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Plan before Legislature would keep more inmates behind bars

By Anthony Wilson
Abilene News Staff Writer

The man who killed Kayla Wheeler's dad is serving a life sentence, but he could walk out of prison someday.

And that frightens her.

Like many people, the Abilene woman believed a life sentence was just that when Fort Worth prosecutors proposed such a punishment for the man who murdered Robert Gene Vick during a 1997 robbery. Scotty Arnst eventually agreed to the life sentence, dodging the specter of a lethal injection.

During the prosecution of the case, Wheeler learned capital murderers who are spared the death penalty become eligible for parole after serving 40 years in lockup -- though that's no guarantee they'll be freed.

Similarly, criminals serving life sentences for first-degree felonies spend 30 years behind bars before they can apply for parole.

"You'd think life is life," Wheeler said. "Just think about how that prison environment corrupts a person even more. It's a scary thought. I hope he never gets out."

A plan now stands before the Texas Legislature to ensure capital murderers who aren't put to death never leave prison alive.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio has drafted a bill that would end the practice of paroling murderers who kill while committing other crimes. Lucio's proposal would replace the current life sentence with a life without parole option in capital cases.

He has since said he's also open to the idea of ending parole for offenders sentenced to life in first-degree felony cases.

Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat, said lawmakers have an obligation to review the sentencing statute.

He reported that 30 jurisdictions, including the federal government, have a life without parole punishments. He also cited a recent poll that found nearly three-fourths of Texans support the no-parole plan.

"People want us to at least look at the option," Lucio said. "There are cases that call for death and cases that call for life. Juries should have a choice. But juries have been voting for life believing life in prison is that -- and it's not."

An added safeguard

From 1995-97, 155 Texas convicts serving life sentences were released. Those offenders served an average of 13.7 years.

During the last legislative session in 1997, lawmakers stiffened parole laws, requiring criminals to serve either 30 or 40 years of a life sentence, depending upon whether they were convicted of a first-degree felony or a capital crime.

Previously, murderers were eligible for parole after serving 15 years.

The 40-year benchmark should prove effective in keeping dangerous criminals behind bars.

Of the 144,617 inmates in Texas prisons, only 11 have served more than 30 years. The dean of Texas inmates, a 59-year-old man serving 124 years for two murders, has lived in lockup for almost 38 years.

Taylor County District Attorney James Eidson said the change in parole laws has lessened the pressure on prosecutors to pursue a death sentence.

In August, Eidson announced he would not seek a death sentence against accused capital murderer Billy Don Wilson. The veteran prosecutor said the new law, the strength of his evidence and the lack of a violent criminal history by the defendant played into his decision.

Eidson said that after serving 40-plus years in prison, most offenders would be so old when released they would no longer pose much of a threat.

Also, he said, a plea agreement for a life sentence spares a victim's family the trauma of a trial and lengthy appeals and saves the taxpayers the high-dollar cost of trying and appealing the case.

Although Eidson said the new parole law is "almost the equivalent" of life without parole, he favors the extra safeguard in Lucio's bill.

"It does give confidence that capital murderers are never going to get out," he said. "That does remain in the back of your mind. There's no harm and justice is still served with this option -- as long as it's not too costly."

The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle have in the recent past calculated that putting an offender to death costs taxpayers about $2 million.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice estimates the expense of housing an inmate in administrative segregation -- the highest security level -- at $51.76 per day. The cost of incarcerating a prisoner in the general prison population drops to $38.64.

Thus, the cost of keeping an inmate locked up for 40 years would range from $564,144 to $755,696, depending upon how they are housed. Those figures, however, escalate if prisons are forced to keep inmates longer, making them more prone to medical maladies.

Tim Morgan, the warden of Abilene's maximum-security Robertson Unit, said lifers are no more difficult to control than other inmates. He said many Robertson inmates have no hope of parole yet behave well enough to earn privileges.

"It's the attitude the offender takes to how they want to do their time," Morgan said. "We have inmates doing 300 years who are model inmates. It depends on if they want to make the best of it.

"I wouldn't foresee life without parole being any bigger of a problem than it is now, and we're managing fine."

Life or death

Lucio admits two high-profile executions this year were motivating factors in drafting his bill.

Saying most people view the death penalty as a prosecutorial "home run," he noted those feelings were more ambivalent when Karla Faye Tucker was executed in February. Her supporters argued her sentence should have been commuted to life after she claimed a Christian conversion.

Lucio further notes that had Texas had a life without parole law, Kenneth McDuff would have never killed again after his death sentence was commuted to life in 1972. McDuff was paroled in 1989, murdered a woman in 1992 and was executed in November.

The senator argues that prosecutors and jurors should have more punishment options. He dismisses criticisms that his proposal would erode capital punishment, which he supports.

"The majority of people assessed this punishment are going to be individuals you or I wouldn't ever want to see walk the streets of Texas again," Lucio said. "The more options we have, the better. I really can't think of any drawbacks."

Lucio believes his fellow legislators will back the bill.

The proposal has already won the support of some defense attorneys, whose prime concern in capital cases is saving their client's life.

Abilene attorney Stan Brown, an opponent of capital punishment, said life without parole would be an "effective replacement" for the death sentence. He explained that juries and prosecutors who fear a killer's eventual parole are more agreeable to a death sentence.

"The biggest effect would be to change the nature of plea bargains in capital cases," Brown said.

Eidson agreed. He said the capital appeals process is so lengthy, prosecutors worry that legal issues the trial attorneys couldn't have foreseen may be raised years later, overturning a death sentence.

"They change the rules after you've played the game and see if you've still won," he said of the courts. "Anything that shortens the appeals process has to be looked at as a viable alternative."

Wheeler said seeking that same sense of closure in her father's case convinced her family to back a life sentence.

While comforted by the fact no current inmate has survived 40 years in a Texas prison, the notion of parole for her father's killer makes her uneasy.

"He probably won't make it that long," Wheeler said of the murderer. "But to have that assurance would be great."

. . . watch for more stories coming soon  

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