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The Long Wait: With Little Hope Left of Parole, Inmates Look to the Courts for Release

Injustice Watch

This is part of The Long Wait, a series exploring the Illinois Prisoner Review Board’s process for deciding on parole for a group of inmates who remain in prison for serious crimes committed before 1978.

The crime would send shockwaves through the Chicago police department for decades.

On a summer day in 1970, two Chicago Police officers assigned to the “walk and talk” team, meant to improve relations between police and the community at the Cabrini-Green public housing projects, were walking across a field when gunfire erupted. Surrounded by the high-rise buildings, snipers fired on the men, killing them both.

Police quickly built a case against two young men, who they said were members of street gangs. Johnnie Veal, then 17, and George Knights, then 23, were both charged with two counts of murder and tried together. While there was physical evidence presented against Knights, none directly tied Veal to the crime. Both insisted they were not guilty.

A court report from Johnnie Veal’s murders case from Aug. 14, 1970.

Both were convicted and sentenced to terms of 100 to 199 years in prison with the opportunity for parole. That has left them among the 121 men and one woman at the mercy of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which has consistently rejected their efforts to seek parole.

The board’s decisions, an Injustice Watch examination found, are often inconsistent and arbitrary. Veal is among a number of the prisoners who, finding the door to parole shut year after year, have turned to the courts in a desperate effort to win freedom.

Veal filed a petition last year in Cook County Circuit Court contending that because the parole board is not meaningfully considering his release, he has been illegally sentenced to life without parole — a sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court said cannot be automatically imposed under the Constitution on 17-year-olds. Earlier this year, as the board again turned away a parole request from Knights, board chairman Craig Findley commented, “I just don’t see how George Knights or Johnnie Veal could ever be released.”

Veal’s plea was rejected by Cook County Circuit Judge Rickey Jones in July 2016. He is appealing.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the board has “complete discretion” in deciding parole, and that unlike other states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, its decisions are not generally reviewable. The court noted that parole board decisions are “often based on subjective factors and predictions rather than objective factors.”

Prisoners in Illinois can only turn to the courts if the board fails to hold required parole hearings — whatever the outcome — or if the board acts in an unconstitutional way, such as denying parole based on a defendant’s race.

While evidence of a defendant’s innocence is critical in court, it tends to work against prisoners seeking parole. Prisoners’ refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the crime — even if they insist they are innocent — is often held against them in board deliberations.

In Veal’s case, a fingerprint of his co-defendant, Knights, was discovered on a box of bullets in a high-rise’s incinerator room after the shooting. Police traced the bullets to a store in Indiana, where Knights signed the purchase slip for the ammunition, according to court records.

A photo of the Cabrini-Green public housing projects in 2003.

But there was no physical evidence against Veal, according to court records, and no witnesses said they saw Veal commit the crime. The case against him was built on the word of several witnesses who testified that Veal made statements before and after the murders indicating he was involved.

Three boys, also gang members, were among the key witnesses against him. They each recanted after the trial.

When Veal’s last parole request came before the board in 2014, one factor board members considered was his lack of remorse for the crimes, board minutes show. His supporters tried to justify Veal’s response, saying, “You cannot ask a man to admit guilt for something he did not do,” the minutes show.

The board’s repeated rejection of his parole spurred Veal to try the courthouse. “Time is of the essence,” he said in an interview from Hill Correctional Center. “Tomorrow’s not promised to me, so I’m trying to get the best I can get, to try to get to where I’m supposed to be with family and loved ones.”

In another police killing case, Ronnie Carrasquillo, who was sentenced in 1978 for shooting Chicago police officer Terrence Loftus, also filed a petition in the Cook County Circuit Court stating that he has no real chance at parole because the victim in his case was a policeman. Like Veal, Carrasquillo, who had turned 18 months before the crime, contends that the board’s routine denials have resulted in an automatic life sentence without parole.

Carrasquillo also argues in a separate petition that his hefty sentence was unfairly imposed by a corrupt judge to deflect the sharp public criticism he received months earlier after acquitting mob hitman Harry Aleman in a nonjury trial. At a September hearing on that petition, Carrasquillo’s trial attorney, Glenn Seiden, testified that an FBI agent later made comments to him suggesting a link between those cases.

More than a decade after Carrasquillo was convicted, Wilson committed suicide after the FBI confronted him about evidence that he had taken a $10,000 bribe to acquit the mob hitman. “Only a corrupt judge would have sentenced a teen-aged boy under these circumstances to a draconian sentence of 200-600 years,” Carrasquillo’s petition states.

While Carrasquillo and Veal, among other prisoners, try to overturn their verdicts arguing they were unjustly convicted or sentenced, such evidence carries little weight in their separate proceedings before the Prisoner Review Board.

Legally, the board is required to focus solely on whether an inmate is an acceptable risk for release, said the board’s legal counsel, Jason Sweat. Because inmates have already gone through trial and sentencing, speculating on the quality of trial evidence, Sweat said, is not up for consideration.

Claims of innocence have not always been an obstacle to parole.

In late 2005, the board paroled Duffie Clark, who was convicted in 1971 of slaying two youth on Chicago’s South Side. Clark’s attorney, Dana Orr Williams, said in prior years Clark had not received any votes in favor of his parole. He only was released once she presented information sowing doubt in the evidence of his guilt.

