The Nassau County District Attorney and the state Attorney General want the parole board to re-examine its decision to release a convicted sex offender after an assistant attorney general vouched for the inmate’s innocence.
Harlan Levy, chief deputy attorney general, wrote to the parole board Monday, joining a request made last week by Nassau County Chief Assistant District Attorney Madeline Singas.
Singas wrote that her office was caught off-guard when it learned from the media that Thomas Schellhammer, the head of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s conviction review bureau, had written to the parole board advocating for Ronald Bower, who was serving an 18-to-54-year sentence for sex crimes in Nassau County and Queens.
Schellhammer wrote that his conviction review bureau “has been actively investigating a claim of actual innocence of this inmate for some time” and deemed it “highly unlikely that Bower committed the crimes for which he was convicted.”
At Bower’s parole interview, two of the three commissioners sharply criticized Schellhammer for seeming to attest to the inmate’s innocence. They said if the attorney general was so convinced that Bower was wrongly convicted, it should work with the district attorneys to exonerate the man. Then, the board voted to release Bower.
Queens and Nassau County prosecutors reacted angrily, claiming they were stunned by Schellhammer’s letter and advocacy for the inmate (NYLJ, March 3).
Singas, in the March 5 letter, asked the parole board to reconsider. She said it was “imperative” that the panel understand that the Nassau County District Attorney knew nothing of Schellhammer’s findings and was not even aware that Bower was being considered for release.
“Mr. Schellhammer did not review case files in Nassau or Queens County, he did not speak to the original prosecutors, and he did not consult the prosecutors who re-examined the cases,” Singas said in her letter to Terrence Tracy, counsel to the parole board. “In addition, the Nassau County victim told this office that she was not consulted by the Attorney General.”
Levy, in a brief letter Monday to Tracy, said that the attorney general’s office supports Singas’ request that the parole board “re-examine is decision on Mr. Bower’s release while [Nassau County] conducts a comprehensive review of this matter.” Shortly afterwards Singas released a statement saying, “We are grateful for the Office of the Attorney General’s willingness to work with us as we comprehensively review this case.”
It remains unclear, however, whether Schellhammer blindsided the Nassau and Queens district attorneys with his Dec. 30 letter to the parole board, as they claim and as the attorney general denies.
Although prosecutors in both counties say they had no idea Schellhammer was advocating for Bower or that his bureau had concluded the convict was probably innocent, the attorney general’s office insists it did indeed reach out to the Queens and Nassau County district attorney offices.
Additionally, Schneiderman’s office noted that the parole board, which so harshly criticized the attorney general’s office for submitting the letter on Bower’s behalf, had specifically invited the correspondence.
Records show that as Bower’s parole interview was approaching, he told the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) that the attorney general was close to having his conviction overturned. Consequently, an aide in the upstate prison where Bower is incarcerated wrote to Schellhammer on April 1, 2013 asking him to provide “any information you have regarding the status of [Bower's] case.”
About nine months later, on Dec. 30, 2013, Schellhammer wrote to DOCCS, explaining why he has doubts about Bower’s guilt and urging the panel to release the inmate as soon as possible On Jan. 21, the board voted to release Bower.
Singas said the Nassau County victim remains convinced that Bower is the man who attacked her more than 20 years ago, but does not necessarily oppose his release, so long as it’s not predicated on an assertion of innocence.
“However, if the Parole Board’s decision was based on Mr. Schellhammer’s letter, both the victim and this office oppose his release,” Singas wrote.
It was not clear from public records how much of an impact Schellhammer’s letter had on the parole board. At the hearing, commissioners seemed to give it considerable weight, according to a transcript of the proceeding.
But in its actual decision, the board focused more on the fact that the agency’s own assessment indicated Bower is at the lowest possible risk to commit another crime, that he had a solid institutional record and no prior criminal history, that he rejected a lenient plea bargain that would have resulted in his discharge roughly 15 years ago and that there was no community opposition to his release. On similar facts, the board has released some offenders who were convicted of violent crimes.
However, Bower has declined sex offender treatment, on the grounds that he is not a sex offender, and has refused to take responsibility for the crimes, on the grounds that he did not commit them. The parole board frequently denies release to uncooperative or unrepentant inmates, especially convicted sex offenders who refuse to undergo treatment.
Bower has already completed the Queens portion of his term, and therefore the parole determination does not affect his sentence for crimes committed in that borough.
Bower’s attorney, Jeremy Goldberg, chief of the appeals bureau with the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, said in a letter Friday responding to Singas’ letter that Schellhammer investigated the case for about 16 months before concluding that Bower was probably innocent.
Goldberg, who has spent 20 years attempting to exonerate Bower, said he is convinced his client was wrongly convicted and that the real culprit is a former New York City police officer. But he also indicated that for the purposes of parole, it doesn’t much matter because his client is a good candidate for release whether he committed the charged offenses or not.
“There has been no reason offered which justifies the Board reconsidering the decision it has already reached, and I can think of no reason that exists which would justify it in doing so,” Goldberg wrote.
Goldberg noted that the victim clearly does not view Bower as a threat since she is not opposed to his release. Additionally, Goldberg said his 52-year-old client is a “wreck of a man, broken by the nightmare he has endured for nearly 23 years.”
“Even upon release, he tells me, and I believe him, that he is so afraid of being wrongly accused again that he never plans to be in public without having someone with him, and that he has no plans to go out at night at all,” Goldberg wrote. “He is no threat to the public safety.”
A spokesman for the parole board declined comment.