CHICAGO—Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has commuted the sentences of seven convicted murderers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to documents sent to The Epoch Times by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
Six of them are now out on parole, some of them having served less than half of their sentences.
Although Illinois governors have long had virtually unchecked power to grant clemency, Pritzker’s use of this power now is unprecedented in the state. And he’s facing pressure to explain his reasoning.
In the past, convicted murderers have had their sentences commuted in Illinois, but not to the extent of Pritzker’s recent commutations. For example, Pritzker’s predecessor, Bruce Rauner, granted sentence commutations for two convicted murderers.
One had his sentence shortened from life in prison to 70 years. The other essentially had 17 years shaved off his prison time, but still had to serve 58 years.
By contrast, one of the prisoners Pritzker let out on parole, Alma Durr, had only served about 20 years of a life sentence for killing her child.
State Senate Republicans wrote a letter to Pritzker on April 16 asking for his reasoning behind all of the commutations, but particularly Durr’s. “Ms. Durr took a revolver, held it to her 21-month-old son Darryl’s head, and pulled the trigger,” they wrote.
“A news story from the trial indicated that Darryl moaned and suffered but did not die for another two hours. … [Darryl] will never get to see his 50th birthday. His murderer, at 50 years-old, will be leaving a prison that currently has no inmates infected with COVID-19 (according to IDOC’s website). She had been sentenced to life.”
Pritzker ‘Less Than Transparent’
Pritzker has answered media questions on the topic evasively, said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
“He avoided the question and chose to be less than transparent,” Wojcicki told The Epoch Times. “We have asked him in emails for an explanation—before making any public statement—but we cannot even get anyone in the governor’s office to get back to us.”
The call for transparency was echoed by some House Republicans on April 27 who wanted to know Pritzker’s reasoning.
During a press briefing on April 21, a reporter asked Pritzker why he had released convicted killers.
He replied, “I want to keep the risk to people across the state of Illinois as low as possible—the risk of catching COVID-19 and the risks that might occur from someone who has done something wrong in their past.
“So every time I consider a situation of somebody who’s asking for a pardon or a commutation of their sentence, I’m taking into account how to make sure we’re keeping the risk extraordinarily low.”
He said he has granted commutations to prisoners with terminal cancer so they can spend their last days with their families.
Pritzker did not make it clear, however, if any of the recently released prisoners are terminally ill. He finished his statement with a return to the issue of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
Wojcicki said, “The governor did not say in his statement that the people with cancer, or how many people with cancer, are in the group of murderers and other violent felons who have been released. He just mentioned why he would commute the sentence of someone with cancer.”
Pritzker also did not specify if any of the released prisoners were at higher risk for COVID-19. Four of the released prisoners were from prisons with no reported cases of COVID-19. Their ages varied; the youngest was 28 years old.
One of the seven inmates, Victoria McCue, did reportedly die of cancer shortly after her release, according to a statement by Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey cited by The Telegraph.
Pritzker granted a total of 20 commutations of sentences in March and April, including the seven convicted murderers and others convicted of a variety of crimes, some violent—aggravated battery, armed robbery, involuntary manslaughter, drug trafficking.
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board advises the governor on clemency petitions, though the governor has the ultimate power to make the decisions. Jason Sweat, the board’s chief legal counsel, told The Epoch Times that the recommendations the board makes on particular petitions are confidential under state law and he could not discuss them.
But he did say that, although the governor made the decisions for release recently, the hearings on some of the petitions happened last year. “A number of them were heard in public hearings as far back as January and April last year,” Sweat said.
The board generally makes its recommendations to the governor within 60 days of the hearings, and the governor is not under any deadline to respond.
Each of the recent clemency cases had its nuances, some of which may have motivated the governor’s decision aside from the COVID-19 risk. Advocacy groups, including the Innocence Project, argued for some of the releases last year.
For example, the Innocence Project provided an attorney to one of the convicted, Marilyn Mulero, and argued that her confession was coerced.
Mulero, now 50 years old, was convicted of a murder in 1992. Pritzker released her on parole April 8, having served 27 years of her life sentence. She will be fully discharged in 2023.
She and an accomplice had allegedly lured two gang members to a park and shot them in the head.
