Will these 'lifers' get their chance at parole?

By Ryan Faircloth
St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A robber. A gang member. A cop killer.

They were convicted of the unthinkable and sentenced to life in prison. Decades later, these Minnesota inmates said they have changed for the better and deserve a second chance.

Will they get one?

Calvin Everett, Pepi McKenzie and Jeff Anderson pondered this question as they sat inside a brick chapel within the Stillwater prison last month. They were among a support group of a dozen “lifers” who discussed the steps they have taken to rehabilitate themselves and the hopes they have for parole.

“When I was younger, I worked hard to develop the reputation and the image that I had . . . and now, over the past 15 to 20 years, I’ve been working twice as hard to get rid of that image,” said Everett, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 1990. “I’m no longer the person I was in the past. In fact, I’m disgusted with that person.”

There are 470 lifers who have a chance at parole in Minnesota, once they serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years. But there is no guarantee any of them will step foot outside of prison — and many would argue they shouldn’t. Since 1999, 69 of the 184 lifers who were eligible for parole were granted release by the commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

Those who do get out are placed under strict surveillance. Even a minor slip-up could land them back in a cell.

DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell has unilateral authority over who will be set free. He will look at everything from their behavior and remorse to victim impact statements and psychological evaluations.

“I want people to feel a sense of hope,” said Schnell, who is expected to oversee 67 parole requests this year. “I do believe that . . . people can change.”

Everett was set on a perilous path before he called a taxi in the early hours of a cold January morning. He grew up around gang members and criminals and had become numb to violence by the time he turned 18.

So Everett did not hesitate when he robbed taxicab driver Wilbur “Bill” Nieuwsma at gunpoint. Nor did he hesitate in shooting the 42-year-old husband and father from Lakeville twice in the head. A Hennepin County judge sentenced Everett to life in prison, just days before his 19th birthday.

The Rev. John Cummins, who wed Bill and Melayna Nieuwsma in 1974, led the memorial service in January 1990. He described Nieuwsma then as a “practical man who loved his family, especially his two girls.” Nieuwsma’s family could not be reached for comment.

Everett, now 48, has spent nearly three decades behind bars. He is bald, soft-spoken and has a long goatee.

Inside the Stillwater prison, Everett lives the same day again and again. He and other inmates wake at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast and a morning count. They leave their cells for the day to report to work assignments or treatment groups, stopping only for lunch around noon.

Then they eat dinner, recreate for a few hours and are back in their cells by 9:30 p.m.

“If you keep track of time, it makes it pass by too slowly,” Everett told the St. Paul Pioneer Press . “I keep my mind focused on the future and the type of life that I want to have.”

Over the years, Everett has written letters to his victim’s family and participated in educational programs at the Stillwater prison. And he said he has come to grips with his actions through deep reflection — and personal loss.

His own 27-year-old son was shot and killed last August.

“It made me understand even more how a person’s actions not only affect people that’s involved ... but generations later,” Everett said.
Pepi McKenzie has also had plenty of time to reflect on his crime.

Twenty-seven years ago, he became known as the gang member who shot and killed Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf in cold blood.

Haaf, a 53-year-old officer who was months away from retirement, was reading a newspaper inside a Minneapolis pizza parlor when McKenzie walked in and shot him in the back.

The execution-style slaying roiled the city of Minneapolis and crippled relations between the police and local gangs. At age 20, McKenzie was sentenced to life in prison.

“There’s really no redemption for taking a person’s life, in my view,” said McKenzie, who is now 45 and will be eligible for parole in November 2022. “It’s going to be an everyday struggle to try and correct that wrong. So that’s my mission, just to be a part of humanity and correct the wrong that I did and move forward.”

Haaf’s family could not be reached for comment. In a Pioneer Press report from 1993, Marilyn Haaf said she lived a lonely life without her husband.

“We did everything together, and now I have to do it alone,” she said.

Victims’ survivors have some say in whether inmates serving life sentences will be set free.

The review process for lifers begins three years before they are eligible for parole. Schnell and an advisory panel of DOC employees hear feedback from prison staff, the community the offender is from and any surviving family members of victims. The commissioner will either set a projected release date or direct the offender to complete more tasks.

DOC victim services director Lydia Newlin reaches out to surviving family members years in advance of parole hearings.

“They can be triggering and difficult just for families in general,” Newlin said.

Family members tend to wonder if the offender has apologized and taken responsibility for their actions, she said. Some have questions only the killers can answer, such as “What were my loved one’s last words?” and “Why did you choose them?”

Some families want a say in the process and others want no part of it. Most are adamantly opposed to the idea of releasing the men who took their loved ones away.

“That’s one of the big hurdles that families have to kind of work through, and that is that life doesn’t mean life in the state of Minnesota unless you are sentenced to life without parole or life with consecutive sentences,” Newlin said.

The decision to grant parole is not an easy one. Schnell admits it jerks him in opposite directions.

“That pull between wanting to honor the family and recognize the very real harm that these people experienced, and then at the same time seeing the fact that these people who were involved in these crimes are in many cases ... very different people than they were at the time
they committed them,” Schnell said.

Commissioners have struggled with these decisions since Minnesota abolished its formal parole board in 1982. Minnesota is one of just four states where the corrections commissioner has this power.

In a letter to state lawmakers in May, Schnell argued in favor of bringing back the bipartisan parole board (the bill did not pass at the Capitol). He shared data from the past 20 years that showed past commissioners have granted parole at different rates.

One commissioner granted parole to 8.8% of the lifers he reviewed, according to a DOC data analysis. Another granted parole to 12.7%. And a third granted parole to 32% of the life-sentenced inmates who petitioned him for release.

Jeff Anderson was one of the lucky few lifers who did get out. After going to prison in 1985 for killing a man during a robbery attempt, he was released on parole in 2016.

Anderson began to build a new life for himself. He got a job as a union laborer, helped manage his apartment building, jumped into a new relationship and volunteered in the community. Then one Sunday afternoon, he made a mistake.

He was out for lunch and ordered a beer, which violated his probation. Little did he know that off-duty parole agents were eating at the same restaurant. They took pictures and reported him.

“The violation was relatively minor, but the reality is any violation for us is serious and the consequences are severe for us,” said Anderson, who is now 52 and has been back in prison since June 2017. His next parole hearing is on July 16.

Life-sentenced offenders who get out of prison are put on intensive supervised release, a form of probation that includes weekly meetings, electronic monitoring and random drug testing, among other things. They must also abide by any special conditions of their release.

Despite the short leash, lifers tend to be less likely to violate probation, said DOC program and policy monitor Bill Hafner. Over the years, their probation can become less strict if they prove they are of low risk.

“The vast majority (of lifers) I’ve dealt with ... have done very well,” Hafner said.

Everett, who will make his case for parole in January, said he is ready to redeem himself and reconnect with his mother, sons and grandchildren.

He is trying to line up a job to start upon his potential release. And he plans to join in community efforts to help people in need.

“My goal is to make positive contributions to my family, to the community and to society as a whole. And because that’s what drives me, it gives me something to always look forward to,” Everett said.