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updated: 5/30/2014 9:35 AM

Why notorious killers get repeated parole hearings

Patty Columbo, De Mau Mau killers use 'C' status to repeatedly seek parole

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  • Patty Columbo leaves the criminal courts building in 1977.

      Patty Columbo leaves the criminal courts building in 1977.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Convicted murder Patty Columbo goes before the parole board a the Dwight Correctional Center in 2007.

       Convicted murder Patty Columbo goes before the parole board a the Dwight Correctional Center in 2007.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Lake County Undersheriff Ray Rose, right, who was the lead investigator on the Patty Columbo case while with the Elk Grove Village Police Department, and Elk Grove Village Police Chief Stephen Schmidt listen at an Illinois Prisoner Review Board hearing in 2006.

       Lake County Undersheriff Ray Rose, right, who was the lead investigator on the Patty Columbo case while with the Elk Grove Village Police Department, and Elk Grove Village Police Chief Stephen Schmidt listen at an Illinois Prisoner Review Board hearing in 2006.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Frank DeLuca

      Frank DeLuca

 
 

Patty Columbo and Frank DeLuca were each sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for the brutal 1976 murders of Patty's parents and 13-year-old brother in Elk Grove Village.

The De Mau Mau gang members each received at least 60 years in prison for the random 1972 murders of four people in Barrington Hills.

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These notorious killers are among a small group of Illinois inmates -- known as "Class C," "C Class" or "C Number" prisoners -- with a unique legal right to have parole hearings every year, or in some cases, once every three or five years, before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Patty Columbo's had more than 18 hearings. During her latest hearing Thursday, the board voted 13-2 to deny her parole again.

De Mau Mau killers Michael Clark and Ruben Taylor also have had multiple parole hearings. Clark pleaded his case earlier this month, and Taylor is trying again in December.

"C Class" prisoners all committed their crimes before Feb. 1, 1978, and received what's known as indeterminate sentences. Those sentences came with a range of prison time, plus the right to petition for early release every year.

Indeterminate sentences were abolished 36 years ago, when the first of several tougher sentencing laws was passed in Illinois. Parole is no longer an option for convicted killers, although some prisoners are eligible for mandatory supervised release, a court-monitored early release that comes with terms and conditions.

While the C Class inmates have a constitutionally protected right to yearly parole hearings, the proceedings put a burden on police, prosecutors, surviving family members and taxpayers, said Gina Savini, a Cook County assistant state's attorney who, along with Assistant State's Attorney Cathy DeWald, handles the county's 130 remaining C Class cases.

"It's such a revictimization of families," Savini said. "The surviving family members, or the surviving rape victims, have to travel at their own expense to these hearings every year and beg the Prisoner Review Board not to let the killer or rapist out. They shouldn't have to do that. But if you're a victim or a family member of a victim, this is what you have to go through if you want the person to stay in jail."

Because these cases are so old, it's sometimes elderly or second generations of relatives representing the victims at the hearings. Some come from across the country to attend.

"I've got people in their 70s and 80s making car trips up now," Savini said.

Cook County Assistant Public Defender William Wolf says these hearings are not a waste of taxpayer money because they are an important part of the legal process. Judges gave these sentences back in the 1970s knowing that early release was possible and the public entrusted the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to make a case-by-case decision on each prisoner's situation, Wolf said.

"Every inmate's progress is different. If a prisoner is not sufficiently rehabilitated, so be it," said Wolf, former president of the Illinois Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "I'm not aware of the parole board suddenly opening the gates for tons of people."

In the past four years, 20 Class C murderers have been paroled, Illinois Prisoner Review Board records show.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how much these hearings cost taxpayers, but Savini said the largest cost is travel for police, prosecutors and prisoner review board members. Each hearing involves a prison interview of the inmate, followed by a hearing in a courthouse conference room, and then a Prisoner Review Board meeting in Springfield. Sometimes, the prisoner is driven to the courthouse for the hearing. Sometimes they waive their right to the parole hearing.

Class C cases once numbered more than 16,000. Today, only 220 remain. The others have died, completed their sentences, been granted parole or executive clemency, or had their sentences converted to shorter or different terms.

Most of the Class C inmates are in their 60s or older. Patty Columbo, who was a 19-year-old with Farrah Fawcett-styled hair when she was charged with killing parents Frank and Mary Columbo and brother Michael in 1976, is now a graying 57-year-old woman. Frank DeLuca is in his mid-70s, as are the De Mau Mau gang members who killed retired insurance broker Paul Corbett and his wife, sister-in-law and stepdaughter in their Barrington Hills home.

The public and politicians debate whether it's worth the money to keep older prisoners in jail, and whether murderers can be rehabilitated. The Prisoner Review Board uses several criteria to determine whether a prisoner is eligible for parole. They include whether parole would deprecate the seriousness of the offense, show disrespect for the law, or have an adverse affect on institutional discipline.

Columbo and DeLuca haven't been able to meet these criteria in their multiple parole attempts. However, at Columbo's last four hearings, two of the 15 prison review board members voted in favor of her release, giving her a glimmer of hope. She needs eight votes, or a majority, to receive parole. DeLuca has never received a single favorable votes, Savini said.

Prisoners have no right to an attorney at the hearings, "but some of them have attorneys because organizations (represent) them," Savini said.

"Anything can happen with the parole board. There are no guarantees," Savini said. "You just never know how each member is going to feel about an inmate from year to year. I'm presenting horrific murderers to them, and they've paroled some of them."

On Thursday, the board denied Savini's request to extend Columbo's and DeLuca's hearings to once every five years. So they will continue every three years.

Regardless of how often the hearings are held, Lake County Undersheriff Ray Rose will be there. As lead investigator on the Columbo case back in 1976 when he was an Elk Grove Village detective, Rose vows to be at every parole hearing for Patty Columbo and Frank DeLuca until they die, calling it an "obligation to society."

At every hearing, Rose presents a thorough slideshow of crime scene photos, explaining the motive and crime to the board. It's videotaped for documentation so absent board members can watch it.

Both Rose and Elk Grove Village Police Chief Stephen Schmidt say they still receive letters, to this day, from Frank, Mary and Michael Columbo's friends and relatives who are adamant in their plea that Patty Columbo and Frank DeLuca not be returned to society. Some of the letters are read into the record at the parole hearings.

"We've become the voice for Frank, Mary and Michael. We can't say this is tolerable after a 30-year period of time," Rose said. "Time can't forgive this."

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