The Massachusetts Parole Board has been under intense public scrutiny due to the death of a Woburn police officer at the hands of a paroled criminal.
The board held its first public meeting Tuesday since the shooting death of Officer John Maguire by a prisoner the board unanimously voted to release in 2008.
As the board considered paroling several inmates Tuesday, at times it seemed as if it was on trial.
You almost felt sorry for Brett Christian. He was the first lifer to ask the board for release on parole since its decision to release Dominic Cinelli from life in prison blew up in its face the day after Christmas. You almost felt sorry — until you heard the details of Christian's crime in 1996.
"You beat an 85-year-old woman over the head, you stabbed her twice, and you set the place ablaze,"
Parole Board Chairman Mark Conrad pointed out to the 51-year-old prisoner and petitioner. "There's smoke inhalation and you leave, and you expect this person to live."
"I hoped she would, sir," Christian said.
For Tuesday's petitioners, prisoners asking the board for release on parole, the board's verdict seems likely to be bleak. The verdict for the board itself is still to come.
Christian went on to say that the only reason he set the fire was to get the woman help.
"I was trying to get attention to the apartment so someone would come and save her," he said.
In the universe of good answers, this one was not a winner.
Before a closely-watching crowd of reporters — who rarely cover parole hearings — Pamela Lombardini, like the rest of the board members, was blunt and skeptical.
"To light the house on fire just to get attention to possibly save this woman makes no sense," Lombardini said.
Somehow, in 2008, Cinelli fared much better than this petitioner. Cinelli got parole despite three life sentences, escapes from prison, crimes committed while overstaying his furlough, a history of drug addiction, violent crimes and bad behavior in prison — before becoming a model prisoner.
Under the continuing barrage of disbelief and rage following Cinelli's murder of the Woburn police officer, the board had kept silent until Tuesday. Conrad made a terse, if also unemotional, statement at the start of the hearing.
"This board is going to conduct business as we normally do. But I want to make this statement clear, that our heart goes out to the Maguuire family. That's all," he said.
Most of the board members are Gov. Deval Patrick's appointees, including Conrad, a former Milton cop and campaign driver for Patrick. The board's record of decisions contrasts with those of boards appointed by Republican Govs. Weld, Cellucci and Swift. They stressed law and order and adhered more closely to sentiments expressed by a murder victim's son Tuesday, who was opposing early release of another prisoner.
"I think if you take someone's life, I don't know if you should ever to get to enjoy your own. I don't see how you should ever enjoy anything ever again and get outside."
In 1991, the father of Charles Holmes Jr. had his throat slashed and was stabbed 14 times by a robber, James Graham. At the hearing Tuesday — where Graham was also seeking parole — Holmes told him, "I hate you with all my soul."
Back in 1999, under Republican appointees, 13 percent of prisoners serving life sentences won parole on their first petition.
Ten years later, under the Patrick administration, 32 percent of lifers won early release on the first try. The philosophy has turned to rehabilitation, giving prisoners incentives and the means to reform. But now a terrible failure is prompting calls for taking fewer risks on parole decisions. For Holmes Jr., the case of Cinelli has meaning and consequence.
"I think the timing is obviously tragic for that officer's family. In some weird way timely for us. But it shouldn't be that way anyway," Holmes' father said.
For Tuesday's petitioners, the board's verdict seems likely to be bleak. The verdict for the board itself is still to come.
This program aired on January 5, 2011.