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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Already a long shot, clemency process tests families and inmates looking for a break

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Koby Bluitt stood in front of a small crowd gathered under the hot July sun with a piece of her incarcerated father stamped across the front of her shirt.

“TRUTH NEVER DIES,” the top says in all caps. “IT’S ONLY REDISCOVERED.”

It’s a quote from 45-year-old Leon Benson, who has been in prison since 1999. Benson was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the death of Kasey Schoen, and his earliest release date is in 2029. Benson and his family have maintained his innocence.

Bluitt, who calls Benson her father but said she isn’t his biological daughter, helped organize a rally July 25 outside of the MLK Center to bring attention to Benson’s efforts to be released from the Correctional Industrial Facility near Pendleton.

“He taught me how to be left-handed,” she said. “He used to sing to me when I was in my mama’s womb.”

First up was the good news: Bluitt said the Conviction Integrity Unit within the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office agreed to review Benson’s case. The unit takes cases that may have resulted in a wrongful conviction.

Then came the more complicated part of Benson’s journey: clemency. Benson filed for clemency in late 2020, but it can be an agonizingly slow process for people who are incarcerated and their families.

“It is extremely difficult and can be very traumatizing,” said Nick Greven, a member of Indiana Department of Corrections Watch, which helped organize the event.

What is clemency?

Clemency is an umbrella term that refers to reducing or altering a sentence for a criminal conviction, though it doesn’t affect the conviction. The last time Gov. Eric Holcomb granted clemency was in November 2019, when he commuted the sentence of Berto Dooley, who was in prison for cocaine possession.

The five-member Indiana Parole Board conducts monthly clemency hearings — virtual for now because of the pandemic — and makes a recommendation to the governor, the only person with the power to grant clemency. The board’s recommendation is non-binding.

The board typically receives about 50 petitions each year, Vice Chair Charles Miller said. The number of people who get a hearing every month varies — the high this year is five — and Miller said that’s in part because the board has other responsibilities outside of clemency.

Clemency is not supposed to be a quick process, Miller said, because it’s not as simple as reweighing the evidence of a case and telling the governor what they think. If the recommendation is to grant clemency, that also means going to the victim or victim’s family and telling them the sentence was wrong or that the person responsible for the crime has been reformed.

Plus, the board has to locate and reach out to victims, judges and prosecutors to make sure they have a right to express their opinion.

“Clemency is an executive check on the judicial branch,” Miller said. “It is designed to be used sparingly and after great consideration. If you are going to say someone else got it wrong, you better be right.”

‘He has paid his debt to society’

While the Indiana Parole Board goes through the methodical process of determining if someone deserves clemency, family, friends and supporters have no choice but to wait on the outside.
Patricia Shelton-Trotter, whose husband is serving a 122-year sentence for his involvement in a prison riot in 1985, stays hopeful that something will work in their favor. Christopher Trotter had his clemency hearing in May, and Shelton-Trotter said they haven’t heard anything back yet. It typically takes about six to eight months for a decision.

Trotter, 59, was in the middle of a four-year sentence for theft when a riot broke out. Inmates, including Trotter, stabbed seven corrections officers. Trotter said he acted in defense of another inmate, who was allegedly beaten by guards. His convictions include attempted murder and criminal confinement.

“He has remained strong, faithful to the lord,” Shelton-Trotter said. “He’s done everything possible to get out.

“He has paid his debt to society.”

The waiting game is also difficult for Bluitt, who has the added layer of the Conviction Integrity Unit. The parole board won’t put Benson on the hearing schedule until the CIU makes its decision, according to Miller.

Bluitt said she understands things are more difficult now because of the pandemic, but she also can’t shake the feeling that Benson and others in prison just aren’t valued.

“It lets me know how much the system don’t give a damn,” she said.

Inside a clemency hearing

Thomas Anderson sat at a round table surrounded by white, blank walls as he took questions from the parole board and made his case for why he deserves clemency.

“I have thought I’ve done a good time in prison,” he said. “I’d like to get out of prison as soon as possible.”

Anderson was sentenced to 60 years for murder in 1996, but he told the board it was a “frame job” and that the person he killed isn’t even dead.

“I gotta tell you, Mr. Anderson, this has taken a turn I didn’t see coming,” Miller told him.

Miller later said in an email that was a unique hearing. He estimated the majority of people express guilt of some sort — though they may argue they should have been convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, for example — and at most only 20% say they are completely innocent.

The board asked Anderson about his physical and mental health and if he takes any medications. Anderson said he has diabetes and takes medicine to help him sleep. They asked where he would go if he received clemency (a halfway house) and his education level (dropped out in ninth grade).

“I wasn’t that smart in school,” he told the board.

Anderson had his mask under his chin to talk and spent most of the time leaning on his right hand with his left crossed underneath and shaking.

The board also reminded Anderson about a past diagnosis for schizophrenia, to which Anderson responded the doctor was “full of s–t.”

The board finished the hearing by telling Anderson he had until the end of the month to give them anything else, such as evidence or letters of support, and that they would send their recommendation to the governor after that.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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