Readers Go before Parole Board

Article excerpt

At the Rockford (Ill.) Register-Star, online readers can do more than just follow the parole efforts of some of the area's most notorious convicted killers. They can also have a say in whether these criminals should go free.

Since 2006, the daily paper has used its Web site to let readers contact the state parole board when certain convicts are facing parole. On four occasions since the beginning of 2008, the Register-Star has placed online "petitions" on its Web site related to the pending parole hearing of a specific convicted murderer. In each case, readers are asked to sign a petition either favoring or opposing the prisoner's release. The results are e-mailed directly to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The paper offers this option "because we believe we are a voice for the voiceless," says Anna Voelker, assistant managing editor/online and a member of the paper's editorial board. "We started it about two years ago, but this year has seen the most at one time." In each case, online readers are asked to fill out a form with their personal information and whether they favor or oppose parole for the specified prisoner. Each is warned that their name will become part of a public record. Results are then sent electronically to the parole review board.

The first such petition for 2008 surrounded the parole hearing of Robert Henry Lower, whose murder of Joey Didier in 1975 had special meaning to the paper: Didier was a Register-Star delivery boy. Before Lower was denied parole in January, nearly 4,000 petition e-mails opposing his parole were sent through the paper's Web site, with fewer than 30 supporting parole. "There are always thousands of responses," says Editor Linda Grist Cunningham. "The opportunity to express opinions is a big deal."

In February, Curtis Brownell, convicted in the 1977 murder of 17-year-old Louise Betts, came up for parole -- and lost his bid. That denial came after 1,900 opposition petition e-mails via the paper's Web site, against about 20 in favor, Voelker says. Since then, the paper has been running two more online petitions related to the potential parole of cop killer Theodore Bacino, convicted of murder in 1974, and Simon P. …

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