Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Some Truth About the Kirkland Case

The details trickling out regarding the murder of thirteen year-old Esme Kenney are grisly. Whomever committed this crime engaged in an unspeakably horrific act against humanity. If that person is Anthony Kirkland--the man under arrest and accused of the murder--he will most likely face the harshest sentence allowed under Ohio law, the death penalty.

A trio of commentators have emerged today to use this week's events as an opportunity to raise the possibility that systemic failures in the criminal justice process paved the way for Esme's death. But the Enquirer editorial board, Peter Bronson, and several members of City Council all seem prone to histrionics, exaggeration, and outright falsehoods. So let's see if we can clarify the question they all raise: Why was Kirkland free?

The Enquirer reports that Kirkland was convicted in 1987 of killing his girlfriend and then setting fire to her body. That's obviously a horrible, horrible offense, and perhaps a foreshadowing of the most recent allegations against him. He was sentenced to serve 7 to 25 years in prison. He served 16, and then was paroled. From the editorial board:

Convicted of that killing, he received a 7-25 year sentence, which seems a light sentence given the grisly details of the case. He was paroled in 2003 and released from probation 13 months later. That's one big crack [in the system] - 16 years for intentionally immolating someone.

Should Kirkland have been paroled in 2003? I don't know. I wasn't at the parole hearing. I don't know what influenced the parole board to let him go. (The fact that he spent 16 years in prison for an offense committed while he was a teenager was probably considered by the board.) But this is why Ohio sentencing law changed in the mid-1990's in favor of "truth in sentencing." We don't want parole board members deciding how long a defendant should serve; that's a judge's job. These kinds of indefinite sentences no longer exist. When we hear about people being released early for parole, we're hearing about "old law" cases--that is, offenses committed prior to 1996.

So, what about the years since Kirkland was released from prison? In 2005, he was charged with rape and aggravated burglary. But he went to trial, and a jury found him not guilty. I'm unwilling to fault "the system" for that. In 2007, he was twice charged with crimes. The first time, he was charged with two counts of kidnapping, inducing panic, and endangering children. This is where Bronson jumps the shark:

But he wound up serving just 115 days on two counts of unlawful restraint. One of the charges that was dropped was "endangering children."

Usually, when people talk about charges being "dropped," they're referring to the prosecution dismissing charges. But that's not what happened here. Instead, Kirkland went to trial and was acquitted of endangering children and inducing panic. He was found not guilty of kidnapping, but
guilty of the lesser included offense of unlawful restraint, a misdemeanor.

Later that year, he was arrested for importuning, a felony, and public indecency, a misdemeanor. Again, Kirkland went to trial. He was acquitted of public indecency, but convicted of importuning. And this is where the Enquirer editorial board's handle on the facts goes awry:

He went back to jail for about a year before being paroled again - another crack.

Umm, wrong. He didn't serve his sentence in "jail," he spent it in prison (at least the part of it he hadn't already served by the time his case went to trial). What's more, he was sentenced to the maximum sentence: one year. He was also classified as a sex offender as a result of that conviction. He was not released on parole--parole no longer exists. Instead, once he served his full sentence, he was placed on post-release control, or PRC. PRC is supervised by the Adult Parole Authority and begins after certain offenders have completed their sentence. It is not an alternative to prison. When an offender violates the terms of PRC, the Parole Authority has the option of returning him to prison for up to nine months or half of his prison term, whichever is greater.

And now we get to Kirkland's recent conduct and abode. While on PRC, he was ordered to live at the Volunteers of America halfway house. City Council has complained in the past (and does so again today) of sex offenders being relocated to Cincinnati to live at the VOA. But this isn't what happened in this case. Kirkland was from Cincinnati. Once he served the one-year sentence, he would have returned to Cincinnati. While our leaders are right to be concerned about Cincinnati becoming a "dumping ground" for sex offenders from across the state, that trend did not impact the Kirkland case. And wasn't placing him in the VOA, under at least marginal supervision, a better choice than no placement at all? City Council members question the propriety of permitting a "serial killer" to reside at the VOA, but that's not quite right. He wasn't known to be a serial killer at the time of his placement, and he wasn't being supervised in connection with the 1987 murder any longer.

Everyone raises a valid point about the VOA's ridiculously bad judgment back on February 29th, when Kirkland apparently was expelled from the facility for fighting with a fellow resident. It appears that the VOA didn't notify Kirkland's parole officer for three days that Kirkland had been kicked out. I cannot fathom why. The parole officer would have immediately reached out to Kirkland, and if he couldn't have found him, a warrant would have issued. Did those three days make a difference? We'll never know.

Cases like this rightly cause us to evaluate and re-evaluate our criminal justice system and its strengths and weaknesses. But such evaluation should be based on facts, not half-truths and fear.

Sorry for the long post.

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