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Bureau of Pardons and Paroles increases hearings

Eddie Burkhalter

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After months of a reduction in parole hearings for Alabama’s incarcerated, the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is ramping up the numbers of those hearings. 

In a response to ARP’s questions Monday about how those hearings are set, Bureau spokesman Terry Abbott said that the agency has a target goal of 540 hearings during the month of March. 

That goal is much higher than the 150 hearings that were scheduled for January 2020, and nearly 200 more than the 343 hearings scheduled for February. 

The increase in parole hearings comes after Bureau director Charlie Graddick received pressure recently from state legislators and outside groups concerned over the slowdown in those hearings, but Abbott in a message to APR on Tuesday said that pressure was not the cause of the increase. 

“The increase in hearings was not the result of legislative or ACLU criticism. Under the law, cases have to be docketed 45 days before the hearings, so information on the number of hearings and which inmates will have their cases heard is published on our website 45 days in advance,” Abbott’s message reads. “The number of hearings has been increasing steadily. All the hearings docketed for February were scheduled in January or before, long before the recent criticism from the Legislature and the ACLU.”

At a budget presentation on Jan. 23 Graddick was grilled by lawmakers on the bureau’s decline in paroles. Asked how many paroles had been granted since he became director, Graddick said that he was unsure, and that parole decisions are made by the board, not by him. 

“The parole board follows the law and then the three of them make their judgment as to whether or not they’re going to be a risk to the community. And I guess we’ve just got too many violent people in jail,” Graddick said during the meeting, according to Al.com’s Mike Cason. 

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Cason also reported that Graddick spoke with reporters after the meeting about why he thinks fewer people were being paroled. 

“I had a man who’s been in this business a long time tell me about a month ago that they’ve taken all of the low-hanging fruit out of the prisons,” Graddick said, according to AL.com. “That means that we don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. They just don’t.”

The ACLU of Alabama recently made two records requests to the bureau to find out why so many fewer incarcerated people were getting hearings, asking which policies and procedures were being used to schedule those hearings. 

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Beth Shelburne, and investigative reporter for ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice, in a statement expressed concern that the requests weren’t being responded to with proper responses.

“We’ve asked to see the specific policy or procedure that guides the scheduling of parole hearings. We’ve also asked to interview any supervisor within the agency who can walk us through the process, but I was told today that my interview request would not be granted,” Shelburne said in the statement. “We’ve submitted a new request, renewing our commitment to hold this state agency accountable. The Governor and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must follow through on transparency and answer our questions about this important policy.”

Graddick, through spokesman Terry Abbott, declined APR’s interview request Monday. 

Judge Graddick hasn’t been doing one-on-one interviews because he is focused on directing the ongoing improvements in the agency,” Abbott wrote to APR

Graddick was appointed director on Sept. 1, 2019, by Gov. Kay Ivey, and quickly suspended all parole hearings, saying that the victim notice process wasn’t being followed properly. 

When hearings resumed in November, the number of people getting them dropped dramatically. Just 17 people were granted parole during November and December 2019, according to ACLU of Alabama’s report. Ninety-two percent of eligible parolees were not granted release during those months. 

Abbott in a message to APR on Monday said that the Bureau’s Board Operations Division is tasked with setting incarcerated people for hearings. 

“Preparation specifically includes a face to face interview and risk assessment of the inmate by an Institutional Parole Officer. Completed files with all compiled records/reports that have been located are transferred onto dockets based on which cases have been completely worked at the time a docket is set,” Abbott wrote in his response. 

“The board’s current practice is to hear cases on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays of each week. Hearing notices for officials and victims are simultaneously prepared and sent as required by law when dockets are set,” Abbott said. “The overall process thus consists generally of a target number of eligible cases coming before the board in sequential order grouped by inmate eligibility date but with some variation due to delays most often caused by location complications encountered for victim cases.” 

Abbott described a process in which all the work to prepare a case is done first, then the cases are set on dockets to be heard by the board.

Lyn Head, former Tuscaloosa County district attorney who resigned as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles in September 2019, told APR by phone on Monday that it was her understanding that during her time on the board and before, the cases that were eligible for a hearing were docketed, and “that they were prepared and gotten ready based on their settings on the docket.”

“Because the time-consuming thing between the setting and the case and the hearing of the case is notices,” Head said, referring to notices to victims, family members and parties required by law to be notified of an upcoming parole hearing. “Those statutory notices have to be taken care of.”

Head said that those notices were going out as required by law when she was on the board.

“My prayer is that this will be resolved, because there are 25,000 people – and I use the word people very carefully. I’m talking about people who are incarcerated – who’ve got to feel desperate and hopeless at this point,” Head said. “They’ve been doing all the right things and their cases aren’t even coming up in a timely manner.”

The reduction in paroles came after the U.S. Department of Justice in April released a report that found there was reason to believe Alabama was violating prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protection from physical violence and sexual assault by housing them in overcrowded, understaffed and unsafe facilities. 

