Patrick Maloney gunned down his mother and step-father in a hotel on Van Buren Street in Phoenix four days before his 16th birthday, a crime that put him behind bars with no chance of ever getting parole.
Gov. Jan Brewer handed him his freedom 49 years later and she won’t say why.
Maloney, 65, walked out of prison March 20 on parole, a status he couldn’t have gotten without Brewer reducing his sentence in October to 45 years to life.
Larry Hammond, an attorney who sits on the board of the Arizona Justice Project, said the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency’s recommendation for sentence reduction sat on Brewer’s desk for almost four years. Her proclamation gives no reasons for the decision, and a spokesman, Andrew Wilder, declined comment on the matter.
Brewer’s record on clemency has come under criticism for granting it at a rate far lower than her predecessors, and usually only for cases involving prisoners on their death beds.
But Hammond said he has seen this before in the case of Betty Smithey, who was sentenced to life without parole in 1963 for killing a child. Brewer in 2012 reduced her sentence to 48 years to life and the clemency board granted her an absolute discharge.
“The governor gets no real political heat from the most conservative elements because the board is the one that ultimately did it, but clearly this was the governor’s doing,” Hammond said.
Brewer’s decision to reduce Maloney’s sentence is also baffling in light of another case that landed on her desk six months before Maloney’s.
Brewer rejected the unanimous recommendation to reduce the sentence of Bill Macumber, whose conviction for a 1963 double murder rang with doubt as evidence pointed to his innocence. Macumber, 78, was eventually freed after serving almost 38 years in prison and pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a new sentence of time served.
Brewer’s rejection drew national attention and a blindsided confrontation with Macumber’s son as cameras rolled.
Duane Belcher, chairman of the clemency board until 2012, said governors typically play it safe when it comes to freeing prisoners because they don’t want another Willie Horton situation. A menacing mug shot of Horton was featured in a 1988 ad that derailed the presidential campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis, who was the Massachusetts governor when Horton got out on a weekend furlough and raped a woman and stabbed her fiancé.
Belcher said Brewer’s status as a governor nearing the end of her final term probably had something to do with Maloney’s sentence reduction now as opposed to at the time of the initial recommendation.
“My guess is if it was the right thing to do in October, it was the right thing to do two or three years ago,” Belcher said.
Thousands of pleas
Belcher, who left his position on bad terms and was escorted by police from the Executive Tower, thinks Brewer’s refusal to re-appoint him stemmed from the Macumber case. Other members who were part of the board in 2009 have testified in unrelated court matters that they believe they weren’t reappointed for the same reason.
Belcher has heard the pleas of thousands of prisoners wanting freedom over the 20 years he was on the clemency board, but he remembered Maloney, who records show had gone before the board five times since 1978.
He also remembered the brutal facts of the case.
A police summary, written with a typewriter from the day, says Maloney’s mother, Miriam Curson, was found face down with a burned out cigarette still clamped between her fingers, an indication she was ambushed with a gunshot from behind.
Maloney’s stepfather, William Curson, was killed with a single gunshot, but police found him with a butcher knife imbedded in his chest. Maloney took money and William Curson’s car and ran away with friends.
Maloney’s version was that his stepfather discovered him and Miriam Curson having a sexual relationship that had begun two to three years earlier, according to the board’s recommendation letter to Brewer. William Curson had a gun and Maloney had a knife while they scuffled and the stepfather probably accidently shot his wife, according to Maloney’s account.
He was originally sentenced to death, but that was reversed and he was later given a life sentence. Judges had no discretion in 1964 since punishment for a first-degree murder conviction was either death or life without parole.
Too few options
Katie Puzauskas, director of the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit that helps prisoners who have suffered a clear and unmistakable injustice, said Maloney’s background wasn’t given enough consideration at trial and there weren’t enough options for sentencing.
“There should have been more weight on the fact there was an incestuous relationship and how that affected Patrick mentally and emotionally and how that may have contributed to the offense,” Puzauskas said.
Maloney agreed through Puzauskas to an interview for this story, but he was not immediately available.
Maloney is one of about 25 Arizona prisoners who are called “old-code lifers,” prisoners sentenced to life in prison before 1973, which is when the law was changed to allow for parole after 25 years. There is still one left who was a juvenile when he committed his crime.
Puzauskas said there were hundreds of old-code lifers, but governors routinely reduced their sentences, sometimes to as little as 10 years, a practice that tapered off in the mid-1980s.
According to the recommendation letter, Maloney’s disciplinary record was minimal and he spent 18 months as a truck driver for the Department of Corrections, an assignment in which he made deliveries to other prisons and state buildings throughout the state. He made the trips alone and always returned, but the program was eventually cut.
He also married a woman and made several 72-hour unescorted furloughs with her. The marriage lasted until the mid 1990s when she died.
Puzauskas said there is one other factor that may have influenced Brewer’s decision: Maloney’s age at the time of the crime and the fact the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a mandatory life sentence for someone who committed a crime as a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The court reasoned that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a juvenile “prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change.’”
Maloney was one of about 65 Arizona prisoners who sought a chance at parole in trial court based on the Supreme Court ruling, but other claims were dismissed and are now pending appeal.
Maloney dropped his appeal when he got word of Brewer’s decision.
“I always come back to the fact Patrick was 15 and he got a life sentence and I think maybe she thought, ‘Well, he’s deserving of a parole eligibility date,’” Puzauskas said.