False Hope and a Needless Death Behind Bars

By JESSE WEGMAN SEPT. 6, 2016

On July 26, John MacKenzie went before the parole board at the
Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y., and made the case,
once again, for his freedom. He had been locked up since 1975 for
shooting and killing a Long Island police officer, Matthew Giglio,
during a bungled robbery attempt. His sentence was 25 years to life —
the maximum under state law.

On Aug. 2, he learned that the board had voted 2 to 1 against him. It
was the 10th time in 16 years that he had been denied parole.

Later that day, he sent a handwritten letter to his daughter Denise,
saying that “they’re hell bent on keeping me in prison” and “I don’t
believe I’ll last much longer.”

On Aug. 4, another inmate found Mr. MacKenzie hanging by the neck from
a bedsheet tied to the window bars of his cell. He was 70.

John MacKenzie was no ordinary prisoner. In the more than 40 years he
spent behind bars, he became one of the most respected inmates in the
state’s penal system. He had a spotless disciplinary record. He took
full responsibility for the murder of Mr. Giglio. He earned degrees in
business and the arts. He started a program to give victims the
opportunity to speak directly to inmates about the impact of their
crimes. The state’s own risk-assessment program found that he posed
little to no risk of re-offending. Prison guards, judges, clergy
members and prosecutors wrote letters supporting him.

None of this seemed to matter to the parole board. Because of the
seriousness of his crime, one denial said, his release would
“undermine respect for the law.” Another referred to “significant
community opposition.” The wording would vary, but the message was
always the same: Mr. MacKenzie’s sentence, which appeared to give him
a real chance at freedom after 25 years, was a sham. No matter what he
did to atone for his crime, he was never getting out.

Some see this as a just result, particularly law enforcement groups,
which steadfastly opposed Mr. MacKenzie’s release. But New York
criminal law provides for the possibility of parole, which is based on
the idea that people can change.

Under state law, the parole board is required to weigh a prisoner’s
entire history: his degree of remorse, his behavior behind bars and
the likelihood that he will be able to live lawfully outside prison.
Those factors never got more than a cursory mention, at best, when the
board denied Mr. MacKenzie’s requests. In May, a State Supreme Court
justice, Maria Rosa, held the board in contempt for failing to give
any reason for denying Mr. MacKenzie parole other than the nature of
his crime. Justice Rosa wrote that “if parole isn’t granted to this
petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?”
She ordered the board to hold a new hearing, with different board
members. The state appealed that order. The case was still pending
when Mr. MacKenzie killed himself.

Certainly crime victims and police officers should have a voice in the
parole process, but they should not have a veto. Otherwise, parole is
a meaningless promise.

Some years ago, Mr. MacKenzie wrote an essay about the frustrations of
living at the whim of parole commissioners. “If society wishes to
rehabilitate as well as punish wrongdoers through imprisonment,” he
wrote, then “society — through its lawmakers — must bear the
responsibility of tempering justice with mercy. Giving a man
legitimate hope is a laudable goal; giving him false hope is utterly
inhuman.”

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