At least 14 incarcerated men died by homicide in Alabama in 2019, which was more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009. Alabama’s prison homicide rate is almost nine times the national average for state prisons, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

At least 28 people died as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide in state prisons in 2019. 

State lawmakers passed sentencing reforms in 2013 and 2015, which resulted in a decrease of inmate population from about 200 percent of capacity to around 160 percent. 

Between 2013 and 2018 Alabama’s prison population dropped from 26,293 to 20,618 but the reductions changed course in 2019. 

ADOC data that shows that in April 2019 the state’s in-custody prison population was greater than the previous year by almost 300 inmates, which was the first time that’s happened since February 2013. In June, the ADOC recorded 639 more inmates than the state held in custody the previous June.

Graddick in an op-ed published by APR on Dec. 4, 2019, said the bureau isn’t responsible for alleviating prison overcrowding. 

“It is not the Board’s duty, role, or responsibility by law or otherwise, nor the Director’s, to alleviate prison overcrowding,” Graddick wrote. 

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said during the budget hearing on Jan. 23 that the state was under threat of a federal takeover of its prison system if fixes aren’t made. 

Ward also decried the bureau’s practice of publicly releasing information on a potential parolee’s past crimes, something that began after Graddick’s appointment. 

“The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles will hold 34 parole hearings this week, including hearings for 22 violent offenders, among them 6 murderers, 1 sex offender, 2 convicted of attempted murder, 1 for manslaughter and 5 for robbery #crime #safety #victims,” the Bureau tweeted on Monday. 

Over 11 tweets on Feb. 23 the agency commented on those turned down for parole that day, noting each person’s criminal history and using hashtags including #crimes, #prison, #drugs and #victims. 

Head said that there are “tens of thousands” of stories about formerly incarcerated people who are living productive lives outside of prison.

“At the beginning of 2019 there were 69,000 people who were being supervised by the agency,” Head said. “And those people were being successfully supervised…We don’t hear about those.”

“I think that pressure is the only thing that’s going to make this right,” Head said, referring to those lawmakers pointed questions to Graddick at last week’s budget presentation. “Because it doesn’t appear as though anybody is thinking about those people as people.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages. 

The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.

Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.

“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”

DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:

  • Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
  • If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply. 
  • Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
  • Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
  • If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.

SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.

Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.

Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.

ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.

There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.

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Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced approval of a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help domestic violence victims access help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence is using the funds to provide direct services and support during COVID-19 for victims of family, domestic and dating violence, Ivey’s office said in a press release.

“The global pandemic has made many aspects of our lives more challenging, including the ability to seek help due to domestic violence,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work of the staff at the coalition who are working every day to help those in need during the additional challenges posed by COVID-19.”

The coalition supports shelters throughout Alabama and operates regional 24-hour crisis telephone lines for victims needing information or seeking to escape violent situations. It also provides training and technical assistance for police and others who encounter domestic violence situations and helps develop public policy to reduce domestic violence and ensure victims receive proper services.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant from funds made available as part of the CARES Act.

“ADECA stands with Gov. Ivey in support of the coalition and other likeminded organizations as they work throughout the state to provide vital help to domestic violence victims,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “The partnership between ADECA and the coalition helps ensure that this level of assistance will continue to be available throughout the state even during a pandemic.”

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Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction

Brandon Moseley

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Twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Mac Girdner

Attorney General Steve Marshall said this week that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction of Deandra Marquis Lee on capital murder during a robbery.

Lee, 24, is from Montgomery and was convicted in Lowndes County Circuit Court in October 2018 for the 2012 murders of 9-year-old twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Girdner.

On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a decision upholding Lee’s conviction.

On June 3, 2012, Terrye Moorer dropped off her twins, Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett, with Girdner, their caregiver who was also Moorer’s friend from church.

That evening, when Moorer drove to Girdner’s residence to pick up her children, no one was home so Moorer filed a police report. On June 5, 2012, the bodies of Girdner and the two children were found on a dirt road off of Alabama Highway 21 in Lowndes County.

The police determined that Lee was a chief suspect based upon reports that he was seen driving Girdner’s white Mercedes on the day of the murders and the last call made to Girdner’s phone was from a number belonging to Lee’s mother.

Lee’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, testified that on June 3, Lee took Hamilton home in a white Mercedes that had a skateboard and a bag in the back.

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Moorer testified that her children had similar items with them when she left them with Girdner. Lee’s fingerprints were also found inside Girdner’s vehicle.

Lee told several people that he murdered Girdner but not the children.

Curtis Robinson, who was incarcerated with Lee in Autauga County, testified that Lee “went there to commit burglary and it turned to something else.”

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Robinson testified that Lee told him he killed Girdner and the two children.

Lowndes County District Attorney Charlotte Tesmer’s office prosecuted this case and obtained a guilty verdict. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Lee subsequently sought to have his conviction reversed on appeal.

The Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division handled the case during the appeals process, arguing for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Lee’s convictions.

Alabama Attorney General Marshall commended Assistant Attorney General John Davis for his successful work on this case and thanked the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney and her staff for their valuable assistance in defending the capital murder conviction.

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