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New York Court Orders Parole Board to Decide Murderer’s Parole Based Solely on Recent Prison Record; Reversed on Appeal

by John E. Dannenberg

The Manhattan Supreme Court ordered the New York Division of Parole (“Board”) to release a murderer unless it came up with a valid denial reason based solely upon his prison behavior since his last parole hearing. Under New York law, the judiciary’s remedy on improper parole denial cases is limited to ordering a new parole hearing. Here, while Justice Marcy Friedman did that, she narrowly restricted the Board’s discretion by ordering them not to rest their decision on the crimes that the prisoner committed 40 years earlier.

William R. Phillips, now 76, half-blind, diabetic, a cancer victim and a stroke survivor, is a former New York police officer who was convicted in 1968 for the notorious “Happy Hooker” murders of a 19-year-old prostitute and her pimp; he also was convicted of attempted murder of a third victim. He is still serving his concurrent sentences (25 years to life) and has had four parole hearings.

His disciplinary-free prison record is remarkable. Phillips earned a legal research certificate and instructed other prisoners for 17 years, and volunteered for the Deputy Superintendent of the law library. He also earned bachelors and master’s degrees. Two former judges wrote letters recommending his release and even the chairman of the Board admitted Phillips had rehabilitated himself. His parole plans included a job and a place to stay.

Nonetheless, the Board initially found him a continuing danger to society. In 2003, Manhattan Justice Alice Schlesinger found that reasoning absurd and ordered another hearing. The Board has since changed its tune and now only states that to release him would “deprecate the seriousness of his offenses and undermine respect for the law.” At his 2005 parole hearing, Chairman Robert Dennison denied parole after asking the rhetorical question, “How many years is enough for taking two lives and trying to kill a third?”

Justice Friedman responded that that question was answered by the sentencing court decades ago. Justice Friedman called the denial reason “pretextual,” based upon an “improper disposition to deny parole to the petitioner, rather than a fair consideration of the statutory factors.” The court recognized that a Board determination will not be set aside unless “there is a showing of irrationality bordering on impropriety.” But when applying this rationale, it concluded that the Board’s decision to deny parole exclusively on the seriousness of Phillip’s offense missed the statutory point. The Board’s discretion was only to determine when and if he was rehabilitated. Here, the Board admitted Phillips was no longer a danger to society, but paid only lip service to his incredible rehabilitative record (simply calling him a “model inmate”). The court admonished the Board, stating, “The role of the parole board is not to resentence petitioner according to the personal opinions of its members as to the appropriate penalty for murder, but to determine whether, as of this moment, given all relevant statutory factors, he should be released.”

Reviewing Phillips’ prior hearing records, the court observed that his record did not change between 2003 and 2005; thus, the Board’s finding in 2003 that he was a danger but in 2005 that he was not, was irrational. The court stopped short of finding that the Board was merely parroting New York Governor George Pataki’s “no-paroles” political agenda (see: PLN, Nov. ‘06, p.36), allegedly achieved through his biased parole board member selections. But the court did find that “the Board was predisposed to deny parole to petitioner” and remanded Phillips for a limited hearing to determine if there were any new adverse factors; absent any, the Board was ordered to release him.

Exacerbating the quandary for New York state lifers is the fact that when they file Article 78 petitions for relief, the processing time often exceeds the two years until their subsequent parole hearings, whereupon their petitions are declared moot. Board spokesman Scott Steinhardt and Attorney General Neil Shevlin defended the Board, and an appeal was filed. Phillips was represented pro bono by Manhattan attorneys Daniel M. Perez and Ronald L. Kuby. See: Phillips v. Dennison, Manhattan Supreme Court No. 103509/06 (September 29, 2006).

Subsequently, on April 12, 2007, the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court, found that the Parole Board did not abuse its discretion in denying Phillips parole, given the heinous nature of the crimes and other factors. The lower court’s ruling was reversed, again putting New York state lifers at the mercy of an apparently merciless parole board. See: Phillips v. Dennison, 834 N.Y.S.2d 121 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., 2007).

Other sources: New York Times,

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Related legal cases

Phillips v. Dennison

Phillips v. Dennison