ROANOKE — The debate, while far from new, shows few signs of flagging.
Victims of violent crimes often seek justice in the form of longer sentences, while prisoner advocates frequently point to aging inmates locked away for decades, growing increasingly frail and costly to support.
In Virginia, few men typify the contrasting sides of this divide as sharply as Bob Leonard and Harvey Yoder.
Leonard, a farmer from Cana, lost his mother and grandfather in a home invasion while still a teenager, and he, too, was very nearly killed.
“They want to take up a cause so they can pat themselves on the back,” Leonard, now 57, said recently of those who support parole or release. “If they really want to make a difference, they should work with the victims.
“You let them walk in my shoes,” he said. “You let them have the memories that I have. They might see it a little different.”
Yoder, a Harrisonburg therapist and pastor who writes and speaks out often on behalf of parole-eligible prisoners, said he believes long-term inmates are often stuck in a system that fails them on a rehabilitative level.
“Simply warehousing people for long periods of time, it’s not cost effective. It’s not humane. It’s not in our best interests as a society,” Yoder said. “I think our citizens would be much better served with parole being re-established.”
Since conditional release was done away with 20 years ago, in 1995 by then-Gov. George Allen, prisoners are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Before that, they received longer punishments but stayed behind bars for only about 30 percent of those terms, on average.
Of the 37,684 offenders currently imprisoned by the state, 4,348 — 11.54 percent — remain eligible for parole under the old law. The question of their freedom now is decided by a board that between January and May granted release just 2.4 percent of the time. Over the past five years, that rate has hovered between 3 percent and 7 percent, according to the Virginia Parole Board.
Virginia is one of 15 states that have gotten rid of parole. Three others — Colorado, Connecticut and Florida — abolished it but brought it back because of prison crowding.
Last month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order to study whether Virginia is better off without conditional release, and the Parole Review and Update Commission is scheduled to submit its findings Dec. 4. Although a move to reinstate parole would face an uphill climb to win the approval of the General Assembly, the report is nevertheless likely to draw no shortage of viewpoints.
‘I do have a voice in it’
Forty years have passed since the cold winter night that changed Bob Leonard’s life, horribly and forever, when he was still a boy.
His abrupt transition began late Feb. 3, 1975, with a rap on the door of the Carroll County home he shared with his mother and grandfather.
Leonard, then 16, answered the knock to find a young married couple who claimed they’d had car trouble. They were Melvin and Karen Easter, 21 and 20, respectively.
Leonard got his jumper cables and set out with Melvin Easter in the teen’s Ford Gran Torino, leaving Karen in the house with Leonard’s mother. The boy brought something else with him, too, something secret: his late father’s little .25-caliber Colt, tucked in his pants pocket. Just a feeling he had, he later said. Better to have it and not need it.
Minutes later, down a dark dirt road, Easter confirmed Leonard’s suspicions.
“I looked over and he had a pistol pointing at me,” Bob Leonard recalled. He said Easter told him he was on federal parole but was going to jump it and needed a car and cash.
Leonard handed over everything in his wallet, $17, and begged: “Just don’t hurt us.”
But Easter pistol-whipped the boy and threw him in the trunk, then drove back and went into the house. Leonard, locked in the dark compartment, heard his mother’s shrieks ring out, followed by five gunshots.
“I can hear those screams today as good as I did 40 years ago,” he said recently.
When Melvin Easter finally opened the trunk to deal with Leonard, he wasn’t aware that his prisoner had a gun.
“The minute that trunk lid unlocked, I throwed my arm up,” Leonard recalled. “I shot three times. I was trying to cut him in half. I was trying to kill him.”
Leonard winged him, but Easter managed to flee with his wife. They got as far as a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his bullet wounds drew the attention of law enforcement. Deputies arrived while he was still undergoing emergency surgery.
Leonard, meanwhile, soon discovered the night had left him an orphan.
His grandfather — a 77-year-old World War I veteran who’d returned from France wounded only by frostbite — was killed by a single close-range bullet to the head.
His mother was gone, too. She was shot three times, her skull fractured in three places.
“My mother probably died thinking I was already dead,” Leonard lamented, his voice choked with emotion.
The events of that night, even four decades later, rarely wander far from his mind or his life.
Two years afterward, when he turned 18, he inherited the house and farm where his mother and grandfather were killed. He still lives there today, raising apples and peaches across about 100 acres.
Melvin Easter got a life sentence plus 99 years for the two murders and an additional 60 years for robbery and kidnapping.
Karen Easter received two 99-year sentences for the killings and 40 years for robbery and kidnapping.
About a decade later, however, Leonard was surprised to hear one of his cousins say they’d seen Karen Easter. Out in the world. At Wal-Mart.
“She came up for parole after eight years,” Leonard said. “She served 12.”
“She got to rekindle her relationship with her daughter and her granddaughter and she’s moved on and life goes on,” he added bitterly. “Karen should never have been paroled. My mother’s blood was all over her clothes.”
