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A month later, defense for Carleton Giles and his 71 commutations

Carelton J. Giles and Tracy Shumaker, whose sentence for murder was cut by six years.
Mark Pazniokas
CT Mirror
Carelton J. Giles and Tracy Shumaker, whose sentence for murder was cut by six years.

Controversy swirled last month around Carleton J. Giles, the pastor and former police officer removed by Gov. Ned Lamont as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles after a backlash to the dramatic increase in the commutation of prison sentences.

On Wednesday, Giles greeted a procession of men and women at the Legislative Office Building who praised his service and called him a victim of political cowardice and fear-mongering. He smiled at the thanks and praise but deflected the animus directed at the man who sacked him.

“I don’t have an ax to grind,” Giles said after the event. “The truth is, this job is at the will of the governor. You work for him.”

Giles noted that Republican lawmakers and families of victims demanded the governor remove him from the board, not just as chair. Lamont refused to withdraw his nomination to a third five-year term, which Giles called an act of “graciousness” and confirmation that he had acted within his statutory authority.

He was confirmed by votes of 79-67 in the House and 21-14 in the Senate. The other two board members who served with Giles on commutation panels also were confirmed to new terms.

The gathering Wednesday belatedly offered a side of the story that largely went untold last month, when Giles said little publicly about the sudden increase in applications for commutations. The majority were rejected, most denied without hearings in pre-screening meetings.

Seventy-one were granted, a departure for a board that typically had used its commutation powers to reduce the sentences no more than three times in any recent year. Forty-four went to inmates doing time for murders, most committed by men in their teens or early to mid 20s, a few by women.

Wednesday’s event was organized by Barbara Fair of New Haven, a longtime advocate of prison reform, and Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, a member of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. It offered elements of a testimonial, a religious revival and political rally, replete with stories of failure and redemption, gratitude and bitterness, and a call to action.

Attendees want Giles, who is 62, restored as chair and the commutation hearings, paused last month at the suggestion of the governor, to resume. Lamont, whose administration organized a meeting of stakeholders to discuss whether new parameters for commutations are necessary, has yet to signal if he is comfortable with their resumption.

Two retired judges, Eric Coleman and Maurice Mosley, came to show support for Giles. Both are Black men, like Giles. Neither addressed the crowd.

Black men are a disproportionate percentage of inmates in Connecticut prisons, where fewer than one third are white. Fair and others talked angrily about race, class and power and which voices tend to go heard or unheard by governors and others in public life.

“We should start making some demands of the governor that we put in place to represent all of us, not just the rich, wealthy people, not the people that are complaining, but all of us,” said Fair, a woman in her 70s and the mother and sister of men who have done time.

Her brother, Harvey, was the beneficiary of a pardon under Giles, an act that expunged his criminal record and opened doors to a job once unthinkable: Harvey Fair carries a badge as a public safety officer in Virginia, and he thanked Giles for the opportunity.

An aggravating irony to Giles’ admirers is that the outcry leading to his ouster and the suspension of commutation hearings arose from a rejected application by Jonathan Carney for a commutation, not one of the 71 that were granted.

As part of a plea deal, Carney is serving a 42-year sentence for the fatal shooting in 2002 of 24-year-old Elizabeth Carlson, the former girlfriend he stalked after their relationship ended. By law, the board had to notify Carlson’s parents of the application, even if Carney was not going to get a hearing.

The notice rattled the Carlsons, who viewed the plea deal as a contract and the 42-year sentence inviolate. They organized a postcard campaign in opposition to the commutations and, eventually, Giles.

Alex Taubes, a New Haven lawyer who has represented others in successful efforts to reduce sentences in court or before the board, said the campaign punished Giles for the notices of hearings sought by inmates, even when they were denied release or even a hearing.

“He didn’t give them any relief, they didn’t even get a hearing, they didn’t even go up in front of anyone,” Taubes said. “But this one white family that got what it wants gets to take away the rights of a population that’s majority Black and not even allow anyone to apply. That is wrong. That is unacceptable.”

Martha Smalls told the group that her son, Bernard, who has served 23 years of a 50-year sentence for a murder committed when he was 20, had been approved for commutation hearing on April 25, two weeks before the hearings were suspended.

“I can honestly stand here today and say Bernard has rehabilitated his life,” she said.

Giles said he understands the perspective of the families of victims. The business of offering second chances involves calculations that must be made without a precise formula: Is an applicant ready for release, and would a shorter sentence be just?

“And that’s why we pored through these files. And we see what the folks have done. And we asked them the hard questions. These hearings can be 90 minutes or two hours long,” Giles said. “Like any human being, everything that we do, how we live and travel and read, all comes to inform you.”

There is risk, whether a sentence is shortened by commutation or an inmate is granted freedom by parole. Will they offend again?

“As soon as the news comes on, when there was a shooting, you want to get the guy’s name, you want to get the girl’s name,” Giles said. “And you want to see, was he one of mine? Was she one of mine?”

According to the board’s statistics, the biggest reduction last year went to a 39-year-old inmate who served 23 years of an 85-year sentence for a crime committed as a 17-year-old. The 44 inmates doing time for murder were granted commutations that took an average of 14 years off 44-year sentences.

One of the commutations went to Tracy Shumaker, a white woman and mother of three who stepped to the microphone Wednesday, her nerves evident. She was convicted of shooting her husband while he slept, an act the defense attributed at her trial to a history of abuse. She served 19 years of a 25-year sentence.

“I am one of the four women Mr. Giles gave a second chance to,” Shumaker said. “I’ve been out for almost a year. And don’t get me wrong, Giles did not make it easy for my commutation hearing. He did not. He asked questions, and he asked hard questions. And, you know, he seen something in me. You know, he’s seen something in the four women he decided to give a second chance.”

One of them, she said, closed on a house the previous day.

That drew applause.

Giles stood as Shumaker finished. He is a big man. Shumaker came to his shoulder. He bent and hugged the woman. There was more applause.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.