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Violent crimes focus of Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles public information

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles since November sent messages in tweets and press releases about those convicted of violent crimes, and nearly nothing on non-violent offenders seeking paroles. 

Since parole hearings resumed that month the tone of the Bureau’s social media posts changed from informational to something much closer to fear-mongering, full of language about violence and details of past crimes. 

APR last week began asking questions about the agency’s focus on violent crimes, and on Monday the tone of the Bureau’s press release on upcoming hearings changed again. Gone was the focus on violent crimes, and in its place was information on all incarcerated people scheduled for hearings, serving time for both violent and non-violent crimes. 

The Bureau’s focus on spreading messages about violence criminals has some worried that the the agency is purposefully pushing a narrative that the entirety of the state’s prison population is too dangerous to reenter society, and at a time when Gov. Kay Ivey continues to push for construction of three new mega-prisons to ease overcrowding. 

In October state prisons were at 170 percent of capacity, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics. 

Previous attempts by lawmakers to gain support for a bond issuance to pay for new prisons failed. Ivey announced in February 2019 her plan to build the prisons through a build-lease partnership with private companies, which would not require the state to borrow the lump sum to build. 

The state faces the possibility of a federal takeover of its prisons, which are plagued with violence and overcrowding, problems detailed in a report in April by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Alabama may be in violation of prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protections due to rampant sexual abuse, assaults, homicides and suicides. 

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“What is coming out of Pardons and Paroles, from the newsletter that they send out to the tweets and that website, it’s all propaganda. It’s straight up propaganda at its finest,” said Dillon Nettles, a policy analyst at ACLU of Alabama, speaking to APR by phone last week. “They are essentially trying to relitigate these cases, and not just in front of the board, but in the court of public opinion.” 

Of 106 tweets by the Bureau’s official account in January, 90 included information about violent crimes and used the word “violence” in hashtags and in the body of the texts. Many give the details of past crimes. Press releases issued by the agency since November centered around parole denials for those convicted of violent crimes. 

“If you look at Georgia, Tennessee and you look at Mississippi, you will not see any language rhetoric like this coming out of their parole boards on their website on their social media,” Nettles said. “It’s just not a common thing.” 

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In a review of more than two dozen state pardons and parole board social media accounts across the country, no other state agency focuses as Alabama’s agency does on violent offenders. Many other state agencies had no social media accounts, and some appeared inactive for long periods of time.

Most of those state agencies responsible for parole decisions use social media to inform the public of office closures, employee appreciation matters, state government happenings and law enforcement news. 

Several states, including New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia, used social media to publish information on programs that help incarcerated people reenter society and successfully keep from returning. 

The Bureau’s new director, Charlie Graddick, a former circuit judge, state attorney general and architect of Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act appointed to his post in July, 2019, describe the state’s inmates in op-eds and in interviews as too dangerous to be paroled. Graddick told reporters in January that “we don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. They just don’t.”

Terry Abbott, a communications liaison for Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to the Bureau, explained to APR last week that it’s all about giving the public what they want. 

“We cover the violent offenders because of public and community and media interest in the issue of violent crime,” Abbott wrote in a message to APR in response to questions about the messaging. “The news releases are only about the violent offenders. There are many inmates considered for parole who do not have violent offenses on their records. In the news releases you’re only reading about the violent offenders.” 

Abbott in a follow-up message to APR said that each Monday a new release lists all the violent offenders who are to be considered for parole that week, and on hearing days additional news releases announce the three-member board’s decision on those cases 

“We report which violent offenders were granted parole and which were denied. So none of the violent offenders are left out,” Abbott said. 

Asked whether he could provide APR with any requests from the public seeking regular information on incarcerated people serving for convictions of violent crimes, Abbott explained that it wasn’t a matter of  public requests, but one of “broad, general public, media, public official interest in the issue of violent crime that affects communities far and wide.”  

