Special Report: Justice For All

Published: Mar. 27, 2009 at 2:28 AM EDT|Updated: Mar. 27, 2009 at 2:53 PM EDT
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By Laurie Bernstein - bio | email

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Not many people know the devastation of losing a loved one to murder.

For Betty Sample, it's a chain of events that she's dealt with not only once, but twice.

"I'll never lead a normal life. I'll never have my mother back, and I'll never have my mother-in-law back," said Sample.

The first go-around started back in 1994, after the death of her mother, Helen book, a local rental property owner.

Police say two tenants living in one of their houses murdered Helen over rent money, and set fire to her body and car on Fort Benning.

"One attacked her from behind, and strangled her with a nintendo cord, while the other one held her," said Sample.

Two years after the crime, the Muscogee County District Attorney cut plea deals with these the men, sending Darrell Warren away for 20 years on an Armed Robbery Charges, and Roland Williams away for life on a murder charge.

"I thought he was going to be there for a long, long time, but it was seven years, and he's up for his first parole. Where is seven years worth anyone's life?" said Sample.

Ten years later, Betty and her family grieved yet again, when Columbus Police found her mother in law, 80-year-old Yanina Sample, dead in her home.

"He beat her, choked her, and left her for dead," said Sample.

Police arrested Kenneth Chambers, a homeless man from Columbus, for the break-in and murder.

This time, Betty learned her lesson and forced the D.A. to go for the death penalty, guaranteeing life without parole.

"You go through this big thing with the trial, but when the trial is over, everyone thinks, 'Now it's all behind you.' It's never behind you. As long as they are in prison and can come up for parole, its never behind you," said Sample.

Every four years, the two men convicted in her mother's murder come up for parole, and each time, Betty is forced to re-live the pain of that fateful day 15 years ago.

"When you lose someone close to you, it's difficult to deal with. As time goes by, generally you tend to deal with it better, but when you have to open those wounds every year fighting to keep them in prison, you can never heal," said Sample.

Adding to Betty's difficulties is that the Georgia Parole Board doesn't actually meet, and as a result, victims cannot speak in front of them when a criminal is being considered for release.

Betty says her only recourse is writing them letters...hoping to sway them to her side.

"The system needs to work for us, the victims. The system seems to work for the criminals. We should not be the ones burdened to keep these people in prison. There should be someone in the system, an organization in the system, that fights to keep them in there," said Sample.

For murder victims in Alabama, Miriam Shehane is that someone.

She heads up the no-profit organization, Victims of Crime and Leniancy, also known as VOCAL.

Shehane started the organization back in 1976, after three men raped and killed her own daughter, Quenette, in Birmingham.

"The scales of justice were so imbalanced, so we started asking questions," said Shehane.

She and other members of VOCAL spend most of their time working in the Alabama legislature, schmoozing with lawmakers and getting bills passed that protect victims' rights.

Shehane hopes that one day, Alabama will get rid of the parole process all together, and move towards truth in sentencing...easing the burden on thousands of families who have lost loved ones to violent crimes.

"We should know when we walk out of the courtroom that they are going to serve what that judge has sentenced them to," said Shehane.

Because of groups like VOCAL, Alabama has more laws on the books than most states when it comes to victims' rights.

They even let families of victims come and speak in front of the parole board when their convicted killer is up for release.

In Georgia, however, things work very differently, so WTVM went to the State Capitol in Atlanta to find out why.

Many crime victims say the parole board works for the criminals instead of the victims...but Chairperson of the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board Gale Buckner says that is not true.

"The Board of Parole is very interested in hearing from victims, especially those of violent crimes. It's something that has impacted that victim immediately, and will impact them for the rest of their lives," said Buckner.

Many victims say their only recourse of communication with the parole board is to write letters when their felon is up for release...but Buckner says people can call and e-mail the office to talk to someone at any time.

In addition, the Board organizes "Victims' Visitor Days" all over the state, and even if it's not near a felon's time of release, these families can talk to board members directly.

"These victims voices are heard, that contact is put into that file, and we'll have a reminder of their expressions at the time we consider those files again.

When asked why the parole board doesn't meet as a group to discuss cases and let the families of murder victims to speak before them directly, like Alabama, Buckner pointed to the numbers.

"I don't know how Alabama works, but Georgia has just 5 parole board members for the entire 55,000+ inmate population. There is just simply not enough opportunities for us to sit down with each victim, every time they want to come in," said Buckner.

Looking at the numbers, Georgia's prison population is twice the size of Alabama's, which has only 29,000 inmates.

The Georgia parole board also handles more than double the amount of cases being considered by the Alabama parole board.

Family members like Betty Sample, though, say it doesn't matter--the board should make the time, and they should have the right to tell their story when it counts.

"Anytime you can make a face-to-face plea with someone, it carries much more impact than for someone to read a piece of paper. That piece of paper doesn't show any emotion," said Sample.

Advocates like Miriam Shehane say victims need to organize in Georgia, and stand up for their rights.

She says it's the only way that the system will change to keep more convicted killers locked up behind bars.

"Put a face to that file they are looking at. It will change a lot of decisions, I grant you," said Shehane.

***News Leader Nine wants to stress that Darrell Warren was never convicted of the murder of Helen Book. He pled guilty to armed robbery charges in connection to her death.***