HELENA – Amber Foster told a legislative panel Tuesday when she tried to get her husband’s rape conviction pardoned, the state Board of Pardons and Parole all but ignored her – and she’s the “victim” of the crime.
“I don’t know who the board listens to, if they won’t even listen to the victim,” she told the House Judiciary Committee, as she spoke for a bill to reduce the board’s power to deny clemency requests. “They call me a victim, but I’m not a victim. ... I have tried and tried to get the board to listen to me.”
Foster, of Glasgow, was one of more than a dozen people who spoke in favor of House Bill 43, which would allow the governor to consider any clemency requests, regardless of Parole Board action.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said current law gives too much power to the board in clemency cases, allowing it to prevent the governor from considering requests in non-death-penalty cases.
“This is about unchecked power and unchecked authority,” she said. “I think this (bill) brings it back it into balance.”
Yet the bill’s only opponent – former Parole Board Chairman Mike McKee – said the clemency system is not flawed, and that the bill primarily is a reaction to the highly publicized case of convicted murderer Barry Beach, whose clemency petition was denied by the board last year.
McKee said the board thoroughly examined several clemency requests by Beach, who has proclaimed for years that he’s innocent of the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees. It has denied his request each time, citing various evidence, and because Beach is not sentenced to death, the board’s denial cannot be overruled by the governor.
McKee said most clemency requests are “without merit,” and if HB43 passes, the Legislature might as well do away with the Parole Board’s examination of those requests and just let them go straight to the governor.
“If you pass this bill, you’re saying the governor can cherry-pick whatever cases he wants to hear,” he said. “You’ll reinsert politics into a system that has been pretty much politics-free until the case of Barry Beach.”
HB43 is one of five bills before the 2015 Legislature to revise Parole Board practices and oversight, in the wake of an 18-month study by a legislative committee that heard complaints from inmates’ families and others that the board has too much discretion over deciding paroles and clemency.
The other bills would allow the governor to remove the board’s chair, require more scrutiny of board rules and require videotaping of Parole Board hearings.
The House Judiciary Committee may act on the bills next week, said its chairman, Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby.
MacDonald said HB43 and the other bills are not in response only to the Barry Beach case, but to complaints and stories from many families, such as the Fosters.
Foster, whose husband Russell also attended the hearing, said he was convicted of statutory rape after they had consensual sex when she was 15, and that they got married after he got out of prison and now have four children.
She and her husband said having a sex offense on his record can prevent them from getting certain state licenses or government contracts, and that they petitioned the Parole Board for a pardon in 2012. The board sent them a form letter denying the request, without any explanation, she said.
“I don’t feel like I got an investigation, I never got a call,” Foster said. “I know that there needs to be someone overseeing what’s going on here. ... It’s been a long 20 years, and it’s just time to end this nightmare.”