Mississippi bill changes vote for parole

Published 11:28 pm Monday, April 6, 2009

Convicted sex offenders and murderers will have to meet a higher standard to be paroled in Mississippi under a bill awaiting Gov. Haley Barbour’s signature.

The legislation reauthorizing the state Parole Board changes the vote needed to release inmates convicted of murder or a sexual offense. It currently only takes a simple majority on the five-member board. The bill would require a 4-to-1 vote.

The proposed change is a result of the furor that arose after the board voted 3-2 earlier this year to release Douglas Hodgkin from prison.

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Hodgkin was convicted in 1987 of capital murder in the death of Jean Elizabeth Gillies, a University of Mississippi graduate student in speech pathology. Hodgkin, of Winchester, Ky., was a junior business major at Ole Miss at the time of the slaying.

A version of the bill that passed the Senate last month addressed parole and pardons. The legislation proposed requiring the governor to contact the district attorney’s office where the crime occurred and then schedule the hearing before granting the pardon. It also required a unanimous vote by the board to parole murderers and sex offenders.

Those provisions were eliminated when House and Senate negotiators began work on the conference report, or final version of the bill.

Sen. Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Tupelo, said he voted against the conference report because he believes there should be a unanimous vote “on the most heinous of crimes” before a prisoner is released.

“That was the law when there were three members of the parole board and when it expanded to five, I think that was the intent,” Nunnelee said. “Another reason I voted ’no’ on the bill was because I felt for me to vote in favor of the bill would be a vote of rubber-stamping the status quo.”

Gov. Barbour’s spokesman Dan Turner said the bill is under review and he didn’t know if the governor would sign it.

“I am in favor of House Bill 2 and would hope the governor would sign it into law at his earliest opportunity,” said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.

Bryant said violence touched his family in 1981, when his aunt, Shirley Roberts, was killed at a convenience store. He said if the man convicted of killing his aunt, Willie Albert Smith, were to be released he would “feel angry and sad for my cousins who still feel the loss of their mother each day.”

Hodgkin was to be paroled last month after serving more than 20 years, but another new law delayed his release.

The measure requires felons convicted of capital murder to register as a sex offender if the crime accompanying the murder is a sexual offense.

Hodgkin is still waiting for a new home to be approved for him in Kentucky. It has to comply with Kentucky’s home inspection laws for a released felon.