The hard-fought battle over the fate of former death-row inmate Tim Howard intensified on Thursday when John Felts, chairman of the Arkansas Parole Board, held a hearing at Cummins prison to consider Howard’s eligibility for parole.
Circuit Judge Charles Yeargan, who presided over Howard’s first trial in 1999 and his retrial earlier this year, submitted a letter to the parole board objecting “strongly” to Howard’s release. A juror also wrote to the parole board, arguing against Howard’s parole.
Three people, in addition to Howard’s two attorneys, spoke on the inmate’s behalf. Two jurors who said they concluded that Howard was not guilty sent letters supporting his immediate parole.
Howard was sentenced to death at his 1999 trial for the murders of two close friends, Brian and Shannon Day, and the attempted murder of their infant son, Trevor, in Little River County. Yeargan vacated that conviction in 2013, after Howard’s attorneys presented evidence of prosecutor misconduct at that trial.
A second trial for Howard this spring lasted two weeks. This time the jury found Howard guilty of the lesser charges of second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. The new jury sentenced Howard to a total of 38 years in prison—almost half of which he had by then already served.
Since that verdict was delivered on May 8, Howard’s attorneys and prison officials have wrangled over whether Howard could be awarded “good time” credit for the years he spent on death row, where he had a perfect record of behavior.
Prison officials said that death row inmates were not eligible for “good time” consideration, and that Howard, therefore, could not yet be considered eligible for parole.
On Sept. 14, Howard’s attorney, Patrick Benca, filed a complaint in which he argued that the Arkansas Department of Correction was violating Howard’s fundamental rights to fairness, due process and equal
protection by denying him good time because of where he was housed, particularly on a sentence that a
court had vacated.
Benca asked the circuit court in Jefferson County (where the prison department is headquartered) to declare Howard eligible for parole. That complaint is still pending. State attorneys have until Oct. 14 to respond. Benca has also said he will appeal Howard’s recent convictions. Meantime, prison officials decided that Howard might be considered for parole under the state’s “emergency powers” laws, created to ease prison overcrowding. That led to Thursday’s hearing.
Yeargan began his letter to the parole board by noting that he was “very concerned and upset” that he was not formally notified that the hearing was to take place.
The parole board consists of seven members, though one post is currently vacant. Due to the large number of inmates eligible for consideration, members typically divide the load, each presiding at a certain number of hearings. Felts said recommendations are then made and discussed as a group.
The parole board’s website says its members must weigh “the gravity and impact of offenses on society versus the timely and safe reintegration of the offender to the community.”
On Wednesday, victims in the Days’ case were given an opportunity to comment on Howard’s application. On Thursday, Howard’s two current attorneys and three other supporters spoke to Felts and Solomon Graves, the parole board’s administrator.
Janice Vaughn, Howard’s attorney when the state supreme court split 4-3 against Howard on the sufficiency of the evidence to convict him at his first trial, said she and her husband, Scott Vaughn, who is also an attorney, trusted Howard enough to let him live at their house when released.
Linda Bessette, a financial planner and this reporter’s spouse, recounted how she had helped Howard learn algebra and geometry via letters while he was on death row so he could pass his GED exam, which he did. She said she planned to give Howard the car she has driven since 1995. Patrick Benca, Howard’s lead attorney, said he would hire Howard.
That unusual amount of support, especially from members of the bar, was countered by Judge Yeargan’s letter, in which he expressed his “understanding” that Howard would not be granted “good time” credit for the years he spent on death row. “He should be required to serve out the full sentence imposed,” Yeargan wrote.
Benca took issue with Yeargan’s letter, which he characterized as “advising the parole board to set aside the jury’s sentence in favor of his own opinion.” Benca noted that during the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge had instructed jurors as to both Howard’s parole eligibility and good-time credit.“In those instructions, he stated that with good-time credit, Tim would be eligible for parole in one-fourth of the time [of his sentence]. One-fourth of 38 years is approximately nine-and-a-half years. [Howard] has been in for more than 18.”
Benca complained: “He is stating to the jury, ‘here are the rules and instructions of the court,’ and to ‘follow them,’ but if he doesn’t like the result of their deliberations, then he writes off a letter asking another entity to disregard his own jury’s ruling.”
Felts said the board would announce its decision at its meeting on Oct. 19.