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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Outliving a 'life' sentence

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Thomas Hagan had been in prison longer than any other murderer I was aware of, before being released after forty-five years. It turns out that he was beat out by at least one person, a woman named Betty Smithey, who was sentenced in 1963 to life in prison without parole.

As I predicted, "life in prison without parole" only means that if the life in question happens to be shorter than average. Upon reaching the ripe old age of sixty-nine, Betty was judged to be no longer a danger to society, and has been released after forty-nine years in the Arizona penal system.

I'm still not aware of anyone in America who has served even fifty years of a life sentence for murder.

As mentioned in an update to the earlier post, William Heirens pleaded guilty in order to escape a possible execution in 1946--back before they stopped executing everyone convicted of murder in open court. His youth, combined with the youth of his alleged victims' family members, enabled him to serve sixty-five years in prison without ever being approved for parole over the objections of the survivors. So I need to change that last sentence to:

 I'm still not aware of anyone in America who has served even fifty years of a "life sentence" handed down following conviction by a jury--whether or not it was a "life sentence without possibility of parole." And I expect that number to continue to drop.

Given that the US is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to a "life sentence without possibility of parole," and the mandatory five-year review sounds suspiciously like a parole hearing, I don't see how anyone will ever break Heirens' record.

Obviously, Charles Manson has now died in prison, never having been released for the murder of Sharon Tate. But to further qualify my statement, I am now aware of someone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which has not executed a murderer since 1964, a mere four months after the murder in question) who has died after fifty-one years of incarceration: Ian Brady, who died on 15 May 2017 at the Ashworth Psychiatric Hospital just outside of Liverpool. Speaking of Ian Brady, sentenced for a series of murders in the early 1960's, the Lord Chief Justice said in 1982, "this is the case if ever there is to be one when a man should stay in prison till he dies." Whether future Justices will ever apply this standard to a future killer is not assured, but Ian Brady was not the first Brit to have served over fifty years of a life sentence; John Straffen had died in 2007 after fifty-five years behind walls for the murder of three little girls, the last of whom he had killed only minutes after escaping from the mental hospital to which he had been remanded for the murders of the first two. Thus it appears that in order to stay in prison/insane asylum that long, one has to convince the authorities that he is crazy enough to do it again if released. Currently no one incarcerated in the UK has a minimum sentence of over fifty years.

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