Samuel Hamilton was convicted of killing a cop. He didn’t pull the trigger. He didn’t even have the gun, but he was there, and it was a felony murder, and he was the guy left holding the bag when everyone else fled and got away. The murder sat on his shoulders, and someone had to pay.
But pay for how long? Hamilton was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison. The judge who imposed that sentence did so based on the crime, a terrible one for sure, and the relevant circumstances, including the fact that Hamilton wasn’t the shooter. Knowing this, the judge fixed his minimum sentence at 18 years, meaning that he would not be eligible for parole until he served that length of time.
Thirty years later, Hamilton still sits in prison. Not because he was a bad prisoner. In fact, he couldn’t have been a better prisoner. He couldn’t have done more to rehabilitate himself, to show that he has learned, and learned much, from his crime. If anything, Hamilton is the poster boy for a great prisoner.
That said, this Court is persuaded that petitioner’s achievements during his incarceration have been extraordinary. Petitioner has, among other things, earned a Bachelor’s degree from Nyack College and a Master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary, participated in myriad programs through the prison system, and acted as a teacher and mentor to dozens of current and former inmates. Most notable are the numerous letters that petitioner submitted advocating for his release, including letters from the former Commissioner of Corrections and Community Supervision, the former Chair of the Division of Parole, and the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted petitioner. In addition, the Superintendent of Fishkill Correctional Facility opined that he “would be fine having [petitioner] and his family as [his] neighbors,” and 18 correction officers and other correction employees submitted letters further supporting petitioner’s release. As one Board commissioner acknowledged – before voting against petitioner’s release in a split decision – “anyone would be hard pressed to argue that [petitioner was not] rehabilitated.”
And still, as Hamilton came before the Parole Board for the twelfth time, they said, “nah.”
Nevertheless, our view on whether petitioner is a “prime candidate for parole release” is not the relevant question before us.
In short, the statutory language of Executive Law § 259-i(5) dictating our limited power of review and the interpretation of that language by the Court of Appeals remain unchanged. Accordingly, inasmuch as the Board has not violated the statutory mandates and its determination does not exhibit irrationality bordering on impropriety under either our precedent or that of the Court of Appeals, “its discretion is absolute and beyond review in the courts”
The determination of the Parole Board, a political appointment, is sacred unless a court finds it “irrational bordering on impropriety.” As the concurring opinion notes,
As the majority aptly observes, parole is not a reward for good behavior in prison [citations omitted], and although petitioner has made significant strides while incarcerated, his institutional record in no way alters the fact that he stands convicted of society’s most heinous crime – the taking of a fellow human being’s life.
Well, yeah, but that’s what was before the sentencing judge when he imposed the 18 to life sentence. But then, a judge’s sentence is subject to review. The Parole Board answers, essentially, to no one.
So take the sentence imposed by the judge and laugh and laugh and laugh. It means nothing. It’s merely the number that a prisoner must surpass before he gets his moment before the real judges, the true power, the Parole Board. Eighteen years, the judge said? Fooey, the Parole Board says. A thousand years. A million years. Forever, if that’s what they say. As long as it’s tied to the heinous crime of taking the life of fellow human being, no court can touch it. The Parole Board’s discretion is absolute.
In dissent, PJ Peters raises a curious problem with the Parole Board’s absolute discretion:
Over 30 years ago, petitioner was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison for his role in the crimes that led to the death of an off-duty police officer. He remains behind bars, having been denied parole seven times during that period, the most recent of which – decided by a two-to-one vote of the Board of Parole – is now before us. The majority has concluded that the Board’s decision to deny parole to petitioner during this latest appearance did not exhibit “‘irrationality bordering on impropriety.'”
In my view, the Board’s decision was based upon significant errors of fact and the consideration of improper factors. As the parole hearing minutes reveal, the Board’s decision was made by the closest of margins (two commissioners voted to deny parole and one dissented), such that any error should be considered relevant to the determination.
Apparently, the two Parole Board members who voted for life plus cancer thought Hamilton was the shooter. Hamilton has been in prison for 30 years, and was denied parole because they couldn’t be bothered getting the facts right. There were other factual errors as well, but why bother to mention them. If a huge fact, like the fact that Hamilton wasn’t the shooter, but just the guy who got caught when the others (including the shooter) ran away, doesn’t matter, certainly the lesser details don’t matter.
And according to the Appellate Division, Third Department, this model prisoner, this “also-there” in a felony murder, who was mistakenly thought to be the shooter by two members of a Parole Board who couldn’t be bothered to even get their story straight, isn’t enough to reach the level of irrationality bordering on impropriety.
Thirty years down on an 18 year minimum, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can rein in the insanity of the Parole Board.
Edit: For those wondering, this is neither a new nor one-off thing. See here, and here, and here. There’s much more, but you get the point. The problem seems to be obvious, as does the solution, but no one seems to either give a damn or have the will to change things. And so nothing changes.
H/T Cristian Farias