(Video) “Families of Murder Victims, Lawmakers Question CT’s New Commutations Policy”

March 9, 2023

Families of Murder Victims, Lawmakers Question CT’s New Commutations Policy

There has been an uptick in the number of commutation applications since June of 2021.

By Jane Caffrey

The family members of people who have been murdered stood beside Republican lawmakers Tuesday, calling on the Connecticut State Board of Pardons and Paroles to halt the process of shortening sentences until a new commutation policy is reviewed.

From the time that new policy went into effect in June of 2021 through February of 2023, the Board screened 939 applications for commutation. It denied 296 and commuted the sentences of 97 people, according to data provide by the Office of the Governor.

Under the Board’s current policy, an offender can be eligible to apply for a commutation if they are serving a sentence of at least 10 years and have already been incarcerated for at least that long. Additionally, they must not be within two years of parole eligibility.

If an applicant is denied a commutation, they must wait at least three years to reapply, and present new evidence that has come to light after the Board’s initial decision.

Now, families and some lawmakers are raising concerns about the policy.

Among them, the Carlson family from Newington. Elizabeth Carlson was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 2002 when she was just 24 years old.

“People question us periodically, ‘How could you still stay in your house after all this happened?’ Yet, we feel a lot of love here. And we feel her presence,” Audrey Carlson, Elizabeth’s mother, said.

Elizabeth was at her parents’ Newington home with her younger sister Leslie. The Carlson’s say ex-boyfriend Jonathan Carney was hiding in the master bedroom and ambushed Elizabeth.

“He basically riddled Elizabeth with bullets up and down at close range,” Audrey said.

There are photos of Elizabeth and Leslie around the Carlson’s home.

Like the Carlsons, John Aberg keeps the image of his grandson Andy close to his heart.

“He was a wonderful little boy,” Aberg said with a laugh. While thinking about the three-year-old draws a smile, he says his feelings are indescribable when he thinks about the toddler’s murder.

“His name was Andrew Slyter,” Aberg said through tears, while giving testimony at the press conference at the Legislative Office Building. “It was an incomprehensible crime. The person who molested and savagely beat him to death accepted a plea agreement, to plea to murder and [a] 40-year sentence.”

Aberg and the Carlsons stood alongside Republican lawmakers to say that they want the felons convicted in the deaths of their loved ones to serve their full sentences.

The Carlsons were notified that the man serving time for killing Elizabeth applied for commutation last year, but was recently denied.

“I was at my sister’s side the day that Jonathan stalked her, and then shot her to death in my family home. I had to run for my life to escape him as he reloaded his gun,” Leslie Carlson, Elizabeth’s sister, said during testimony. “Both sides agreed to a plea deal where he would be incarcerated for 42 years without the chance of parole. The opportunity for commutation of his sentence in any manner was never, never an option brought to our attention.”

Now they are concerned that Carney could apply again in three years under the new commutations policy adopted by the Board of Pardons and Paroles two years ago.

“We thought there was a contract between the state and him on a plea bargain to serve 42 years, period, concrete, day for day,” Bruce Carlson, Elizabeth’s father, told NBC Connecticut. “This was something we did not expect.”

Bruce fears the family, particularly his daughter Leslie, could face Carney applying for commutation several more times.

Republican senators Kevin Kelly and Heather Somers held the press conference calling on the Board to halt commutations until the legislature can review the policy.

“We’re also here to call for reforms and oversight with regards to the unelected Connecticut Pardon and Parole Board,” Sen. Kevin Kelly (R – 21st District) said.

Among their concerns with the policy – a spike in the number of sentences commuted, the opportunity for inmates to re-apply, and the potential for people convicted of violent crimes to be released.

“This is even more troubling in the case of a plea deal, when a defendant pleads guilty and accepts the sentence that has been carefully negotiated over months, even years,” Sen. Heather Somers (R – 18th District) said.

Unlike other states, Connecticut vests the pardon power with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, not the Office of the Governor, although the Board’s powers are defined by the legislature.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles provided a statement to NBC Connecticut on Tuesday. Executive Director Richard Sparaco writes:

“In August of 2019, the Board stopped accepting applications for commutations to update its policy and to create a new online application system for pardons. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, commutations remained off line until June 1, of 2021. The updated policy on Commutations drastically narrowed the eligibility criteria and defined suitability criteria (previously someone could apply only after four years, the new policy moved that to 10 years). Per statute, anyone can apply for a commutation but in 2021, the Board narrowed the pool of those who could apply.”

According to Sparaco, from 2016 to August of 2019, the Board only received 224 applications for commutations. From June of 2021 through December of 2022, the Board received 480 applications.

He says although the eligibility criteria was narrowed, the amount of individuals applying has increased dramatically.

Sparaco believes the Board has seen a peak in applicants driven by the suspension of applications driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governor Ned Lamont sent a statement to NBC Connecticut regarding the concerns raised by victims’ families and some Republican lawmakers.

“Connecticut remains one of the safest states in the country in large part because of the data-driven approach used to develop and evaluate criminal justice policy and practice. The commutation process has accelerated rapidly since coming back online mid-2021. Given the substantial progress the Board already has made in hearing commutation cases, it’s time to step back and see how the policy is working. The seriousness of the topic demands a careful approach involving the General Assembly as well as stakeholders, especially victims.”

Of the commutations granted under the policy through November of 2022, the median person committed their crime at age 19, and has already served 23 years in prison, according to data provided by the Governor’s Office.

Once a sentence is shortened, a person will serve another one-and-half years, typically in a halfway house, under supervision of the Department of Correction. Some will go on to serve nearly 20 years after commutation.

The families of the victims that spoke out Tuesday are certain in their message to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“I want them to hold, cease. Totally reassess,” Audrey said. “Would they want someone who murdered their loved one back out on the streets, just because they can apply?”