An Innocence Project summary of her case, published after her clemency hearing before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in October 2019, reads: “[Mulero] was wrongfully convicted of a 1992 double murder in Chicago.
“Her attorney, who had never handled a murder case, conducted no investigation and spent very little time with Marilyn, convinced her to take an ‘open plea’—which required her to admit guilt without a sentencing offer on the table.”
The Project also alleges that police manipulated her into a false confession and that her co-defendant has taken full responsibility for the murders.
Mulero was held in Logan Correctional Center, which does not have any reported cases of COVID-19.
Carl Reed, 59, is another of the convicted murderers recently released on parole; his sentence would have been finished in seven more years.
The Innocence Project posted on Facebook about the release: “Our client Carl Reed … has been granted a compassionate release and had his sentence commuted by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker.
“Carl had extensive pre-existing health conditions that put him at high risk of serious illness or death if he contracted COVID-19 in prison.”
BREAKING NEWS!!! Our client Carl Reed, who served 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, has been granted a…
Kwayera Jackson, 40, was released by Pritzker on parole April 10 after serving half of his 40-year sentence for the murder of his 5-month-old son.
Advocates for Jackson have argued that he could have accepted a plea deal for 20 years, but did not do so, and thus received a 40-year sentence.
Jackson was an 18-year-old star athlete who had given up a sports scholarship to help raise his son when his girlfriend became pregnant in 1998, according to a website set up in his name.
He had allegedly tried strength-training his baby, leading to the baby’s death by internal bleeding.
A Change.org petition calling for his release states, “His youthful incompetency at parenting was what led to the death of his child, not that he was a cold-hearted murderer. Losing a child as a result of his own actions is something Kwayera has lived with.”
Bethalto Mayor Alan Winslow, who was the lead investigator on the case told The Telegraph that Jackson showed no remorse and lied during the investigation. Testimony at the time suggested Jackson let the child linger in pain before he died.
Brian Harrington Jr., 28, is the youngest of the prisoners released on parole by Pritzker. He was 14 years old when he was sentenced to 25 years for first-degree murder. He has served only 13 years of that sentence.
He allegedly killed 19-year-old Brad Berogan in “what police call a gun sale gone bad,” according to a WIFR news report from that time.
Advocates for Harrington have argued for clemency, in part because of how young he was at the time of the crime. He was being held at Dixon Correctional Center, which had no reported cases of COVID-19.
Taurean Giles, released on parole by Pritzker on April 8, was 17 years old when he and two others broke into a home and killed the owner, 32-year-old Kyle Juggins.
Juggins was asleep next to his girlfriend and toddler when Giles entered the home, according to a Chicago Tribune article from that time. That was in 2003, and he received a 20-year sentence, so he was relatively close to completing his sentence when he received clemency this year.
While it remains unclear to what extent the COVID-19 risk alone contributed to the clemency for each of these convicted murderers, the Illinois Department of Corrections told The Epoch Times the state has released more than 960 convicts due to virus concerns.
Prisoner releases have been happening, amid controversy, across the United States and the world.
The release of convicted murderers, however, remains unusual. But Pritzker isn’t the only one to do it.
Patricia Wenskunas, founder and chief executive of the Crime Survivors Resource Center, is among the voices speaking out against this action.
“COVID-19 or the Coronavirus, should not be used as an excuse to release criminals from jail,” she wrote in a post on the organization’s website. “Using this public emergency to achieve the misguided social justice objective of emptying our jails is shameful,” she said.
The Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago had a similar message for Pritzker in an April 15 open letter. It accused the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of influencing the state to broaden the scope of prisoner releases, which were initially limited to low-level crimes.
Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, released a statement on April 16: “Illinois prisoners are dying because they are held in conditions that often are unsanitary and rarely allow for social distancing.” She said releasing prisoners protects other detainees, prison staff, and the surrounding community.
Kevin Graham, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, told The Epoch Times, “If we have no penalties for the crimes that we commit, then the law doesn’t mean anything. And eventually people will disobey the law.”
Update: This article has been updated to list Carl Reed’s age as 59. A previous version listed his age as 50. The Epoch Times regrets the error.