Governor gives Iowa murderer chance at parole
IOWA CITY – Iowa’s governor made a rare move Friday by commuting the life sentence of an inmate who has been in prison for 38 years for killing his neighbor, saying the man has an “extraordinary record” behind bars that included saving the lives of two guards during a hostage situation.
Gov. Terry Branstad granted the commutation request from Rasberry Williams after hearing from a prosecutor, prison officials and former inmates who supported it. The Board of Parole recommended the move earlier this year, noting Williams had mentored other inmates and convinced a fellow inmate in 1979 to put down a knife and turn himself in after taking two prison guards hostage.
The move allows the 67-year-old Williams to seek parole.
“He has made the most of his life and has had a positive impact on the lives of both inmates and Department of Corrections’ staff,” Branstad wrote in a letter announcing the decision. The governor noted that the victim’s relatives said they’ve forgiven Williams.
Williams fatally shot his neighbor, Lester Givhan, outside a pool hall after the two argued over a $30 gambling debt in July 1974. Williams claimed self-defense but was convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Iowa governors have commuted the life sentences of 15 inmates in the last three decades. Branstad, who has been governor for 18 years including his time in the office in the 1980s and ’90s, has made such a move only three times – his last in 1992.
Williams could not be reached for comment Friday, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta. But the commutation enables him to be considered for work-release or parole. Branstad asked that the Parole Board consider some conditions if it releases Williams, including that he avoid drugs, alcohol and gambling, and find employment.
Scaletta said the parole board had not yet scheduled a hearing to review Williams’ case.
In making his decision, Branstad said he considered input from Givhan’s family and testimony that Williams’ “behavior and improvement have been extraordinary.”
The victim’s cousin, 68-year-old Lee Reed of Waterloo, said he believed the governor considered the right factors in making the decision. Reed had urged the governor during a hearing last month to make his decision based on public safety, but also said the family had forgiven Williams and hoped he would make a positive difference in the community if released.
On Friday, Reed said he was “at peace” with those comments, saying he “voiced what I felt at the time. It was in the hands of the governor.”
“I’m not going to really give an opinion about the decision,” he said. “I’ll just let it go as is. I’m not going to say I’m happy about it or not happy.”
Commutation expert Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, praised Branstad’s decision and the process he used to reach it, noting that the public hearing he held last month was highly unusual but allowed everyone’s voice to be heard. Osler also said it was rare that an inmate’s “heroics within the prison” would play a large role in a commutation decision.
“It’s such an unusual case that it sounds like it got the individualized attention that it merited, both from the public hearing that was held to the attention the governor seems to have given it,” he said.
For Williams, the decision had been more than a decade in the making, spanning the administrations of three governors. He initially applied for commutation in 2000, submitting supportive letters from the judge who oversaw his trial and the inmate whose life he saved.
Then-Gov. Tom Vilsack denied Williams’ commutation request in 2006, citing concerns that he had been disciplined for gambling activities in prison, which Williams denied. His successor, Gov. Chet Culver, reviewed Williams’ commutation file during his final days in office in 2011 but didn’t act.
This time, the attorney who prosecuted Williams, David Dutton, supported commutation, which he had earlier opposed.
“He has comported himself as a model citizen, albeit under very difficult conditions,” Dutton said last month. “I think that’s a sign of a changed person and a person that is not going to be a threat to society.”