WATERLOO, Iowa — Supporters of an inmate serving life in prison for a 1974 murder urged Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad on Wednesday to commute the sentence so he can be released, while the victim's relatives said they had forgiven him.
The statements, given during an unusual public hearing called by the governor, appeared to add momentum to 66-year-old Rasberry Williams' bid to have his sentence changed to a fixed term so he can be released on parole after 38 years in prison.
The Iowa Board of Parole recommended last month that Branstad commute Williams' sentence, saying he has been a model inmate who has mentored scores of young offenders and students, got an education while behind bars, and once intervened in a hostage situation to save the lives of two prison guards. The judge who presided over his 1975 trial and the prosecutor who convicted him have also supported Williams' commutation application.
Branstad called the hearing to gather input from the community where Williams shot and killed Lester Givhan, his 40-year-old neighbor, outside a pool hall in July 1974. Williams shot Givhan after the two had argued over a $30 gambling debt. Williams claimed self-defense, but jurors convicted him of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Dozens of people, including relatives of Williams and Givhan, packed a conference room at the Black Hawk County Courthouse, where two lawyers from Branstad's office and four parole board members heard comments.
"Rasberry believed in me at a time when I didn't believe in myself," said Ray Brown, who served in prison with Williams for 11 years. "It would be such a blessing, Gov. Branstad, if you were to see fit to let Rasberry come back home to us, live the rest of his life with us. He'll be an asset to so many of the young men here in Waterloo."
Branstad, who has commuted life sentences of only two inmates during 18 years in office, has until early May to decide whether to accept the parole board's recommendation. Doing so would allow Williams to become eligible for parole, which would allow him to eventually be released back into the community.
Brown said Williams' advice helped him stay out of trouble and become a drug treatment counselor. Two former offenders told similar stories, describing how Williams counseled them during walks through the prison courtyard, encouraging them to take personal responsibility for their actions.
Terry Sallis said he served with Williams at the prison in Fort Madison in the 1970s, and Williams berated him when he returned to prison in 1999. He said Williams encouraged him to get an education after his release, and he has become a mental health therapist "primarily due to a lot of conversations Ras and I had."
"None of us are the same that we were 37 years ago," Salas said. "He's made some incredible changes."
Williams' defense lawyer at trial, Wallace Parrish, said his client was guilty but had atoned for his actions by leading an exemplary life behind bars. He said Givhan had taunted and bullied Williams for years.
"It doesn't excuse it, but it does mitigate it," he said.
Givhan's cousin, Ola Belle Reed, said Givhan's character was no worse than Williams' because they both lived a lifestyle that involved gambling in seedy hangouts. She said she had forgiven Williams for killing Givhan, who had been planning to get married before he died. But she also said she did not understand the criminal justice system, and how a life prison term could be transformed into something shorter.
"I have never heard a word from Mr. Rasberry Williams to our family that he is sorry. That is all that I would like to hear. He took our cousin away from us!" she said. "But I do forgive him."
Parole Board Chairman Jason Carlstrom later noted that Williams had been barred from contacting Givhan's family. Williams' supporters said he had repeatedly expressed remorse for his actions.
Another Givhan cousin, Lee Reed, said he hoped Williams would make a difference in the community if released. He said he hoped any decision to release Williams would be based on evidence that he was rehabilitated and no longer a safety threat, and not to save money housing an aging inmate.
"It did hurt us to lose a loved one as it would anyone sitting here," he said. "But as the Bible tells us, if you want forgiveness, you must forgive. I believe that. And we forgive him. I hope and pray that he has repented."
Mark Osler, a law professor at University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota and an expert on commutation, said Wednesday's hearing was "really unusual," something he's never heard of in the nation. He said it was a "brave and appropriate thing to do" that would lend legitimacy to Branstad's ultimate decision.
Osler, who runs a legal clinic that works on commutation petitions, said he was struck by the details of Williams' case, including the agreement from the judge and prosecutor that Williams should get mercy.
"The guy saves some guards, you have the unanimous support of people involved in the case, and you have a public hearing," he said. "I don't know of another case that features that combination of unusual factors."