Gov. Branstad holds hearing on releasing killer

IOWA CITY – Iowa’s governor has called a rare public hearing Wednesday to gather input on whether he should free an inmate widely credited with turning his life around while serving 38 years in prison for a 1974 murder.

Rasberry Williams, 66, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder after shooting a neighbor over a $30 gambling debt outside a Waterloo pool hall. His decade-long bid to have his sentence commuted to a set number of years so he can become eligible for parole has won the backing of the Iowa Board of Parole, prison wardens, the prosecutor who convicted him and the judge who oversaw his trial.

But the only opinion that matters is that of Gov. Terry Branstad, who called the hearing in Waterloo to allow the public to sound off on the parole board’s 4-0 recommendation that Williams’ sentence be adjusted. Branstad is the third Iowa governor to consider Williams’ request and has until May 4 to accept or reject the board’s recommendation. During 18 years in office spread over three decades, Branstad has commuted the life terms of only two inmates, the last being in 1992.

Williams’ supporters, however, argue the governor should show leniency to reward a remarkable rehabilitation. Prison officials describe Williams as a model inmate who got an education in prison, mentored scores of young offenders and served as a fixture in programs where he warned young people to avoid trouble. And, in what officials call his most noteworthy act, he once intervened to save the lives of prison guards who had been taken hostage by another inmate.

“It’s an extraordinary case, and that’s what makes it so compelling,” said Waterloo attorney David Dutton, who prosecuted Williams but recently came out in support of commutation. “He’s served 38 years and during that time, he’s saved two guards and has comported himself as a model citizen, albeit under very difficult conditions. That, in my view, indicates a person who has truly understood the importance of acting on behalf of others. I think that’s a sign of a changed person, and a person that is not going to be a threat to society.”