Duane Belcher, chairman and executive director of the Arizona Board of Clemency, is on his way out after 20 years, as three new appointees take their places on the panel now made up entirely of Gov. Jan Brewer’s picks.
Belcher’s departure, some observers say, creates a vacuum of experience and leadership. Belcher is also one of the last members left from a board that unanimously recommended in 2009 to reduce a life sentence for a man many believe is innocent of a double murder.
Brewer’s denial of the recommended commutation drew national attention and criticism of the governor.
Brewer spokesman Matt Benson said there was no political retribution for Belcher or five-year member Ellen Stenson, both of whom sought new terms after they expired this year and in 2011.
Stenson said she believes otherwise, especially since she said she was questioned during her interview with a selection committee whether she still stands by her 2009 vote to recommend commutation for the man convicted in the double murder, Bill Macumber, 76.
“I felt Mr. Macumber deserved a chance at (commutation),” Stetson said.
Belcher said he was simply told by Brewer’s office that it was seeking to go in a new direction.
Benson said, “Sometimes it’s good to get fresh blood onto any commission. In this instance, we had an opportunity to bring in somebody new with a new perspective.”
The Senate on April 18 confirmed the nominations of the new clemency chairman, Jesse Hernandez, and Thomas Melvin, who will replace Marilyn Wilkens. The Senate confirmed Brian Livingston, who will replace Stenson, on April 19.
Belcher declined to speculate on whether the Macumber case led to his and Stenson’s departure.
“Maybe they just want some people with different backgrounds on the board to basically do the same thing but maybe have a different perspective on people getting out of prison or execution,” Belcher said.
There’s still no doubt that Brewer took grief for the Macumber case.
The board’s recommendation was based on “substantial” doubt that he committed the 1962 murders, and his good behavior behind bars. Retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Toole also testified that a killer he represented decades ago as a defense attorney confessed the crime to him, but he was barred from disclosing the confession by attorney-client privilege until after the killer died.
Brewer denied the recommendation and the case made national news and was the hot topic throughout the prisoner-advocate field. Macumber’s son also confronted Brewer at a public appearance with a television news crew demanding to know why she rejected the recommendation.
When Macumber’s case came before the board again last year Belcher voted with member Jack LaSota, a Brewer appointee, for commutation while Brewer appointees, Wilkens and Ellen Kirschbaum, voted against it. Stenson was out of town at the time, so the tie vote meant Macumber’s status didn’t change.
Belcher said he understands the position a governor, who always risks a Willie Horton incident, is in when it comes to clemency. Horton was a Massachusetts prisoner serving a life term without parole who committed a rape while he was on a furlough.
“It’s like giving the governor a plate full of hand grenades — which one is going to explode?” Belcher said.
Belcher can relate, since he was on a board that released Baseline Killer Mark Goudeau on parole in 2004. Goudeau went on a killing spree in 2006 that ended with nine convictions of first-degree murder and a cell on death row.
“Decision-makers have to make difficult decisions,” he said. “There’s no crystal ball.”
Belcher attended an April 19 hearing to help train Melvin, and while Hernandez was officially the new chairman, he didn’t attend.
Hernandez’ resume includes jobs as a self-employed insurance agent and Community and Government Affairs Representative for United Parcel Service. His most-recent employment was with Congressman David Schweikert and he’s been politically active by running unsuccessfully twice as a Republican for Legislative District 17 and working on campaigns for Dan Quayle and County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
He left off his resume his chairmanship of the Patriots for Pearce, a committee formed to support former Sen. Russell Pearce in his recall election in 2011.
When questioned about the Pearce campaign during an April 16 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Hernandez said he was simply an honorary chairman and didn’t participate in any campaigning.
As chairman, Hernandez will also serve as executive director of the board. His resume doesn’t list any experience running a government agency or experience in the criminal justice system, with the exception of being honorably discharged as a military policeman in 1982.
“He brings a great deal of military law-enforcement background and experience in both the public and private sector to this position,”
Hernandez didn’t return repeated calls seeking comment.
Thomas is former warden with the Department of Corrections and an Arizona private prison and Livingston is a former police officer who works as a police union lobbyist.
Belcher worked as a parole officer for the Department of Corrections before joining the board as an appointee of Gov. Fife Symington in 1992.
Donna Leone Hamm of the prisoner rights group Middle Ground Prison Reform, who has been regularly attending board meetings since 1981, said Belcher’s exit will increase an already steep learning curve for new members.
“Certainly with Mr. Belcher this man has an enormous historical perspective, not just on the workings of the board, but on the trends, on the laws that apply because there are still lifers coming before that board sentenced under the 1968 criminal code,” Hamm said.
Arizona made dramatic changes to its criminal codes in 1978 and 1994, the latter year being when traditional parole ended and truth-in- sentencing took effect. Truth in sentencing requires a prisoner to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before any chance of getting released. If the prisoner gets out, then the remainder is spent under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.
State law also requires that each new member take a four-week course conducted by the chairman to learn the duties and activities related to the board.
“The statute does not say they aren’t eligible to cast a vote until they complete their training, it would seem logical they probably shouldn’t be conducting hearings and casting votes until they get their training,” Hamm said.
Belcher said he used to allow new members to participate in hearings, but not vote for the first month they served because there is so much to learn. Belcher is staying on until May 11 to help with the transition.