Board of Pardons made correct decision

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reginald Bennett was 21 when he got hit on the head with a bottle during an altercation between a group of friends and strangers.

Without thinking, he threw a rock at the man who might have hit him with the bottle.

The man, 54-year-old James Sloan Jr., stumbled and fell down a stairwell. Bennett checked on Sloan, saw a pool of blood, ran across the street to call 911 and waited for an ambulance to arrive.

That was in 1978. Bennett has been in prison for the past 32 years, serving a life sentence.

Tuesday, the Nebraska Board of Pardons voted, 2-1, to commute Bennett's sentence, only the second time it has done so in 20 years.

He's still not a free man. It's still up to the Parole Board to decide whether or not he should be released.

If he is released, he owes his freedom to Secretary of State John Gale and Attorney General Jon Bruning, who voted for the commutation. Gov. Dave Heineman took the safe political course, voting against commutation.

"I know for sure if we don't (commute his sentence)," Heineman said, "he won't commit another crime."

Bruning went the extra mile, however, visiting the prisoner twice, something he's never done before, and seeking counsel from his priest, family members and a prominent county attorney.

"I come down on the side of mercy," said Bruning, who added that it was remarkable that Bennett called an ambulance after hitting Sloan with the rock. "Mr. Bennett didn't intend to kill anyone when he walked out of his house," Bruning said.

"The moment the rock left my hands, I knew I was in the wrong," Bennett said in a videotaped interview conducted earlier this month by his attorney. "I threw the rock, I made an irrational decision. I feel sorry and remorseful for what I've done."

Bennett has many supporters, including a former prison guard, the chairwoman of the state Board of Parole, a pastor and others who have worked with him, and by all accounts has been a model prisoner. Wisely, he seeks only a gradual return to society, and would like to become a youth minister and reconnect with his family, including two sons and four grandchildren.

The death of the victim should not be minimized. Sloan was robbed of years of life and his family and friends years of companionship.

But from the outside, it looks like a life sentence was excessive, that Bennett should have served a shorter sentence for manslaughter. We have to wonder how competent his original defense was.

The Board of Pardons was right in moving to commute Bennett's sentence. The Board of Parole should complete the process.

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