RICHMOND — After more than 20 years, Virginia's no-parole policy is under review.
Although Leonard still regrets that he could’ve extended her sentence if he’d lobbied for it, Karen Easter’s freedom inspired him to do what he could to prevent Melvin Easter from getting out. Easter became eligible for release in 1989 and the following year Leonard started going before the state parole board.
Easter was imprisoned before the abolition of parole, so if Leonard wants to object to him receiving it, he must testify once every year, something he’s done since he was in his early 30s. He recently made his 26th appearance.
In 1994, Leonard’s case drew the attention of Gov. Allen, who was pursuing his campaign promise to abolish parole. Leonard became a spokesman for Allen’s cause, traveling the state to tell his story at town meetings. On Jan. 1, 1995, parole was no longer offered in Virginia.
The strand connecting Leonard and Easter drew taut once again in 2002, when police discovered that Easter had sent a map of Leonard’s farm to another inmate at Bland Correctional Center, asking him to find and maim not only Leonard but another target as well.
“Beat the living hell out of daddy & son,” Easter’s note read, referring to one of Leonard’s two children, born years after the attack. “A couple of shots in the kneecaps would be a nice wheelchair gift for me.”
Easter pleaded guilty in Roanoke U.S. District Court to three counts of soliciting harm against Leonard and two other unrelated men. Judge Samuel Wilson levied the maximum punishment of three 10-year sentences in federal time, terms Easter will have to serve consecutively if he’s ever granted release from state prison.
Now 62 and an inmate at Dillwyn Correctional Center, Easter filed a motion for reconsideration on his federal offenses in 2006 but was denied. Just this month he asked a judge to allow him to serve those three 10-year sentences concurrently, at the same time as his state sentence.
“Am 62 years old now,” Easter wrote July 7 to U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon. “Even if was paroled next spring of 2016 would be 71 when released from the feds.”
“After serving 40 years in Virginia Prison System with 28 parole denials, might as well start refusing to be interviewed for parole and let Virginia D.O.C. bear my expenses,” he continued. “I have accepted and faced facts the way it is right now that I will probably die in either state or federal prison.”
Although that seems likely, Leonard said he’s not taking any chances.
“I do have a voice in it. I know that if I hadn’t done what I had done, he would’ve been released,” he said. “According to his actions, had he been released, there’s no doubt he would’ve come after me.”
The recent news of the governor’s parole study also renewed Leonard’s ire. The commission has 27 members, only one of whom is based in Southwest Virginia. It’s co-chaired by Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran and former Attorney General of Virginia Mark Early, who for nine years served as president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian outreach to prisoners and their families.
“How many victims of crime have been appointed?” Leonard asked last week in an email. “How many members of this commission have a close family member, friend or acquaintance ... who fell to the unjustified actions and mentality of a criminal?”
Last week, Moran pointed to two members of the commission, Camille Cooper with the National Association to Protect Children and Mindy Stell, president of the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.
“We want to ensure that the victims’ voices are heard,” Moran said, but he also cited practical concerns. “The Department of Corrections is slightly less than a billion-dollar budget item. That’s where people look to make cuts.
“The vast majority of people in our prisons have committed violent offenses, but there continue to be those who committed non-violent offenses,” he said. “Are there other methods by which we can achieve criminal justice goals?”
In the meantime, Leonard will continue his fight, but it’s not without costs of its own. His annual testimony before the parole board forces him to revisit the murder of his mother and grandfather on a regular basis and in great detail. It keeps the old wound fresh.
“You think about it every day,” Leonard said as he sat just a few feet from that same door where the Easters once knocked.
“The way I like to describe it is kind of like a filing cabinet. You put all this — what happened and emotions — you put it in a file and you put it in the back of your head,” he said.
“It’s still there, but you don’t dwell on it. If you dwell on it, it’s like a cancer. It’ll eat you up and destroy you.”
A ditch on either side of the road
Late last year, five days before Christmas, Harvey Yoder posted on his “Harvspot” blog the names and addresses of eight men and encouraged his readers to send them all a holiday card.
His list included, among others, Jens Soering, the former University of Virginia student who in 1990 was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend’s parents. Soaring turns 48 on Aug. 1 and next year he’ll mark his thirtieth year in custody.
Soering may be the best-known name on Yoder’s list, but all of the men are serving lengthy prison sentences — and all are eligible for parole.
“I’ve suggested that my friends and family members send a Christmas card to someone behind bars rather than us,” Yoder wrote in his request. “We sincerely wish them God’s blessings and will do the same.”
A professional counselor, family therapist and ordained minister, Yoder, 76, grew up in an Amish community in Augusta County. As a college student at Eastern Mennonite, he did volunteer work in jails and became interested in criminal justice. Many of his blog posts center on prison-related issues and he frequently speaks out on behalf of inmates.
He started getting letters from prisoners asking for his help after his 2010 op-ed on parole appeared in Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record
In his quiet suburban office, Yoder keeps a sampling of his most recent correspondence, a sheaf of letters several inches thick. The envelopes, largely from the same five or six senders, all came from prisons and were sent not to his office but to his home address.
