New York Times, The Opinion Pages
September 6, 2016
By Jesse Wegman, Editorial Observer
On July 26, John MacKenzie went before the parole board at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y., and made the case, once again, for his freedom. He had been locked up since 1975 for shooting and killing a Long Island police officer, Matthew Giglio, during a bungled robbery attempt. His sentence was 25 years to life — the maximum under state law.
On Aug. 2, he learned that the board had voted 2 to 1 against him. It was the 10th time in 16 years that he had been denied parole.
Later that day, he sent a handwritten letter to his daughter Denise, saying that “they’re hell bent on keeping me in prison” and “I don’t believe I’ll last much longer.”
On Aug. 4, another inmate found Mr. MacKenzie hanging by the neck from a bedsheet tied to the window bars of his cell. He was 70.
John MacKenzie was no ordinary prisoner. In the more than 40 years he spent behind bars, he became one of the most respected inmates in the state’s penal system. He had a spotless disciplinary record. He took full responsibility for the murder of Mr. Giglio. He earned degrees in business and the arts. He started a program to give victims the opportunity to speak directly to inmates about the impact of their crimes. The state’s own risk-assessment program found that he posed little to no risk of re-offending. Prison guards, judges, clergy members and prosecutors wrote letters supporting him.
None of this seemed to matter to the parole board. Because of the seriousness of his crime, one denial said, his release would “undermine respect for the law.” Another referred to “significant community opposition.” The wording would vary, but the message was always the same: Mr. MacKenzie’s sentence, which appeared to give him a real chance at freedom after 25 years, was a sham. No matter what he did to atone for his crime, he was never getting out.
Some see this as a just result, particularly law enforcement groups, which steadfastly opposed Mr. MacKenzie’s release. But New York criminal law provides for the possibility of parole, which is based on the idea that people can change.
Under state law, the parole board is required to weigh a prisoner’s entire history: his degree of remorse, his behavior behind bars and the likelihood that he will be able to live lawfully outside prison. Those factors never got more than a cursory mention, at best, when the board denied Mr. MacKenzie’s requests. In May, a State Supreme Court justice, Maria Rosa, held the board in contempt for failing to give any reason for denying Mr. MacKenzie parole other than the nature of his crime. Justice Rosa wrote that “if parole isn’t granted to this petitioner, when and under what circumstances would it be granted?” She ordered the board to hold a new hearing, with different board members. The state appealed that order. The case was still pending when Mr. MacKenzie killed himself.
Certainly crime victims and police officers should have a voice in the parole process, but they should not have a veto. Otherwise, parole is a meaningless promise.
Some years ago, Mr. MacKenzie wrote an essay about the frustrations of living at the whim of parole commissioners. “If society wishes to rehabilitate as well as punish wrongdoers through imprisonment,” he wrote, then “society — through its lawmakers — must bear the responsibility of tempering justice with mercy. Giving a man legitimate hope is a laudable goal; giving him false hope is utterly inhuman.”
A version of this editorial appears in print on September 6, 2016, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: False Hope and a Needless Death Behind Bars.
For more on John MacKenzie, see RAPPCampaign.com/press