(Part 1 of 3)
BRADENTON, Fla. — Inside a carpeted room at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, an audience of about 75 settled into rows of banquet chairs. In the center of the room was a table, topped with microphones and a box of tissues that would be plucked from liberally over the next few hours.
Here, family members, crime victims, lawyers and police would step up and speak either for or against a particular offender being returned to society. At the front of the room sat the three Florida officials who would debate a score and make such decisions right there on the spot, not unlike an episode of “American Idol,” though far more somber.
Shortly after the meeting began, the case of inmate David Hastings, a 63-year-old man serving a life sentence for murder, was called. A woman with short, graying hair shuffled to the table, clutched a piece of paper and leaned into the mic.
“My name is Joyce Stotts,” she said, her voice high-pitched but determined, close to tears. “On December 19, 1988, David Hastings robbed and killed my husband, in an Arby’s restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. I will never forget the moment leading up to his attack. I had been in the ladies’ room. When I came out, I was surprised he was not already waiting for me. I decided to wait at the entrance.
“At some point, David Hastings walked up to me and said, ‘Something terrible happened in the men’s restroom.’ Then he walked out and got into our van and drove away. My husband was blind in one eye — he wore glasses with one black lens and one clear lens. I believe he was targeted because of his disability. He was in the Navy, causing us to be apart for long periods of time.
“He had been transferred to Jacksonville four days before he was murdered by David Hastings. We were looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together. I’ll never forget stepping into the men’s room and seeing my husband shot to death and lying in his own blood.”
By now, Stotts was crying and difficult to understand. Audience members dabbed their eyes and choked back sobs. The commissioners sat still and upright, listening earnestly. “I’m a Christian woman and forgave him a long time ago. I do continue to pray for him,” Stotts continued. She asked that Hastings not be freed from prison, though, lest he commit more crime or cause more heartache. “Please don’t let him,” she squeaked.
Thousands eligible for parole
Whether or not to let certain inmates out of prison is a decision that falls to the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR), consisting of three commissioners appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
The commission meets for hearings about 36 times per year, usually in Tallahassee but sometimes elsewhere around the state. They consider not just parole, but whether to let terminally ill inmates out of prison early (“compassionate medical release”) and whether to let already-paroled inmates remain free. As they did on Oct. 9 and 10, they might rule on dozens of cases on a single day. (The commission also acts as an investigative arm for the governor and his cabinet in granting pardons and restoring rights to ex-felons.)
In a gentle voice with a slight Southern accent, commission chairman Melinda Coonrod, a former prosecutor and administrative hearing officer, thanked Stotts for traveling from Tennessee to testify. Commission vice chair Richard Davison, a former prosecutor and onetime deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections, moved on to scoring and deciding on Hastings’ case.
In the 1980s, the public was frustrated by drug wars, the crack epidemic and crowded prisons that saw criminals cycling in and out. A wave of “tough on crime” policies, like mandatory minimums, were subsequently put into effect. New prisons were built, and in 1983, Florida eliminated parole for most crimes.
Now, Florida has about 95,000 inmates in its state prisons and they must serve at least 85% of their sentences. However, about 4,000 who were incarcerated before the laws changed are still eligible for parole, meaning they can serve part of their sentences outside the institution. The FCOR functions as an autonomous, quasi-judicial body that grants or denies parole. Some cases require that only two of the commissioners vote, while others require all three.
FCOR staff keep track of when an inmate is parole-eligible, based on the date and nature of his or her crime. State rules lay out elements that play into consideration for parole, such as an inmate’s “salient factor score” (which takes into account prior convictions and escape attempts), the severity of an inmate’s behavior, and aggravating or mitigating factors.
At his or her prison, in a series of interviews spread over decades, an inmate will meet with a staffer called a commission investigator who calculates and considers all of these factors, plus any mitigating or aggravating circumstances. The investigator will then write a report laying out her findings and issuing a recommendation.
This is forwarded to the three FCOR commissioners, who also receive copies of inmates’ medical, psychological and criminal histories, plus any letters sent in from victims or supporters arguing for or against parole. With an “initial interview,” the inmate’s presumptive parole date will be determined. With a “subsequent interview,” the parole date may be reconsidered or another hearing set. With an “effective interview,” the commission will decide whether or not to grant parole.
Good behavior not a factor considered
By the date of each FOR hearing, each commissioner will have reviewed the files for each inmate on the agenda for that session, and made his or her own notes. In front of the audience, they go through the cases — a mix of initial, subsequent and effective interviews, plus extraordinary cases — one by one. Inmates do not appear in person. Affected persons, such as victims or victims’ family members, or the inmate’s family members or friends, may speak.
FCOR employs a victim advocate who sometimes comes to the hearings and reads a statement on behalf of the family. Sometimes a law enforcement representative attends. If an inmate has an attorney, he or she can appear, but no attorney is provided for them. After this testimony, each commissioner makes his or her own determination, deciding whether to go along with the investigator’s recommendation or deviate from it. They explain their decisions aloud, methodically but quickly.
The commissioners were not made available for interviews for this story, but according to Kelly Corder, who through October served as director of communications for the Florida Department of Corrections, they consider numerous mitigating or aggravating factors: Does the inmate have an acceptable release plan? Does he/she have any disciplinary reports? Has he/she participated in any rehabilitative or educational programs? Gain time earned for good behavior, which shortens sentences, is not a factor, as “release from prison to parole is considered an act of grace, not a right, and shall not be done as a reward for current behavior,” Corder said in an email. Parole is considered part of the sentence to be served.