Williams said she thinks her argument and the questions she raised about Clark’s guilt resonated with the board members who voted in his favor. Parole was granted despite his refusal to be contrite, she said, which “did not go over well” with all members of the board. Williams said Clark “wasn’t going to cop to something he didn’t do.”

In other cases, board members cite that lack of contrition as they deny parole. Carrasquillo has long contended he did not intend to shoot the police officer, who was in plainclothes at the time, causing then-board member Angela Blackman-Donovan to comment that Carrasquillo “won’t own up to it,” according to meeting minutes from 2013. She then voted against his parole.

Old photographs show Ronnie Carrasquillo with his family during prison visits. They sit on the mantle in the home of Deyra Mercado, Carrasquillo’s half-sister.

Sitting in a visiting room recently in Dixon Correctional Center, Carrasquillo discussed his plans for a life outside prison. If he is ever released, he would be starting a life when most others his age would be nearing retirement.

He recognizes the struggle to win over the board members.

He has more faith, he said, in being released through the courts than the parole board. “They see me as a lifer,” he said of the board members. “It’s that simple.”

Injustice Watch co-director Rob Warden, who co-authored the book “Greylord,” is being called as an expert to testify about me=dia coverage of Judge Frank Wilson, on behalf of Carrasquillo’s petition. As a result Warden played no role in reporting or editing this series.

This article was written by and originally ran in Injustice Watch.

Thank You, DJT: A Critical Reflection on Race, Justice and America Herself

Today I was hopeful. I was hopeful because I witnessed several NFL teams defy our current president, DJT, who a famous sports host labeled correctly a “racist and white supremacist,” and who a famous NBA star called “a bum.” DJT had, even before he was elected, ignited a national sense of urgency to resist social injustice in the so-called “mighty USA.”

However, his recent attack on Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who courageously exercised their uniquely American rights and heritage of resistance and freedom. It is actually extremely ironic that many people, such as our “bum” president, criticize those of us who stand up and speak out on injustices, such as police’s cold-blooded murder of black people such as Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sheila Bland, etc., etc., etc. (or by people pretending to be police, such as what happened to Trayvon Martin).

The irony is that Americans should celebrate and join those of us who speak out against injustice in our society. For goodness sake, this is what our country was supposedly founded upon, although initially did not live up to. No one said it better than the late great Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, when he delivered the bicentennial speech at the annual seminar of the San Francisco Patent & Trademark Law Association in 1987.

About “We the People,” the first three words of our Constitution, Marshall said, “… On a matter so basic as the right to vote, for example, Negro slaves were excluded, although they were counted for representational purposes at three-fifths each. Women did not gain the right to vote for over 130 years ...” His point, of course, is that everyone in this country was not included in this statement, “We the People.”

I strongly urge every American to read his words and consider its credibility on its own merits. I read it to whoever I am around on every July 4th. Unfortunately, Mr. DJT, America was not initially the country that other countries should emulate and try to pattern themselves after.

It’s only because of those who fought for the Union in the Civil War and the civil rights, women’s rights and LBGTQI rights movements in this country that America has begun to live up to her “promise.” It is only because of the type of protest and resistance found in these movements that America has begun to deserve the honor and glory that many have fought for and died for.

Prior to the Civil War, and subsequent social justice movements, such as the civil rights movement, America was literally just a theory, a wonderful and splendid theory, but a theory nonetheless. In practice, prior to the Civil War and civil rights movements, America was a lie and nothing to be proud of at all.

This brings me to my core point. Ironically, the Charlottesville murder of a true patriot, Heather Heyer, that DJT did not adequately deal with — instead choosing to defend the racist murderer(s) who killed her and wounded so many others that fateful day, is what crystallized these ideas for me.

DJT was defending those racists who were defending those who fought to keep slavery intact. This is consistent with DJT’s so-called defense of “all soldiers” just for being soldiers, when he attacks Kaepernick and others who kneel during the national anthem in the presence of all those soldiers on the field at NFL games.

First of all, not all soldiers should be honored and celebrated in the same way. Some soldiers, such as those who fought in defense of the Confederacy, or those soldiers who did not want black soldiers next to them or with them in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc., should not be honored.

I personally do not respect nor honor soldiers who had racism in their hearts, minds and souls. I understand and join many of those Americans who do not respect and honor them as well. Therefore, Kaepernick and others who take a knee during the national anthem are actually displaying our best and most honorable principles and traditions because they are calling attention to the racist, unjust and hypocritical conditions in this country, many of which still remain today.

So thank you, DJT. I appreciate the help. Anything anyone can do to get more people to stand up (or kneel down) and speak out against racists such as yourself is so very much welcomed. Just for the record, because it is not about me, I want to verify my credibility to make these comments.

I am a black man who happens to both have lived under a racist police state as a youth in Paterson, New Jersey and who has been studying, researching and teaching about the problem of racism in our juvenile and criminal justice systems for the past 20-plus years. I am also an associate professor of social work at a university in New York City and I have been researching and publishing on this topic for two decades.

In closing, I sincerely do thank you, DJT, for rallying the troops for social justice, human rights and real equality. Hundreds of NFL players would have never acted today had it not been for your idiotic and disrespectful comments about them and their mothers. Peace, family, but keep fighting. I’d rather stand up and die with honor on 125th Street than lie down and live without honor in an apartment on 5th Avenue, Mr. DJT.

Edgar Tyson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. He has been a researcher and educator for 14 years and a practitioner, specializing in treatment of high-risk and delinquent youth, for the past 21 years.