In Alabama parole hearings, a gulf over punishment and rehabilitation

On one side, pleas for release from prison. On the other, a determination to keep people in.

By: - February 20, 2023 7:01 am
A group of people being sworn into a parole hearing.

A court clerk swears in people who will testify before the Pardons and Parole Board hearing in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo/Stew Milne)

At each meeting of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, there are two sides, literally and figuratively.

On the right side of the room sit advocates for those who are incarcerated. Each one has two minutes to put on the performance of a lifetime, to convince Board members to release their friends or family members from prison.

They talk about practical matters, like where their loved ones will live and work after release, and how they will take care of them. They speak of remorse and lessons learned.

On the left side of the room are their challengers. Sometimes crime victims are there. But two people are always present. One is a representative from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. The second is a staff member from Victims of Crime and Leniency, known as VOCAL.

“If someone is dead, we will protest, because to me, when you take someone’s life, you do not have a right to do that,” said Janette Grantham, the organization’s executive director. “God gave us all a life, and I don’t think that I, or you, or anybody has the right to take someone else’s life.”

It’s a space as big as a conference room, and as wide as a gulf.

Changes made to the parole board in 2019 – after an inmate mistakenly released from prison was charged with killing three people, including a 7-year-old – have led to parole grants falling significantly. In the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the board granted parole to 409 people and denied almost 3,600, a grant rate of roughly 10%, according to the Associated Press.

Grants from prior boards sometimes went as high as 50%. But paroles fell to 31% in fiscal year 2019; 20% in 2020 and 15% in 2021. Though there are guidelines for determining whether an inmate should be granted parole, the board has full discretion in making that decision. More and more, it opts for denial.

“The change that took place in late 2020 was just a shock to everybody,” said Andrew Skier, a criminal defense attorney. “I mean, we went from a situation where I didn’t always agree with what they did, but they were within a certain distance of the norm, the mean of what they should be doing. When this new board came in, it was like a 180. It all of a sudden dropped to nothing.”


The divisions reflect starkly different ideas about the purposes of incarceration, and whether prison can rehabilitate someone.

Grantham is clear on her feelings about that. During a recent interview, she spoke in detail of the crime that led to VOCAL’s founding by Miriam Shehane in 1982. Shehane’s daughter, Quenette Shehane, was raped, tortured and murdered while attending college in 1976.

“Her daughter had just graduated from Birmingham Southern, and it was four days before Christmas,” Grantham said. “Her car was packed to come home, and she had just gotten engaged.”

She recounts the narrative vividly, describing how the daughter was going to the fraternity house to have dinner with her fiancé. Weaved into the narrative are details of the meal the two were supposed to share. It was a brutal retelling. Visceral, even. But Grantham said it explains why she considers their group’s work important.

Jerry Lee Jones, convicted of Quenette Shehane’s murder, is currently serving multiple life sentences at Elmore Correctional Facility, according to Alabama Department of Corrections records. Grantham said Shehane struggled to be heard during the process.

“When she got through, she was determined that no other mother would go through what she did,” Grantham said. “No other family would be treated the way they were.”

The nonprofit has become formidable in the area of criminal justice.

“Every state has a set of rights for victims of crime,” said Susan Howley, a project director with the Center for Victim Research, an organization based in Washington, D.C. “Some are stronger than others, some are more specific than others, but every state has a basic set. ”

Typically, the rights codify a victim’s right to be notified of a person’s status, such as the arrest, the release and facts related to the case. These may be the parole date, date of release and any plea agreements made between the state and the individual.

There are also rules outlining compensation and reparations.

Now, the presence of victims in legal proceedings is taken for granted.

“Generally they have the right to be heard at sentencing and parole, and sometimes at other points,” Howley said. “Often the right to consult with the prosecutor, sometimes specifically before a plea agreement is made. The right to request restitution, and in some states the court is required to order restitution or state on the record why they are not ordering restitution.”