“Look at any newspaper and you’ll see coverage of such crimes. Newspapers all over Alabama publish stories about violent crime, including parole board decisions about violent offenders,” Abbott said in the message. “The issue is discussed frequently in social media. Public officials frequently talk with concern about violent crime. The broad public interest in the issue is clear and obvious.”

“I think they’re selecting what they want the public to be interested in,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R- Alabaster, speaking to APR by phone last week. “I think releasing all the information is good. That way the general public can decide for themselves what’s important and what’s not.” 

Ward said he’s not comfortable telling the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles how to operate their agency, but that “more transparency is better.” 

“Regardless of who you’re paroling, make a full and complete list. I think that only helps them in their job, and I think it helps the general public have a better education about what they do and  what’s going on there,” Ward said. 

It’s unclear who was responsible for the Bureau’s decision to focus on violent criminals in publicly released information. Asked whether Graddick had requested that change, Abbott said “No he did not” and declined to discuss the matter further. 

Unlike other Bureau employees, Abbott’s salary is paid through Ivey’s office, according to state records. He was appointed by Ivey as her office’s communications liaison to the Bureau on Aug. 28, 2019, and was to start the job on September 1, according to Abbott’s letter of appointment from Ivey, which sets his pay at $86,424 annually. 

It was unclear whether the position of a communications liaison for Ivey’s office to the Bureau was a newly-created position for Abbott. Ivey’s office, through a spokeswoman, declined to answer questions on the record about Abbott’s employment, and referred questions to the Alabama Personnel Department. 

Tara Hetzel, an attorney with the state State Personnel Department, in a message to APR on Monday said that Ivey can hire and assign employees to the Bureau as needed. 

“While this is not done often, it’s definitely not unusual,” Hetzel said, adding that one other Bureau staffer, Olan Tucker, was also hired to work at the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

Abbott is the only Bureau employee being paid by Ivey’s office, however, according to state records. Olan Tucker, who goes by the name Skip, is paid by the Bureau itself, according to those records, and began receiving paychecks in October 2019. 

Skip Tucker, former news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle and former communications staff for Graddick in years past, wrote an op-ed last year on Graddick’s appointment praising his former boss as a man tough on criminals. 

“Graddick’s back. Those two words are fraught with meaning for those who run badly afoul of the law, especially on a routine basis. For the habitually violent criminal, the words are heavy with nothing but trouble. He wrote Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act,” Tucker wrote in an op-ed published by Alabama Daily News on Aug. 1, 2019. 

Days after he began at the Bureau, Graddick suspended paroles hearings citing problems with the agency’s victim notification process. 

Former Pardons and Parole Board chair Lyn Head told APR earlier this month that the board was issuing notices as required by state law ,and denied Graddick’s allegation to the contrary. Head resigned from the board in September. 

Hearings resumed in November, but the number of people being seen by the board dropped dramatically. During November and December of 2019 just 17 people were granted parole, according to the ACLU of Alabama.  

Abbott told APR last month that the agency was ramping up those hearings and had a target of about 540 hearings set for March, substantially more than the 150 hearings that were scheduled for January. 

Nettles at the ACLU of Alabama told APR that he would not be surprised if the rhetoric about violent offenders coming out of the Bureau and drop in the number of people being paroled isn’t meant to build public and legislative support for the three new prisons. 

“That has been the only solution that we’ve heard from the governor’s office so far to address this prison crisis since the DOJ report came out,” Nettles said, adding that the DOJ report made clear that new prison construction wouldn’t solve all of Alabama’s prison problems.  

“And it is clear that it is created with a motivation and intentionality behind it to steer public opinion towards people being fearful, or towards people being in favor of more punitive policies and less reform,” Nettles said.

It was unclear Monday if the Bureau’s new press release, which contained information on all incarcerated people instead of just those convicted of violent crimes, was evidence of a decision to remove the focus on violent crimes in publicly released information.

“The new format is for efficiency, as we increase the number of hearings each week,” Abbott said in a message to APR on Monday afternoon. “It provides all the the basic information to the media and lets them know where to find additional information.”

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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