COLUMBUS - Michael Seay walked out of North Central Correctional Institution near Marion last Monday, a free man for the first time in 20 years.
Serving a Lucas County sentence of 18 to 95 years for rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and escape, Seay became the first northwest Ohioan to be paroled as a result of a state Supreme Court ruling forcing the Ohio Parole Board to accelerate hearings for 2,098 inmates.
“I was shocked. It was wonderful that they were doing it like that,” said Seay, 48, who spent most of his adult life behind bars. He spoke to The Blade before his release.
“I went to the [parole] board five times, and I didn't know if I would ever get out,” he said. “They said it was always the nature of the crime. I had the credentials to make parole.”
The court ruled 6-1 in December that the parole board, when scoring inmates to determine the earliest dates they could be released, improperly held against them crimes or factors for which they had never been convicted and, in some cases, never charged.
Defendants who had confessed to lesser crimes as part of plea bargains found that more serious charges that had been dismissed came back to haunt them.
“For the last five years, the parole board has engaged in a systematic practice of ignoring the sentences handed out by judges,” said Charlie Clovis, an assistant state public defender. “Unless the parole board changes that practice, inmates will continue to be denied meaningful consideration for parole.”
As of Thursday, 166 inmates had received accelerated hearings as a result of the court ruling. Of those, 128, or 77 percent, have been paroled or given release dates.
The Supreme Court ruling had its roots in the so-called “truth-in-sentencing law” enacted in 1996. The law ended Ohio's practice of handing out sentences in ranges, such as 10 to 20 years, and replaced it with the imposition of finite sentences.
For thousands of inmates still serving sentences under the old law, the parole board developed a system to assign scores based on the crimes they committed, their criminal history, and their perceived risk of offending again.
This offense category score determined how soon an inmate could come up for a parole hearing, with the date sometimes falling well beyond completion of the minimum sentence and sometimes longer than someone sentenced for the same crime under the new law.
“It makes no sense to imprison someone who received the minimum possible sentence under the old law for triple the maximum possible sentence under the current law,” Mr. Clovis said.
Mr. Clovis, who had filed a separate class-action suit representing 18,000 inmates, maintains far more than the 2,098 prisoners identified by the parole board should be getting expedited hearings.
Andrea Dean, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the board developed its list from those believed to have received inappropriately high offense scores influenced by the improper factors pointed out by the court. She said the list is expected to grow but not significantly.
“We are posting all of the names of the inmates we believe should have rehearings in the prisons,” she said. “If inmates do not see their names on the list and believe they should be on the list, they can present their cases to the [prison] unit managers. The unit managers will check to see if they meet the criteria to be added to the list.”
Many of the inmates could still be denied parole when they appear before the board. The court's ruling noted nothing prevents the parole board from considering other factors when it comes to making its final decisions.
Ms. Dean cautioned that those receiving hearings first were those who were litigants in the case, or those given the most amount of time beyond their minimum sentences. She noted these people were most likely to win approvals.
“It's too early to assess how many will be released,” she said. If the 77 percent release rate were extended to all 2,098 cases, 1,615 inmates would be released earlier than under the old system.
Among those given a release date was Frankie Spencer, 60, a former Toledo woman who was three years from her earliest possible parole date when the Supreme Court accelerated her timetable.
She struck her ex-husband, William Puckett, over the head with a piece of lumber during a quarrel in 1986. Then she handed a knife to another ex-husband, William Spencer, who stabbed him in the chest and moved the body to an alley.
Serving 10 to 25 years for voluntary manslaughter and abuse of a corpse as part of a plea bargain that resulted in the dismissal of a murder charge, she has been notified that she will be released July 28. She has served 17 years, seven beyond her minimum.
Spencer's offense score was 12 prior to the Supreme Court ruling, just one notch below the maximum preserved for murder. Her post-ruling score is nine, Ms. Dean said.
Clarrise Durley, 48, was seven years away from her next hearing when the court case accelerated her parole consideration. She is slated to leave the Women's Reformatory for Women on or after Sept. 1.