Grantham, executive director of VOCAL since 2012,  said the nonprofit helped establish victims rights laws, including victim notification and the right to attend court hearings.

According to its most recent 990 form filed in 2019, the organization got about $332,000 in annual revenues, with most of that ($282,000) coming from grants. It had about $290,000 in expenses.

VOCAL’s presence at protest at parole hearings has garnered the group its most recent attention.

“Any case where there is an identifiable victim, it seems like they always have an objection in those cases,” Skier said. “Whether the actual victim is aware they are doing it, or signs off on it, I really don’t know.”

Grantham says VOCAL believes that if a person takes someone’s life, that person needs to be punished as long as possible. Neither the victims nor their families, she said, can ever be whole. She speaks of the suffering of victims, including torture, to prove her point.

“The one who is dead, that person doesn’t have a second chance,” Grantham said. “That person is not going to be able to come back. To me, that is the worst crime that is committed because you can’t make that victim whole.”

Grantham acknowledges that no two cases are identical, and that there are gradations to the atrocities that people commit. Despite that, VOCAL’s general policy is to ask for the maximum punishment possible.

“The victim that is dead, if they come back and tell me that they don’t want us to protest – I won’t,” Grantham said. “But it has to come from them because that is who we speak for. It doesn’t matter about the families.”

Grantham also argues that public safety is a concern.

“If they get out, they could kill someone else,” Grantham said. “And if I didn’t protest, and they did that, I would have to live with that – and I don’t intend to do that.”

VOCAL follows the same general template when presenting their case to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. A staffer assigned to speak at the hearing will go through the facts of the case. That person will provide details of the case, any plea bargains that were made, followed by reiterating the length of the sentence, and ending with a statement.

“We are asking for the maximum time allowed by law,” said MaKayla Phifer, who represented VOCAL during a parole hearing in early February.

The materials Phifer uses come from  court files and interviews with family members. Staff will read through as much information as they can get through the case.

“We are looking for the indictments, looking for the victims, looking to see if they have had any revoked probations, what their prior offenses are, if they have had any warrants,” Phifer said. “Basically, if they are just a danger to the public. But we do look at their criminal history.”

A woman returns to a seat
Makayla Phifer an advocate with VOCAL (Victims of Crime and Leniency), returns to her seat after testifying before the Board of Pardons and Paroles during a hearing in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo/Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

They will also interview the family members of the victim to confirm the facts, and to get any additional information about how the crime has had an impact on them.

Prior to the start of the hearings, VOCAL staff will go around the waiting area, asking victims and their loved ones about the cases they want to speak on; ask how they are involved with the case, and get as much information as possible about how the crime has affected them.

“It is not 100% right,” Phifer said. “Sometimes they may say something that is not correct. Sometimes they do say something that is correct, but we always go off what we have on our records.”

They then relay that information to the board along with the victims who also make a statement. In the cases that the Alabama Reflector observed, Phifer focused on the anxiety and trauma for each of the victims.

Critics question VOCAL’s absolute mindset, and wonder if it leaves any room for rehabilitation.

“They have a right, just like anybody else, to present their case,” Skier said. “I wish that they would consider the fact that not every case is the same, not every person who comes to the board is the same, and not every fact situation is the same.”

Two minutes

Inmates eligible for parole can have an attorney and two witnesses speak on their behalf. In their allotted two minutes, many witnesses speak to the changes they have seen in the person and their behavior since they committed the crime.

To get parole, an inmate needs to show that he or she is no longer a threat to the public and demonstrate that they will go into a structured environment after release, limiting their chance to reoffend. So the witnesses also talk about the jobs, housing and support the inmate will have outside prison.

After their two minutes are up, they are no longer allowed to address the board absent a question from the panel.

The opponents of parole follow, each getting two minutes. They get the final word.

