Rehabilitation, Remorse, and Innocence: Rodney Stanberry Tries for Parole
Sep 23, 2013
6 Min read time
Rodney Stanberry with his son Trevon, shortly before Rodney was sent to prison.
Courtesy of Denise Stanberry
The day Rodney Stanberry went up for parole, he wasn’t even there. It was August 28, and Rodney was in Atmore, Alabama, mowing the grass on the side of the road with some city employees and the rest of his work crew. One hundred and twenty miles away, three men in a municipal complex in Montgomery were deciding whether he would go free or serve the full twenty-year sentence for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. Rodney hadn’t slept the night before, and as family members from North Carolina and Maryland converged on Montgomery, corrections officers and Atmore city workers told him to be positive, be hopeful. Told him, you’re going to make it.
Those eligible for parole in Alabama are not actually entitled to attend their own hearings, so at Rodney’s hearing was everyone but him: almost a dozen people from the family of the victim, Valerie Finley, there to oppose his parole, and five from his family, including his aging father, his son—now seventeen, Trevon was less than a year old when Rodney went to prison—and his cousin Artemesia, who has dedicated the bulk of her adult life to seeing him free.
Rodney has been denied parole twice before. This was his third and final chance. Parole boards typically operate with very little oversight or transparency, so it is difficult to know what factors the three men—two former probation and parole officers and one former banker, all appointed by former Alabama Governor Bob Riley—weighed in making their decision. Broadly, parole boards must consider whether the prisoner is likely to commit more crime if released. Specifically, they often look into whether he has any behavioral write-ups from his time in prison, whether he has a job or housing lined up on the outside, the nature of his crime and his criminal history, and evidence of rehabilitation.
What, exactly, is evidence of rehabilitation? The first step is “acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and repentance,” writes Northeastern University Law Professor Daniel Medwed in his law review article “The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma: Consequences of Failing to Admit Guilt at Parole Hearings.” Following in the tradition of Freud, who held that denial is a sign of failure to take responsibility for one’s actions, parole boards generally look favorably on an inmate who can admit his mistakes and say he is sorry. “Almost every jurisdiction, sometimes formally, sometimes just as a matter of practice, basically requires an admission of guilt—some display of remorse—as a pre-condition to release,” Medwed told me.
This time they’d go for broke. Rodney’s dad and his sister would tell the board this was their chance to free an innocent man.
“Which of course creates a Catch-22,” he continued. “If you’re actually innocent, how can you admit guilt and show genuine remorse? So if you don’t do it, you’re going to be rejected for parole, most likely. If you feign remorse, and falsely claim to be guilty, you might get parole, but then you’re sinking your chance to reverse your case through litigation, because now there’s an admission of guilt that’s out there on the public record.”
With his parole date approaching, Rodney and his cousin Artemesia had grappled mightily with this predicament. Rodney couldn’t speak for himself that day, but he could submit materials to the board. So they made up a packet, which included the article I wrote about his case—detailing the reasons he is in all likelihood innocent, and the reasons he was nevertheless convicted—and another article from a Mobile alt-weekly that comes to many of the same conclusions. At his prior two hearings, Rodney’s representatives focused on his otherwise-clean criminal record; his accomplishments in prison, including earning his GED; and the job and housing waiting for him on the outside. “We didn’t bring up the topic of innocence,” Rodney told me. “They take that as, you have no remorse.” But this time, they figured, they’d go for broke. Rodney’s dad and his sister would tell the board this was their chance to free an innocent man. The family had nothing to lose.
But at the last minute, following the advice of a local attorney, they decided to stick to the script. They hoped the board had read the materials they had sent, but they had no way to know. “You’re watching them whispering and leaning back. I was wondering if they even had anything in front of them. From where we’re sitting, we can see them but we can’t see what they’re looking down at,” Artemesia said. “I would call them beforehand to ask them if they had received the packet of information I sent, and all they would say is, ‘if you sent it to this address then we got it.’”
At the hearing “Rodney’s father [was] looking at the parole board, thinking, my son is innocent,” Artemesia said. He was “struggling with trying not to say it, but trying to say it.” Valerie’s family voiced what Rodney’s had tried so hard not to. “Rodney Stanberry has deluded himself into thinking he is innocent,” said Valerie’s son, who was twelve when his mother was shot in the head.
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At their lunch break, one of the Atmore city workers called the parole board to find out what happened. “His face told it all,” Rodney said. “I then went by myself and let it sink in.”
After allowing the families some ten minutes to speak, the members of the board whispered to each other for about two minutes before announcing, “He will stay with us for his full sentence.”
“There is no laundry list or checklist, that if you check this block, this block, this block, you are guaranteed parole,” says Eddie Cook Jr., assistant executive director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Cook is not one of the three voting members of the Board, and the Board’s materials are “privileged,” so he couldn’t speak to Rodney’s case specifically, except to say that, by statute, “the Board must be of the opinion that there’s a reasonable probability that if the prisoner is released, he or she will remain at liberty without violating the law.” How the Board arrives at its opinion, Cook could not say. “The law speaks for itself: at the end of the day, the Board has to be of the opinion.”
Despite a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that parole boards must, as a matter of due process, give a reason for denying parole, Cook told me the board does not offer any. He said he was not familiar with the Supreme Court decision but that he would ask the Board’s lawyers to look into it.
Valerie’s family suffered mightily in the months and years following the shooting. Her son Terrell McCants, now a grown man with children of his own, told the parole board he has had three graduations—from high school, college, and law school—and his mother wasn’t able to be at any of them. Rodney’s family “can go and see him, they can hear from him, but we can’t see our mother,” Terrell said. Valerie has grandchildren she never met.
Rodney feels the weight of this keenly. Valerie was his friend, and he feels, he says, a terrible sense of loss because of what happened. “I completely understand what he must be going through,” he says of Terrell. “I just expected, being that he was so involved with the case, he would have possibly took an hour out of all these years—an hour—to see the other side of the story. I really, really would ask for that. I still ask for that.”
September 23, 2013
6 Min read time