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4 Iowa ‘lifers’ await a rare break from governor

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Denise Rhode speaks during a Sept. 2 sentence commutation hearing from the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. Rhode told the Iowa Board of Parole she has "changed a lot" from January 1989 when she was accused and later convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment in the death of her nephew, whom she was babysitting with her own three children in Norwalk. The parole board unanimously recommended that her life sentence be commuted, but it is rare for governors to agree. 

DES MOINES — Four inmates serving life sentences in Iowa prisons have hopes of someday breathing free air once again.

Those hopes rest with getting Gov. Kim Reynolds to agree to commute their sentences but, if history is any indicator, they face long odds at best.

Prison “lifers” Denise Rhode, Gary Bear, Otis Jenkins and Jerry Osborn applied for commutation and cleared the first hurdle when the Iowa Board of Parole unanimously recommended the governor consider reducing their sentences to a period of years, making them potentially eligible for eventual release.

The governor already in August rejected the board’s recommendation that she grant a request from inmate Clyde Johnson, 88, to commute the life sentence he began serving in 1969 for a first-degree murder conviction in Polk County.

“Objectively, every governor has been very reticent to grant commutation because it is an extraordinary remedy,” said Andrew Boettger, chair of the Iowa Board of Parole. Dating to former Govs. Terry Branstad, Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver, he noted, “there just haven’t been a lot of commutation grants. For good reason because it’s not something, in my opinion, that should be handed out lightly.”

Commutation — a form of clemency in which a governor converts a mandatory life sentence into a fixed-length term with a possibility of parole — is rare in Iowa, with governors reducing the legal penalty for only 40 people in the last 52 years. Most of the commutations cut mandatory life sentences to fixed-length terms with a possibility of parole. The most recent case was in 2013 when Branstad commuted the life prison term of Rasberry Williams, who was convicted of first-degree murder in a 1974 shooting outside a Waterloo pool hall and paroled in 2014.

The latest parole board recommendations were based on remorse and ownership demonstrated by the inmates for their capital offenses, their complying with prison rules during their incarcerations, taking steps to better themselves while in prison by developing employable skills and improving their educational achievement, and having a plan if they are released to be productive citizens and avoid the propensity to reoffend. No representatives for the victims spoke at any of the four separate video commutation hearings with the inmates — who are allowed to petition for a commutation hearing once every 10 years.

“There’s lots of criteria: amount of time served, what kind of rehabilitation, what have you done for programming in the institution — we’re looking for substantive change in the person,” said Boettger.

“In essence, these are the riskiest people to have loose in public if they were to reoffend,” he added, “so we have to ask really hard questions.”

In pre-pandemic days, the board has turned down 42 lifers’ applications and 15 were subject to split board votes that failed to move the inmate requests to the governor’s desk, Boettger noted. As of the end of September, there were 745 inmates incarcerated in Iowa serving mandatory life prison terms without the possibility for parole on a Class A felony conviction, according to the state Department of Corrections.

At her Sept. 2 commutation hearing, Rhode told board members she has "changed a lot" from January 1989 when she was accused and later convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment in the death of her nephew, Matthew, whom she was babysitting with her own three children in Norwalk. She told the five-member panel she lifted up Matthew in frustration when he was crying and could not be consoled and she swung him through her legs by his feet, causing the child's head to hit the bed frame. He died a few days later.

“It took me years to accept the truth,” the mother told the state board.

"I know that I was immature. I know that I was irresponsible at that time and my emotions got the best of me and that’s what brought me here," she said.

"I’ve learned my strengths, my weaknesses, my triggers. I make better choices and judgments than I made years ago," added Rhode, who earned an apprenticeship in cleaning and an associate of arts degree during her years behind bars. "I feel like I could be a productive person in society one day."

Likewise, Jenkins said he has matured after living in foster home situations during a tough growing up period that culminated in a 1985 sexual assault in Emmet County that landed him a life prison term.

“I was an arrogant young man at 19,” Jenkins told his July 28 commutation panel. “I believe I’ve matured significantly in that 35 years of time.”

He said he earned an associate of arts degree and spent hours honing his woodworking skills while trying to stay out of trouble.

“Every chance I’ve had, I tried to better myself,” he added.

“I believe I have matured and grown up. I’m not the same person that I was. I’m sorry for what I did,” said Jenkins, who hoped he would get the opportunity to spend time with his mother “before she passes” if he is granted a release.

Osborn broke down talking about the events that led up to a 1988 incident in which he and two other co-defendants talked an acquaintance into giving them a ride to a party but then shot and robbed him in a rural area, which netted the inmate a kidnapping conviction from the Scott County incident.

“I know what I did was horrible,” he told an Aug. 5 commutation panel. “I regret it every day, what I did. There is no excuse for what I did. I apologize. If I could take it back, I would.”

During his July 28 hearing, Bear said he has faced his “demons from Vietnam” in battling post-traumatic stress disorders while in prison, saving up $14,000 in hopes of eventually gaining release and living in Keokuk with his wife of three years.

“I’m not the same man I was 40 years ago,” he said in talking about a November 1981 crime for which he was convicted of first-degree kidnapping

The board’s commutation interviews and pertinent documents were delivered to the governor’s office in August and September. She has 90 days to decide the pending applications.

In denying Johnson’s application earlier this year, Reynolds wrote in an Aug. 25 letter to the Anamosa State Penitentiary inmate seeking release after 52 years that her review concluded the “extraordinary remedy” of commutation was not appropriate.

“I cannot commute your sentence when the facts you relayed in your most recent parole interview changed substantially from what you told the board in your 2008 interview,” the governor wrote.

In August 2020, Reynolds — who has not commuted any life sentences since she took office in May 2017 — denied the commutation request of Judy White, a now 75-year-old grandmother convicted in a 1979 murder-for-hire plot in West Branch.

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