Iowa’s governor has called a rare public hearing Wednesday to gather input on whether he should free an inmate widely credited with turning his life around while serving 38 years in prison for a 1974 murder.
Rasberry Williams, 66, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder after shooting a neighbor over a $30 gambling debt outside a Waterloo pool hall. His decade-long bid to have his sentence commuted to a set number of years so he can become eligible for parole has won the backing of the Iowa Board of Parole, prison wardens, the prosecutor who convicted him and the judge who oversaw his trial.
But the only opinion that matters is that of Gov. Terry Branstad, who called the hearing in Waterloo to allow the public to sound off on the parole board’s 4-0 recommendation that Williams’ sentence be adjusted. Branstad is the third Iowa governor to consider Williams’ request and has until May 4 to accept or reject the board’s recommendation. During 18 years in office spread over three decades, Branstad has commuted the life terms of only two inmates, the last being in 1992.
Williams’ supporters, however, argue the governor should show leniency to reward a remarkable rehabilitation. Prison officials describe Williams as a model inmate who got an education in prison, mentored scores of young offenders and served as a fixture in programs where he warned young people to avoid trouble. And, in what officials call his most noteworthy act, he once intervened to save the lives of prison guards who had been taken hostage by another inmate.
“It’s an extraordinary case, and that’s what makes it so compelling,” said Waterloo attorney David Dutton, who prosecuted Williams but recently came out in support of commutation. “He’s served 38 years and during that time, he’s saved two guards and has comported himself as a model citizen, albeit under very difficult conditions. That, in my view, indicates a person who has truly understood the importance of acting on behalf of others. I think that’s a sign of a changed person, and a person that is not going to be a threat to society.”
Branstad requested Wednesday’s hearing because he wanted to hear from people who live in the community where the shooting happened, said the governor’s spokesman, Tim Albrecht. He said Branstad will consider the impact on victims, public safety and Williams’ behavior while incarcerated, in deciding Williams’ future.
Jeremy Haile, who tracks criminal justice issues at the Sentencing Project, which advocates shorter sentences, said it’s rare for a governor to free someone convicted of murder because of the political risks involved. The hearing is a smart move, he said, because strong support for Williams would help justify a decision to release him.
“Ultimately, executives have to act not because they will benefit politically, but because extending mercy is the right thing to do,” Haile said.
Only a dozen Iowa inmates serving life sentences have had them commuted since 1986, state data shows. Nationally, Haile said the number of life sentences had risen dramatically in recent decades in a tough-on-crime political climate and executives at the state and federal level have been increasingly reluctant to show mercy.
Williams was convicted in the death of his next-door neighbor, 40-year-old Lester Givhan. The two began arguing over a $30 debt at a pool hall, and when Givhan refused to pay, Williams waited outside, confronted Givhan and shot him once. Williams turned himself into police hours later.
Givhan had a gun in his pocket, and the then-28-year-old Williams claimed he acted in self-defense. “I had to stand my ground,” he told the parole board in January. He said he worried Givhan would’ve killed him, according to a transcript obtained by The Associated Press through the public records law.
But jurors didn’t buy that, and even Williams’ defense lawyer, Wallace Parrish, said he was guilty.
“When you have facts like that, it was like getting hit on the head with a hammer,” Parrish said. “You had him lying in wait, you had intent. There was no defending that. It was like he read a book on the elements of first-degree murder, and went out and committed each element deliberately.”
The attorney also said, however, that Williams had served enough time for “a crime of passion” and would not pose a safety risk if allowed to live with his sister in Chicago. Parrish called the former prosecutor’s support for Williams’ commutation “very significant.”
Dutton opposed the parole board’s 2005 recommendation to commute Williams’ sentence. But he said he didn’t know then that Williams had helped save the lives of two guards who were held hostage in 1979 by an inmate at the penitentiary in Fort Madison.
In a letter supporting Williams’ commutation, inmate George Goff said he planned to ignite gasoline in a cell where he was holding guards at knifepoint, but Williams approached and told him, “‘boy don’t you do that! It is not worth getting a life sentence for.’”
Goff freed the hostages unharmed.
“If it not been for Rasberry Williams that day there would have been two dead guards and I would be doing a life sentence,” Goff wrote.
Gov. Tom Vilsack denied Williams’ commutation bid in 2006, citing concerns he had been gambling in prison, which Williams denied. His successor, Gov. Chet Culver, reviewed Williams’ commutation file during his final days in office in 2011 but didn’t act.
Among those hoping Branstad will give Williams another chance is Walter Polk, 65, who worked with Williams at the WonderBread bakery in Waterloo even after his arrest.
“He was so trustworthy and the company liked his work, that he worked up until his conviction,” Polk said. “Rasberry was a happy-go-lucky person, a person to keep you laughing. . . . I knew he had this incident in his life, but I think he just got caught up in in the moment.”