easier to find a bag of dope than to find a job.”
Parnell’s conviction record included 7 counts of burglary in 1994, and three revocations of supervision.
“Burglary seems to become a way of life to you,” said Judge Karen Christenson. She called his risk to the community high “because I don’t know what it’s going to take … to get you to the point where you are not a danger to others in the community.”
In one burglary, a man was sleeping in his home bedroom. He awoke to find Parnell, a stranger, standing there.
“We are average income people who worked very hard to accumulate what little we have,” one victim told the court. “We feel like prisoners in our own home.”
Parnell stole a necklace that contained a diamond from a wedding ring given to her by her deceased husband.
Parnell was released on supervision in 2005 for that burglary, but messed up yet again.
His violations on supervision included: Consuming cocaine, failing to attend treatment, absconding, consuming marijuana, fleeing from police, possession of a drug pipe, and paying a prostitute. He had a pending criminal charge for drug paraphernalia.
In 2006, Corrections argued Parnell should be sent back to prison “in order to protect the community from further criminal behavior by this offender…Mr. Parnell’s continuous criminal activity makes his behavior highly unpredictable and therefore a serious risk and danger to public safety.”
Parnell was ordered imprisoned for four years.
In 2007, Judge Timothy Dugan denied his motion for release, saying, “You can’t be supervised in the community.”
In 2009, another judge denied his release too, stating: “It would unduly depreciate the seriousness of the offenses if the defendant did not serve 100 percent of the confinement time as ordered by the court.”
Parnell had 30 violations in prison from 1995 through 2007 for offenses like disruptive conduct, disobeying orders, and fighting. He also completed Bible study and other programs.
Judge Paul Van Grunsven denied the 49-year-old Burton’s petition for release in July 2009, ruling it was not in the public interest.
Burton had 1 conduct violation in his recent incarceration. He was baptized, completed a forklift and custodian course and expressed regret.
“I’ve cleansed my heart. I’m a true Christian now,” Burton wrote, but the judge said, “the full time designated for initial confinement at sentencing is necessary to punish and deter the defendant.”
In 2007, Burton was convicted of three felonies for setting up a U.S. postal mailbox and forging strangers’ names to have their mail forwarded to it. He used the victims’ personal information to make purchases. Some identities were stolen from a Boy Scout troop leader. Victims lost more than $50,000.
Burton’s 12-offense criminal history includes a 1995 battery conviction.
The 85-year-old Lesperance worked for a non-profit that was supposed to help people get affordable homes. A veteran of WWII, he was treated for dementia, hearing loss, chronic kidney disease, obesity, and other ailments.
The victim was told by Lesperance that the group would locate a property for her that needed repair. She would buy properties; they would do the repairs. They didn’t.
The court system could find no prior record. “Maybe there was a long time ago,” Lesperance told the court. The online court records system shows, though, that he was convicted of three misdemeanors in 1996.
After being sent to prison for three years on May 30, 2007, Lesperance filed rambling pro se motions with the judge.
Lesperance’s wife pleaded with the judge, “Why did you give my ailing husband of 55 years such a harsh sentence at his age? Russel is a very kind, lovable, very humble workaholic ...”
Avalos, 29, was released to the immigration hold via a provision dubbed “positive adjustment time” (the provision gives some inmates 1 day shaved off their sentences for every three for good behavior).
ERRC found that Avalos had “served sufficient time for punishment” with “satisfactory” institutional conduct.
In 2003, Avalos, a native of Mexico, was sentenced by Milwaukee Judge Elsa Lamelas to 8 years confinement on a cocaine charge, his first Wisconsin conviction.
A state drug agent said Avalos associated with individuals charged in a major Chicago – south side Milwaukee drug dealing ring. The defense attorney disputed it.
Avalos possessed of 247 grams of cocaine worth about $6,500 street value, a 100,000-watt stun gun, a 1,000 digital scale, and fake IDs. He had multiple identities.
The defense attorney, Martin Pruhs, told the judge that Avalos flew to Milwaukee illegally in 1998 at age 18 and assumed the social security number of another man, using it to work. Pruhs claimed that Avalos had stumbled upon the drugs and had the stun gun for protection.
“I’m not a drug trafficker,” Avalos told the judge
The judge said Avalos’ “presence in our country is in violation of the law.” She added, “This was a very substantial amount of cocaine. … Anybody who becomes involved in these kinds of activities has to be prepared to pay the price.”
Avalos had 6 violations of prison conduct rules from 2004-2008. Corrections defined him as a moderate risk.
In court filings, Avalos argued, “Prison has … made me a better person.” He attached a USA Today article about “why the states should deport illegal immigrants” to reduce prison populations.
A judge denied his petition for sentence adjustment in August 2009, saying it was not in the public interest.
On Jan. 30, 2008, Office was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months confinement time for burglary – breaking into an abandoned home.
In 2004, he was sentenced to three felonies for cocaine dealing. Office, now 39, sold cocaine to an undercover officer in the parking lot of a Milwaukee auto parts store. He ran from sheriff’s deputies, swinging and kicking at officers.
He has been convicted of seven felonies and a misdemeanor. His drug record dates to a 1989 felony, which was already a second offense.
Harris, 45, was released before serving half her time by the Earned Release Review Commission under new expansive health provisions, which no longer require inmates to demonstrate terminal illness. Corrections’ spokesman has refused to describe Harris’ health problems.
Lovern said the DA’s office also has no idea why Harris was released. He said he believed the public had a right to know.
Court records from Harris’ sentencing in 2006 show she was suffering then from congestive heart failure and had difficulty walking. After receiving medical treatment, though, she was walking independently. Alcohol and crack cocaine abuse had exacerbated her heart problems. She had no history of legal problems but an IQ around 65.
Court documents say Harris stabbed an acquaintance, Felicia Woodley, in the chest, severing her aorta, after they argued in a Milwaukee apartment. Harris called Woodley an expletive. The knife penetrated 11 centimeters deep.
Woodley’s mother told the court, “I loved her more than any words I can express in this letter and even though she wasn’t perfect in this life, she didn’t deserve to die this way.”
In sentencing Harris to 11 years confinement time in 2006 for homicide, the judge, William Brash, said Milwaukee had now “suffered again the loss of over a hundred lives in homicide related events… we have to do something as a community to turn the tide.”
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Click Here for the second installment of this ongoing report.