She has served 13 years on a 9 to 25-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery in the stabbing of a 79-year-old Toledo man in 1990. She had originally been charged with aggravated murder.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, who has received numerous notices in the last couple of months about accelerated parole hearings, sent letters to the board opposing the release of Durley, Spencer, and Seay.
“It's a gamble,” said Ms. Bates. “I'm not willing to gamble with the security and safety of the citizens who live here. I'd rather err on the side of caution. [Seay] had exhibited dangerous, brutally violent behavior at least between 1975 and 1983.”
Seay had a criminal history involving guns before he was convicted of kidnapping a 16-year-old boy at knifepoint and raping him, she noted.
The release of these inmates occurs as the state is closing prisons to slow growth of the correction budget. The state closed Orient Correctional Institution south of Columbus last year and is trying to close Lima Correctional Institution.
If the Lima closing is completed, the state's prison system is expected to be 26 percent over capacity.
Gerald L. Houston, a St. Mary's native, is serving a 20-to-100-year sentence at Lima for the 1981 attempted murder and robbery of an elderly couple in Lafayette, Allen County.
Having served more than two years beyond his minimum, he is still awaiting his accelerated date with the parole board, despite the fact he was one of the three main plaintiffs in the Layne vs. Ohio Parole Authority case that led to the high court's ruling.
“The parole board is a political animal for all intents and purposes,” his attorney, Eric Allen, said. “They are given way too much discretion as to when people should be let out.
“In terms of fundamental fairness, the system they're using, their guidelines, are fundamentally unfair,” he said. “[Houston] does his bit, he does his time, and comes up for parole, and they deny him for whatever reason.”
Houston received an offense score of 12, 10 for the attempted murder conviction plus two more for the brutal nature of the crime. In setting that score, the board took into consideration an attempted rape allegation found in a police report that never led to an indictment, let alone conviction.
Mr. Allen knows his client could still be denied parole because the board could consider the attempted rape allegation when it comes time to decide whether to release him.
“They bring up something in a police report that was unfounded, unindicted, and uncorroborated so that they can have him sit in prison for another 10 years,” Mr. Allen said. “That's what it came down to. They were looking for a reason to keep him there.”
He said his client has behaved while behind bars and would be a productive member of society upon release.
Allen County Prosecutor David E. Bowers agreed Houston should get his day before the parole board, but he said the board should still keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“I agree with the Layne decision,” he said. “This is basically a new parole board now. I don't understand how in the world the old parole board could take pleas and treat higher charges that were dismissed as if they'd been convicted of them.
“Houston is entitled to a hearing like anybody else under his classification, but he put people on the floor, facedown gangland-style, and then shot two innocent healthy people in their home,” he said. “He should never get out.”
Ms. Bates said it is her office's obligation to remind the parole board of any other factors involved in any Lucas County case.
“The judge sounds fantastic at sentencing when he imposes 18 to 95 years. It sounds like he's thrown the book,” she said. “But the [old] law operates contrary to that. Once you've served your minimum, you're parole-eligible. Whether they let you out is a different story.”
Seay, whose post-Layne offense score was 10 on a scale of 13, said he thanked the parole board and cried when he was told he would be released.
“I vowed I would not come back to prison,” he said, adding that he felt frustrated with each prior trip before the board.
“There was the anticipation that this is my time, that now they'll let me go,” he said. “Other guys who did the same crimes as you are getting out under the same law. The same crime. You think it's your time, but when you go in there, it's different. You're doing life in prison.”
He said he faced an entirely different attitude this time from the nine-member board, seven members of which have been appointed since 2000. He insisted he is ready to return to society, noting that he has participated in self-improvement programs while in prison, has kept out of trouble behind bars, and has picked up masonry skills.
He received a commendation for his assistance to officials during the 1993 prison riot at Lucasville.
“We all make mistakes in life,” he said. “When I came into the prison system, I was 24 or 25. I'm 48 now. I grew up in the system.”