State lawmakers push for parole board changes

March 6, 2009

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JACKSON -- They were two heinous crimes from the 1980s -- Douglas Hodgkin raped and murdered a pregnant college student and Michael David Graham stalked and killed his ex-wife -- yet one was released and the other allowed to take another step toward freedom. 

 

Hodgkin was granted parole last month, pending certain conditions. Gov. Haley Barbour suspended Graham''s sentence last year. Those cases were the impetus for legislation passed Thursday in the Mississippi Senate to make it more difficult for felons to be released from prison. 

 

The vehicle lawmakers are using is a bill to reauthorize the state Parole Board, made up of five members appointed by the governor. 

 

Two Gulf Coast lawmakers changed the bill to require the governor to hold a public hearing before exercising a pardon. It would also require a unanimous vote by the parole board to release a felon convicted of capital murder and a sex crime. Currently, it only takes a simple majority. 

 

Sen. David Baria, a Democrat from Bay St. Louis, successfully proposed requiring the governor to contact the district attorney''s office where the crime occurred and then schedule the hearing before granting the pardon. 

 

Baria said Barbour''s decision about Graham was criticized by many people on the Gulf Coast, but the aim of his proposal wasn''t to limit the governor''s power. 

 

"It just opens up the process and allows for a forum for the public to appreciate what''s being considered and to voice their opinions and concerns about the gubernatorial pardon," Baria said. 

 

Graham was convicted in the shotgun slaying of Adrienne Klasky, who had divorced him in 1986. Klasky was shot on April 7, 1989, with a 12-gauge shotgun in Pascagoula. Graham had been turned down for parole in 1999, 2001 and 2006 before Barbour suspended his sentence in 2008. 

 

Graham had been working as a trusty at the Governor''s Mansion, and Barbour said it was "the custom" of governors to cut short the sentences of the mansion''s inmate workers if they behave. 

 

Sen. Billy Hewes, a Republican from Gulfport, added the language about a unanimous vote by the board. 

 

"If they committed one of these horrible crimes, they better get everybody in agreement," Hewes said. 

 

Senate Corrections Chairman Willie Simmons, a Democrat from Cleveland, voted against the changes, saying the state Parole Board was capable of reviewing an inmates'' records to determine if release was acceptable. 

 

An attempt to amend the bill to make the parole board expire Aug. 1 was defeated. Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Tupelo, said his proposal was meant to give negotiators the opportunity to reconstitute the board. 

 

Nunnelee said he was upset by the board''s 3-2 vote to parole Hodgkin, who was convicted in 1987 of capital murder in the death of Jean Elizabeth Gillies, a University of Mississippi graduate student. 

 

Hodgkin, of Winchester, Ky., was a junior business major at Ole Miss at the time of the slaying. Gillies, 24, was a graduate student in speech pathology. 

 

Hodgkin hasn''t been released yet. The state is awaiting approval from Kentucky to accept and supervise him. 

 

"Maybe they can justify their decision. Apparently they have the attitude ... we''re not going to discuss this and it''s going to go away," Nunnelee said. 

 

But Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, who was a member of the state Parole Board from 1997 to 2000, defended the panel''s work. She said whenever the board voted to parole an inmate, "we made somebody mad." 

 

She said the members meet with the families and scour the record of inmates being considered for release. She said the growing inmate population has increased the number of hearings. 

 

The Parole Board''s current members are Shannon Warnock, Bobbie Thomas, Clarence Brown, Betty Lou Jones and Danny Guice. 

 

The Senate voted 26-20 against Nunnelee''s amendment aimed at forcing House-Senate negotiators to consider purging the board and bringing in new members. 

 

Sen. Gary Jackson, R-Kilmichael, was the only area legislator voting for the amendment. 

 

Sens. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, and Sampson Jackson, D-Preston, voted against the amendment. 

 

Sens. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, and Hob Bryan, D-Amory, did not vote. 

 

The bill is House Bill 2.