Prisons chief defends parole for officer's killer
ST. PAUL — Minnesota's corrections commissioner defended his decision to parole a prisoner who served 29 years for killing an Oakdale police officer, telling lawmakers Thursday he's bound by the laws that were in place when the murderer was sentenced.
Commissioner Tom Roy told a hearing of the House Public Safety Committee that Timothy Eling was sentenced to life in prison for the 1982 killing of Officer Richard Walton under laws that made him eligible for parole after 17 years. State law was changed in 1993 to mandate life without parole for killing a police officer. But Roy said Eling qualified for parole because he met all legal conditions under the old law, which still applies in his case.
Roy said he would have to "abandon my professional ethics" to disregard that.
The committee chairman, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, disagreed, telling Roy he believes corrections commissioners have enough discretion under the old law to deny parole to the worst offenders. He asked whether there was any crime so severe that Roy would refuse to parole the person who committed it. Roy replied that he doesn't have the authority to impose more severe sentences than those handed down by the courts.
Cornish, the police chief in Lake Crystal, said afterward that he doesn't expect the Legislature will change any laws retroactively as a result of this case, and he believes corrections commissioners need to be the gatekeepers.
"I still think you've got the power to slam the door on this guy," Cornish told Roy.
Eling, 62, is one of 150 Minnesota prisoners serving life sentences who became eligible for parole at 17 years, and one of 468 inmates in the system whose cases have or will come up for parole eventually because they committed their crimes before the state switched to fixed sentences for most offenses in 1980.
Elling is also one of five men convicted in the killings of police officers who are serving sentences under the old law, Corrections Department spokesman John Schadl said. Two of them, Harold Gustafson and Guy Hathaway, were Eling's accomplices, he said. They both had disciplinary problems and were turned down at their last reviews in 2008. Their cases won't be reviewed again until 2013.
Roy said he has reviewed 22 parole applications from life sentences since he became commissioner in January. He has approved two on his own so far and affirmed two paroles granted by his predecessor that took effect earlier this year.
The commissioner testified that holding parole hearings and making those decisions is the hardest thing he does.
"These hearings are dark. They are dark days in my life. They are dark days to the staff that helps me in making decisions. And we take it very, very seriously," he said.
Eling's drug addiction led him to rob a St. Paul hospital pharmacy where Walton, a father of five, was moonlighting off duty as a security guard. He shot Walton in the head when the officer stepped out from an elevator to respond to the burglary call.
Eling won't get out of prison for at least another four years and has told the Star Tribune newspaper he might not live that long because he has cancer. He still needs to finish a consecutive sentence on a 1996 conviction for smuggling drugs into prison before he started to turn his life around. Since then, he's been an acknowledged leader in the restorative justice program at the Stillwater state prison and a mentor to other inmates in the prison's chemical dependency program. Roy said he hates the term "model prisoner," but that Eling has been "a fully compliant offender in every regard" since his previous parole review five years ago.
Much of the discussion centered on the themes of forgiveness and redemption. Former Gov. Al Quie, who has been active in prison ministries, testified what a difference it made when he met with a prisoner who had committed a heinous crime against one of Quie's relatives, and told him he forgave him.
"Folks, there's something important in redemption. I ask you not to take that hope away from people who are in prison," Quie told the committee.
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, who's also been active in prison ministries, told Quie he agrees about the value of forgiveness and redemption, but that offenders must still face the full consequences of what they've done. He said the case shows the need to restore capital punishment in Minnesota.