MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - In September nearly 200 Alabama inmates were granted parole - and some district attorneys and crime victims fear some will re-offend.
Various members of the criminal justice system brought the 12 News Defenders their concerns about the release of violent inmates, and we launched our own investigation.
We quickly learned the Board of Pardons and Paroles has little statutory governance and full discretion on all criminal cases outside capital offenses and split sentences.
Montgomery District Attorney Daryl Bailey was stunned when the board released Marquelle Sweeting this month, who’d only served six years of a 25-year sentence.
“Three people, Montgomery citizens, had a gun put to their head, and one was shot and almost had their life taken away from them and five years later, they are back out - on the streets,” Bailey said.
Sweeting pleaded guilty to three counts of first degree robbery and assault. Behind bars, he had disciplinary action multiple times, including for assaulting a corrections officer.
Board rules and procedures state inmates convicted of a Class A felony must serve 85 percent of their sentence or 15 years, whichever comes first. That means Sweeting was up for parole nine years early.
“It’s a fraud on the whole system, you have judges when they sentence someone they expect them to be in prison for a long time, the prosecutors - even the defense attorney,” Bailey said.
Bailey calls the board’s actions a prime example of why cities like Montgomery are faced with violent crime. And he wants change.
“If this is the kind of decisions they are making I am calling on the governor of the state of Alabama to replace them,” Bailey said.
Our research quickly revealed Bailey isn’t alone. The statewide group, Victims of Crime and Leniency’s sole mission is keeping violent offenders in prison, and they’re deeply concerned.
“They are paroling violent offenders every day,” said VOCAL state director Janette Grantham.
And those inmates are coming up for parole early.
Generally, inmates are not eligible for parole unless they’ve served one third of their sentence or 10 years – whichever comes first. Grantham says the board isn’t following their own regulations.
“Here’s a stack of inmates up for parole. She’s got 235 years consecutive, you can’t get much more than that. She has served nine years, 11 months, 22 days. Not a third or 10 years," Grantham said.
In 2016, we spoke to Freddie McCarthy after two people pleaded guilty to gunning down his daughter Ashley in Montgomery.
“I just hope that they will be able to give these people enough time where they would never ever get out and have the opportunity to hurt anyone else,” McCarthy said.
Both offenders were sentenced to life for murder.
We met with McCarthy again, who brought a notice showing one of the offenders is up for parole in three weeks.
We went through sentences for the more than 180 inmates paroled in September. These are three of many inmates with life sentences who were paroled:
- Charlie Garrett – paroled after serving 15 years of a life sentence for murder
- Fredricck Peoples served 16 years of 2 consecutive life sentences, granted parole
- Rondrell Wheeler, paroled after 19 years for 2 consecutive life sentences
While these fit the board’s parole consideration date, Grantham says it’s not long enough.
“They got a sentence in court, but that doesn’t mean anything. When it gets to Montgomery you might as well throw out what the judge and the jury did cause that doesn’t mean a thing. When we get to where a life in the state of Alabama is not worth a five or six-year sentence, what have we become,” Grantham said.
The board released this statement:
“The Agency’s position is we do not have data showing a dramatic increase in violent inmates being considered for parole prior to their original set date. If such data exists from another entity, we would be happy to analyze their numbers. There have been no procedure changes that would generate an increase in cases considered fitting your description.”
Grantham’s organization attends parole hearings for every violent offender, and speaks in protest of their release in an effort to keep others from becoming crime victims.
“Every violent offender they release is going into some neighborhood and they are going to live by somebody”, Grantham stated. “They released one last month who stabbed his victim 27 times and slit her throat. I don’t want anyone who stabbed someone 27 times living next door to me. But he’s out there living next door to somebody who may not even be aware.”
She says the Board has blood on their hands after an incident earlier this year involving parolee Jimmy O'Neal Spencer, who's spent the greater part of his life in prison.
“He was listed as low to medium risk of re-offending,” said Grantham.
Spencer's victims weren't notified, he was paroled to the Jimmy Hale Mission - and walked away weeks later. The shelter says they contacted Spencer’s parole officer, but didn’t hear back. Spencer was in the wind for months before reportedly murdering three people in Marshall County.
Grantham says the Board never put out an alert or warrant for Spencer.
“He came into contact with the law two times. Both times they contacted the Parole Board and never heard back. On July 13 he was in court in Marshall County that morning at 10 a.m., they contacted the parole board and asked if they should keep him. All they knew was he was out on parole and had committed another crime. They called the pardon and parole board and was told no comment. That day they found the three bodies including the little 7-year-old boy. If he had been kept that morning he wouldn’t have killed them that day.”
In August, Board of Pardons and Paroles Executive Director Eddie Cook called the murders unfortunate.
“He made this choice, okay”, Cook said. “The Board didn’t do anything wrong in the parole, the police didn’t do anything wrong. This is a conscious decision he made.”
Grantham disagrees, and she's taking action by drafting a bill that would require the board to instantly notify law enforcement and the public of a parolee's disappearance.
“If that had happened in the Spencer case those three people would still be alive”, she said.
Police believe Spencer killed Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin's great-grandson, Colton Ryan Lee, 7. Authorities say Spencer hit Reliford in the head with a hatchet and strangled her.
Reliford was a member of VOCAL who lost both her siblings to murder.
“She had a brother that was murdered and she was faithful to come to the parole board and protest his offender’s release,” Grantham stated. “She had a sister who was murdered, and she fought hard to get [the offender] convicted. They wanted him to take a plea, and she wouldn’t have it.”
Investigators believe after Spencer killed Reliford, he then strangled Martin, her great-grandson Colton Lee was killed by blunt force.
As for categorizing Spencer as unlikely to re-offend:
“We have no way of knowing if they have corrected those mistakes, we have no way of knowing whether they have done something to keep that from happening again,” Grantham said of the incident. “We have to protect our victims. We should have protected 7-year-old Colton Lee, but we didn’t.”
Grantham says she has the family’s blessing and plans to name the bill after the young murder victim, titled “Colton’s Law”.
“We need to not forget that little boy had nothing to do with any of this,” she said.
The bill is in the early stages, but is expected to be take up in the next legislative session.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s office tells WSFA 12 News she shares the concerns over the Board of Pardons and Paroles and is monitoring their actions. She plans to meet with them in the near future.