“I tend to be someone who might give people the benefit of the doubt more than some,” he explained.
Few of the men he communicates with claim total innocence, he said, but they also feel that the justice system is failing them in some way, usually in the form of lengthy sentences or repeated denials of parole for reasons that pose no immediate resolution.
“They’re saying, ‘I’m willing to do my time and suffer the consequences, but do I have to die here? And never have a chance to really demonstrate that I have been reformed?’”
The question “do I have to die here?” is a key component of Yoder’s philosophy on prison.
“Unless they’re in there for life, they’re going to get out,” he said. “I’m not against incarceration, period. It’s just overused and our confidence in the effectiveness of it is overrated.”
A lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Legal Aid Justice Center voiced a similar sentiment. Eleven state inmates sued the Virginia Parole Board, claiming they’d been unfairly denied release based wholly on the serious nature of their crimes. The suit claimed that between 2006 and 2007, the nature of an offense was the sole reason listed for board denials 45 percent of the time even as the rate of paroles granted — about 6 percent at that time — remained one of the lowest in the country.
The suit further argued that board members relied on interviews conducted by separate examiners and never met the inmates, which remains the standard practice.
Attorneys for the inmates had hoped to expand their suit into a class action that would encompass more of the 4,700 prisoners then eligible for parole, but it was thrown out. The inmates appealed, claiming their inability to get meaningful consideration was a denial of their constitutional right to due process, but they lost that argument as well.
“Getting tougher [on criminals] does not implicate the Constitution,” 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul Niemeyer told the plaintiffs in 2013.
That same year, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee unanimously approved House Bill 2103, which required the state parole board to conduct timely and thorough reviews of parole petitions and provide specific reasons for denials.
“There are people who have been eligible for parole many times and only receive a very short answer with nothing to help them understand what to do in the future to be better prepared,” said the bill’s patron, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County.
The board’s website currently lists 14 reasons parole might be denied.
More recently, in June, 81-year-old inmate Bonnell Boyd of Henry County accused the parole board of mishandling his case after his name disappeared from a state computer system for several weeks. Boyd claims that glitch scuttled a good chance for release, and the appeal he filed with the Virginia Supreme Court is supported, in part, by an affidavit from former Virginia Parole Board Chairman William Muse. Boyd’s appeal has not yet been taken up in court, his attorney Thomas Wolf said last week, and he declined to comment further on the case.
Yoder said he believes those types of issues compromise the penal system.
“They don’t call themselves the department of punishment. They call themselves the department of corrections,” he said. “If this department has any kind of integrity or any kind of success rate, then there ought to be people coming out of that process as improved, better citizens.”
“After age 55, the recidivism rate drops dramatically, whereas the cost of their incarceration increases. That just seems like a dysfunctional system,” he added. “At the rate of $25,000 a year, that could be as much as college tuition in many cases.”
In his executive order on parole review, McAuliffe put the average annual cost of housing an inmate at $27,462.
At Deerfield Correctional Center in southeastern Virginia, which holds 1,066 geriatric inmates, the per-capita cost per inmate in 2014 was $36,220, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. A decade earlier, in 2004, it was $24,623. Across those 10 years, the average age of an inmate at Deerfield has remained 55.
With respect to violent offenders who might remain dangerous regardless of their age, Yoder said there is a distinction to be drawn between crimes of passion, which he believes are unlikely to be repeated offenses, and the acts of psychopaths or sociopaths. The penal system, he said, treats both categories much the same.
“I am all for doing very careful screening and psychological testing — the works — to make sure that no one is released to society that is making threats or who has not shown any remorse, who hasn’t acknowledged his crime and worked at making things right,” he said.
“Obviously, there are going to be risks,” Yoder said. “But there is a risk of over-incarcerating that needs to be taken into account. Just as the risk of being soft on crime is, of course, a factor. There’s a ditch on either side of the road.”
Yoder, through his blog, has also offered inmates a public outlet for their writings, including Charles Zellers Sr., 47, serving time since 1993 on a conviction for forcible sodomy and first-degree murder.
“How many years is enough?” Zellers wrote in a May 2014 posting.
“The basic principle behind the parole system is that while people must be punished for their wrongdoing, most are capable of growing, changing and rejoining society before the end of their discretionary sentence.”
His mother, Judy Zellers, 65, of Lunenburg County, said she can’t afford to talk to her son on the phone regularly and she’s afraid to drive to visit him because if her car breaks down along the way, she has no relatives who could help her.
She said her son has earned his GED, taken up masonry and learned brick laying in the 22 years he’s been away. She could use his help, she said.
“They gave him life plus 100 years,” she said recently. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“Charles is a smart boy. He said, ‘Mama, I did a lot of growing up. I don’t think the way I used to think,’” she recalled. “God told me he was coming out. I know what God says and I’m standing on his word.
“He’s got a time set for all of us.”