By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Through the first 11½ months of Eliot Spitzer's now threatened reign as governor, 220 murderers, kidnappers, and arsonists were paroled. Although this rate was about 250 percent higher than the yearly average of 67 such prisoners paroled under George Pataki's harsh regime, hardly anyone noticed.
So Spitzer didn't have to explain that a driving force behind the dramatic increase in paroles of what correction bureaucrats call "A-1 felons" was that he'd inherited what seemed an unbeatable lawsuit alleging that Pataki's "political and economic agendas virtually eliminated parole" for such prisoners.
When an inmate seeks release from prison, the parole board is required by law to consider the inmate's disciplinary record, accomplishments in prison, acceptance of responsibility for the original crime, and post-prison plans. But the lawsuit argued that the denials made by Pataki's boards "were based solely upon the violent nature" of the crimes committed. With Pataki's boards releasing an average of only 8.6 percent of parole-eligible A-1 felons in the past 12 years, the suit looked like a winner for prisoners and their advocates.
In fact, Robert Isseks, one of the lawyers who filed the suit, told the Voice that they had quietly reached an agreement with Spitzer's people last fall calling for about 1,000 A-1 felons to have immediate rehearings at which the board would consider all of the criteria set forth in the parole law, not just the seriousness of the crimes. "It was settled except for putting it on paper," Isseks says.
That was before three parole-board members traveled to Shawangunk Prison in Wallkill last November 13 for the parole hearing of inmate No. 74A2617, Shu'aib Abdur Raheem, who has been locked up for more than three decades after a notorious cop-killing and siege in Harlem in 1973.
Raheem, now 58, has been a model prisoner, by all accounts, and the board recommended parole. Then the cops, who have long memories, struck back and not only killed Raheem's parole, but also scuttled the lawsuit settlement that sought to change Pataki's draconian policy toward prisoners.
Raheem, a Black Muslim who claimed he feared violence from other Black Muslims, and three other men tried to rob a Williamsburg sporting-goods store to arm themselves with shotguns and rifles. But cops showed up in the middle of the robbery and surrounded the store. Officer Stephen Gilroy, 29, was shot to death, and two other cops were wounded before Raheem and his cohorts were finally forced to surrender after a two-day standoff.
After being sentenced in 1974 to 25 years to life, Raheem became a model prisoner. Records show that he has not only stayed out of trouble in the joint but has also earned college degrees and worked as a paralegal and AIDS counselor. He told the board that he planned to live with his wife if released and had a job lined up working with at-risk kids.
"I wish I could go back and change that moment, that time, and just not even go in the store," he told the board. He insisted that he didn't shoot any of the officers but only fired over their heads, although that claim had been refuted by at least one hostage. It was essentially the same story that Raheem had told parole boards five times. He had been denied parole each time, and the boards regularly cited the "serious nature of these offenses."
But this time around, Pataki was no longer sheriff, and Spitzer's parole board granted Raheem his parole, telling him that "there is a reasonable probability that you will live and remain at liberty without violating the law."
The decision caught the cops' union by surprise. Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, prodded the daily tabloids into doing breathless stories and fiery editorials blasting Spitzer as being soft on crime and criminals. A Voice analysis determined that 194 of the parolees released by Spitzer had served, on average, six years longer than their minimum sentence. Parole Division spokesman Mark Johnson says of the backlash: "We were simply following the law. I don't understand how following the law is being soft on crime."
As the Raheem controversy built, Spitzer buckled. The government's lawyers nixed the deal to have rehearings for 1,000 A-1 felons, putting the lawsuit back on track for a trial.
Meanwhile, the PBA lawyers exploited a loophole that sabotaged Raheem's case. Technically, the victims and their families didn't have the right to testify at Raheem's hearing. But the board bowed to political pressure and overruled itself, suspending Raheem's parole and scheduling a hearing for victims' impact statements. And those statements poured in from the dead cop's family, his partner, the wounded cops, and even the store owner.
The union lawyers invoked a sex-offender registration law just to give Raheem another hoop to jump through in case he did get paroled—even though no sex offenses occurred during the standoff and shooting.
On February 8, the parole board rescinded Raheem's release. He will now face a rare "rescission hearing" in an attempt to restore his parole. A date has yet to be set.
How will the Raheem controversy affect the state's stance on paroles? Some argue that Pataki's extraordinarily tough stance was merely overcompensation after a contributions-for-parole scandal during his 1998 re-election campaign led to the convictions of three of his parole-board employees.
Isseks, the attorney who almost reached the settlement with the state before the Raheem controversy broke, points out that in 2006, it was Spitzer, as the state's attorney general, who defended Pataki in the suit filed on behalf of the inmates seeking paroles.