There is no rebuttal allowed. If someone who opposes parole makes a misstatement, the statement will go unchallenged. A misstatement can be critical in the mind of a board member because even though they have reviewed the materials and statements beforehand, someone’s testimony provides an additional layer or dimension for the panel to consider.

A man behind a plastic screen listens to testimony from a man in the crowd.
Darryl Littleton, associate member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles listens to testimony during a hearing in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo/Stew Milne for the Reflector)

“There have been times when someone from VOCAL, or someone from the AG’s office, or someone who is a victim who shows up to protest themselves, makes a misstatement or misrepresents the facts,” Skier said. “We are not allowed to rebut. We are not allowed to come back and correct that record, or correct that idea that person just mentioned.”

On Feb. 8, Michael Gordy’s parole application went before the board on Feb. 8. It was opposed by the attorney general’s office, though not VOCAL.

According to DOC records, Gordy was convicted on a count of attempted murder and two counts of robbery. He is also serving a 15-year sentence for assault for his alleged involvement in two robberies in December 2006, the first at a convenience store and the second in a person’s home.

According to Terry Peden, Gordy’s attorney, a group held up a convenience store clerk. The clerk fled and someone fired a gun; the bullet grazed the clerk. Later, the group approached the home of the family that owned the convenience store under the pretense that they had information about the first robbery. Their true intent was to rob the family members.

The group knocked on the door and someone answered. They entered the home by rushing through the door. As the group ransacked the home, a bandana slipped from one of the perpetrators, and a victim saw his face.

“Once the bandana fell down, the victim said she recognized him because they were schoolmates in the same small town,” Peden said.

Police then pursued the suspects and caught the person the victim recognized. Peden said that individual was given a plea deal, receiving a 25-year sentence in exchange for details related to the two incidents. The person was given the deal on the basis that he was a driver and not involved in the shooting or the home invasion.

“That same codefendant ended up offering a statement against my client,” Peden said.  It was also alleged that the police found evidence from the crime in Gordy’s possession.

Gordy maintains his innocence. Peden, who prepared Gordy’s recent application for parole, included an affidavit from a victim. The victim testified at Gordy’s trial, but the later affidavit she signed stated she was sure Gordy was not one of the perpetrators. In later testimony included in Gordy’s parole application, she could not be sure if he was the among the group who robbed the home.

“I believe that affidavit is truly exculpatory for my client because it implicates prosecutorial misconduct,” Peden said.

The application also included statements from several family members saying he will live with them should he be released. There were written statements from two employers stating they would hire Gordy should he be released. There were also numerous certificates that were included in the packet recognizing that Gordy has completed a number of inmate education programs such as Therapeutic Community, Crime Bill and Lifelink, helping people who are incarcerated with career resources, substance abuse and therapy.

Using those materials, Peden then evaluated his client using the same form that that board is given. The evaluations use a point system. On paper, the more points allocated to an inmate, the higher the likelihood that the person will reoffend.

Inmates with 7 points or less are recommended for parole. Those with 8 or higher are recommended to be denied.

Peden gave his client three points. Gordy received two points for the severity of the offense and, anticipating the protest against his client, he added one point for stakeholder and community input. No other points were given because Gordy had a clean prison record for the past three years; he participated in risk reduction programs, and he had proof that a job and a home awaited him after prison.

But however the calculation turns out, the board is not bound to follow it. The Attorney General’s Office recommended Gordy be denied parole, revisiting the details of crime and saying the time served was not enough. The board agreed and denied Gordy’s request.

Multiple attempts to reach out to the Attorney General’s Office were unsuccessful.

“You have a choice,” Grantham said. “All of us have a choice. You could have murdered someone if you chose to. You could have raped someone if you chose to. But we didn’t choose to. If you do that, you have a choice, and choices have consequences.”

A few of Skier’s clients have been granted parole and been released, but he is unsure what made those cases any different than those who have been denied.

“In the last year I have had one or two who have been granted parole, and to be honest, I don’t actually see what made those cases different from other cases,” he said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.