Readers Go Before Parole Board

By: Joe Strupp

At the Rockford (Ill.) Register-Star, online readers can do more than just follow the parole efforts of some of the area’s most notorious convicted killers. They can also have a say in whether these criminals should go free.

Since 2006, the daily paper has used its Web site to let readers contact the state parole board when certain convicts are facing parole. On four occasions since the beginning of 2008, the Register-Star has placed online “petitions” on its Web site related to the pending parole hearing of a specific convicted murderer. In each case, readers are asked to sign a petition either favoring or opposing the prisoner’s release. The results are e-mailed directly to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The paper offers this option “because we believe we are a voice for the voiceless,” says Anna Voelker, assistant managing editor/online and a member of the paper’s editorial board. “We started it about two years ago, but this year has seen the most at one time.” In each case, online readers are asked to fill out a form with their personal information and whether they favor or oppose parole for the specified prisoner. Each is warned that their name will become part of a public record. Results are then sent electronically to the parole review board.

The first such petition for 2008 surrounded the parole hearing of Robert Henry Lower, whose murder of Joey Didier in 1975 had special meaning to the paper: Didier was a Register-Star delivery boy. Before Lower was denied parole in January, nearly 4,000 petition e-mails opposing his parole were sent through the paper’s Web site, with fewer than 30 supporting parole. “There are always thousands of responses,” says Editor Linda Grist Cunningham. “The opportunity to express opinions is a big deal.”

In February, Curtis Brownell, convicted in the 1977 murder of 17-year-old Louise Betts, came up for parole ? and lost his bid. That denial came after 1,900 opposition petition e-mails via the paper’s Web site, against about 20 in favor, Voelker says. Since then, the paper has been running two more online petitions related to the potential parole of cop killer Theodore Bacino, convicted of murder in 1974, and Simon P. Nelson, who was convicted in the 1978 murders of his six children. In late June, both were denied as well.

Bacino’s rejection followed some 1,546 online petition e-mails sent via the paper’s Web site opposing his release, compared to 50 in favor. For Nelson, about 2,024 e-mails were forwarded to the review board by readers seeking to deny his release, with fewer than 30 in favor.

“You could fill one out 10 times, but that doesn’t really happen,” says Voelker. Cunningham says the approach is a clear public service: “It is our way of helping residents.”

According to Jorge Montes, chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, the petition e-mails are noticed: “The input is useful,” he says, even though the anti-parole response has become quite predictable. “There is no question that we give it weight, and it makes us think twice about an individual.”

The paper actually began the effort in print in the early 1990s. Since Didier’s murder more than 30 years ago, Cunningham says the paper took special interest in the annual parole hearings for Lower because his victim had been part of the Register-Star family. “Ever year, since 1975, we have written a story or editorial about Joey,” the editor says. “The parole for his killer is a yearly thing.” Each year has brought another editorial opposing his parole.

In the early 1990s, the paper began printing coupons with the anti-Lower editorials, which asked readers who also opposed his parole to fill them out and send them to the paper. Those were forwarded to the review board. “As we got more fluent in being able to do things [online], we pushed it to the Web,” Cunningham says. “It is giving people an opportunity to speak out, and a little bit of control over something they feel passionate about.”

Cunningham adds that the paper wanted to make sure the Web approach was fair, offering both opponents and supporters of each parole subject an equal chance to express their opinions. But, she says, the online e-mails are overwhelmingly from people who oppose the paroles. The petitions are also only done for serious murder convictions, involving local crimes.

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