Iowa parole board signals it may soon free convicted murder praised for stellar prison record

The Associated Press

In this Nov. 1, 2012 file photo provided by the Iowa Department of Corrections is Rasberry Williams who is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting an acquaintance over a $30 debt outside a Waterloo, Iowa, pool hall in 1974. A year after the governor took the rare step of granting parole eligibility to a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, the state parole board has signaled that it may let him taste freedom again after 39 years behind bars. The Iowa Board of Parole has requested an interview with 67-year-old in April, 2014, which typically signals “a high probability that some type of releasing action may result,” according to the board’s website. (AP Photo/Iowa Department of Corrections, File)

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By RYAN J. FOLEY, Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A convicted murderer praised for maintaining a stellar record during his 39 years behind bars may soon become the rare Iowa inmate to be freed after being sentenced to life in prison.

The Iowa Board of Parole has requested an interview with 67-year-old Rasberry Williams on April 16, which typically signals "a high probability that some type of releasing action may result," according to the board's website. The board could grant his release from prison, move him to a work-release facility, or keep him incarcerated, among other options.

"They ought to move on with it and get it done," said Williams' former defense attorney Wallace Parrish, who was among the scores of people to call for Williams' release during an unusual public hearing called by Gov. Terry Branstad last year.

Williams fatally shot his neighbor, Lester Givhan, outside of a Waterloo pool hall in July 1974 over a $30 gambling debt he said Givhan owed him. Williams argued that he shot Givhan in self-defense, but he was convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Branstad commuted Williams' sentence last year to give him the opportunity to seek parole, saying his behavior behind bars had been exemplary. He noted that Williams helped peacefully end a 1979 situation in which another Iowa State Penitentiary inmate had taken two guards hostage at knifepoint. Williams has also mentored scores of inmates, encouraging them to stay clean after leaving prison. Even Givhan's relatives said they had forgiven Wiliams, and the attorney who prosecuted Williams supported commutation.

After Branstad's decision, the parole board denied Williams' release in July during a regularly scheduled review, finding that he was not yet ready to re-enter society. Corrections officials transferred Williams in September to the North Central Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in Rockwell City that has programs to prepare inmates to transition to living in the community.

The board's interview with Williams will be conducted at its office through a video feed to the prison. Board chairman Jason Carlstrom said members "are looking to update and review his case at this time," but he declined to discuss the case in further detail.

If granted parole, it could take up to two months before Williams is freed because he has said he would go to live with his sister or a daughter, who reside out of state.

"I'm going to try to get me a job and do something positive. And I would never come back to the penitentiary or do anything wrong," Williams told the board last year.

Once exercised routinely, Iowa governors have rarely used the power of executive clemency to make inmates serving life in prison eligible for parole in recent decades. Branstad, a Republican, has done so three only three times during 19 years in office.

If granted parole, Williams' release would come quicker than some inmates who have spent years in prison after having their life sentences commuted.

Then-Gov. Tom Vilsack in January 2007 gave relief to Todd Hoffer, commuting his life sentence for a 1985 murder conviction in Des Moines to a 125-year term so he could be eligible for parole. More than seven years later, Hoffer remains at the same prison as Williams in Rockwell City.

The last Iowa inmate to be released on parole on a first-degree murder conviction was Michael Marit, who regained his freedom in October after spending several months in a work-release program. He was convicted in Scott County in 1983 and sentenced to life, but Vilsack commuted his sentence in 2006.

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