According to FCOR’s most recent annual report, on June 30, 2018, there were 4,275 inmates who were eligible for parole and 448 releases on parole supervision. In fiscal year 2017-18, the commission made 1,499 parole determinations and granted parole to 14 inmates.
In Hastings’ case, Davison moved on to his salient factor score and compared it against a “Matrix Time Range” that is outlined in the state rules and used to determine whether to grant parole. He ticked off each of Hastings’ offenses — including first-degree murder, armed robbery, burglary, escape and unsatisfactory institutional conduct — and their related time range in months: 400 to 9,998 for murder and so on.
The other two commissioners (David Wyant, a former deputy police chief, is the third) chimed in, either agreeing or disagreeing with the number of months cited by the staff investigator, sometimes citing a slightly different number of months. In a back-and-forth that might have sounded like gibberish to an audience member unfamiliar with their decision-making process, they rattled off references to the salient factor score and mitigating factors.
“I considered mitigation when I scored this case,” Coonrod said, but noted that Hastings had an extensive criminal history and racked up 85 disciplinary reports while incarcerated. The commissioners decided that his presumptive parole date should be in December 2148, but that they would consider his case again in seven years, June 2026. From the time Stotts had started speaking to the time the commission’s decision was made, only about five minutes elapsed. They had 30-odd cases to go for the day.
The commissioners plowed through the October agenda. If no one spoke up either for or against the inmate — which was the case for about three-quarters of the cases on the docket — the commissioners would discuss the case in a sort of shorthand, naming the inmate, running through the determining factors and saying whether or not whether they would agree with or depart from the commission investigator’s recommendation. In some cases they made their decision in less than a minute. However, in cases where testimony was heard, the commissioners seemed to be swayed. FCOR does not have data on how often the commissioners deviate from the investigators’ suggestions.
They considered the case of Anthony Hayes, who is serving 99 years for second-degree murder and was up for an “extraordinary review,” with commissioners determining whether or not to decline his parole. The victim’s sister, Robin Singleton, spoke. Hayes had shot her sister in her apartment, then walked away and left her when she was begging for help, she testified.
“I would hate for Anthony to be released and harm anybody else,” Singleton said. “My sister’s not the only female that he’s harmed in the past.” She described raising her nephew without his parents. The commissioners agreed to decline Hayes’ parole and set a seven-year interview in 2026.
“I want to wish you God’s blessing,” Davison said as the family stood to leave.
The commission considered the case of Roger Shaw, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. An investigator had recommended parole as long as an appropriate release plan could be crafted. But Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells sent a representative to speak against his release. Shaw, he said, had gone on “a one-man crime spree back in the day.” First, he’d robbed and beaten an elderly couple with the man’s cane and stolen his pistol. Then he robbed and shot another person, who survived. Then he robbed a homeowner, whom he beat to death.
“Now I know your examiner said that he might be able to live with his sister, and may be able to get a job at a restaurant where he worked in 1980 [while on work release]. But this guy’s a predator,” the sheriff’s representative said.
All three commissioners disagreed with the investigator’s recommendation. Wyant cited the serious nature of the crimes. Davison cited the escalating criminal conduct. Coonrod added that the victims were elderly. They agreed that they would review the case again in seven years, 2026.
‘Never gets easier’
The commission considered a subsequent interview for inmate Larry Morris. “Larry is an interesting guy,” said a representative who traveled to speak against his release on behalf of Brian Haas, the state attorney for Florida’s 10th Judicial Circuit. Since 1970, Morris had faced a rash of serious charges, including pedophilia, lewd assult on a minor and sexual battery at a school. He had 16 disciplinary reports. “He has no desire to be released and he’s told you that in every way,” the representative said.
“When it comes to mental health, it’s hard to decide these kinds of cases,” Coonrod said. Morris too would have his case reviewed again in 2026.
Ronald Varner was up for an extraordinary interview after killing his ex-wife in 1978. His presumptive parole date had been suspended; now it was time to decide whether to remove that suspended status.
His current wife, Robin Varner, who met him in 1983, said, “What happened was a tragedy.” But he was now repentant, in declining health and had no disciplinary reports in his 40-year incarceration, she said. A friend, Julie Rutherton, who met Ronald Varner in 2006, called him a wonderful person, loving and kind. “Where he is at the moment is not where he was 40 years ago,” she said.”Give him grace in this situation.”
Then it was time for the victim’s family to speak. Shauna Walker, the daughter of Deborah Lowe, Varner’s murder victim, sat at the table and spoke softly, her partner rubbing her back. “I don’t forgive him for what he did,” she said. She remembered seeing Varner throw her mother through a glass table and beat her when she was pregnant with Varner’s child. “He put a gun to my head,” she said. “I was 7 years old. … Maybe he was a good man in prison but he was a monster.”
In a 1978 custody battle following the baby’s birth, Lowe had been ordered to meet with Varner, Walker said. “She complied with the law. He never complied. She met him at a McDonald’s. He shot her seven times. She died in a car by herself, alone. He took the child and ran for another two years. Life in prison means life. He should die there. She didn’t die with any family with her. He shouldn’t have that same option.”
All three commissioners agreed with the commission investigator to not change anything about Varner’s presumptive release date, and to hold another interview in 2026.
It wasn’t only the crime or the trial but the long aftermath that was disturbing for victims, Walker explained during the hearing. She often had to use vacation time to travel and beg that Varner not be released. “I’ve been to several of these hearings. This never gets easier,” she said.
This project was collaboratively produced with Jaxlookout and underwritten in part by The Vital Projects Fund.