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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Scrutiny for killer and board

Scrutiny for killer and board

By Julia Spitz, Metro West Daily News, Massachusetts, 23 Aug 2011

The state's Parole Board has come under fire for being so lenient a career criminal was free to kill Woburn Police officer in December, and so tough that they haven't released enough eligible prisoners this year.

The spotlight on the board's seesawing reputation isn't confined to newspaper opinion pages.

Convicted murderer Francis Soffen brought it up to board members last week.

"Now they say you're going to deny (my parole) because of the cop-shooter," Soffen said during his 15th attempt at release.

Soffen's two nieces and the 12 family members of his victims were also talking about the board's tenor as they filed into the Mercer Road building in Natick on Friday morning.

Several brought along photocopies of newspaper articles about last week's Governor's Council meeting, where Parole Board Chairman Josh Wall was taken to task for the roughly 15 percent drop in parole approvals. Springfield resident Debra Allen hoped it could signal a better chance for her uncle this time. The families of Gary Dube and Stephen Perrot hoped it did not.

No date is set for the board's decision, but Soffen, who was convicted of the 1972 murders of Dube and Perrot, is pretty sure how it will turn out.

"He's not going to vote for me," Soffen said of board member Roger Michel, who, during the four-hour hearing, brought up Soffen's reputation as "one of the most difficult prisoners to manage in the whole prison system."

"I don't think you are either," Soffen told Wall, who wasn't impressed by Soffen's claim he couldn't help shooting Perrot six times in the head.

"It was a semiautomatic weapon," said Wall, a longtime Suffolk County prosecutor. "It's not a machine gun. Each one of those shell casings came back at you. ... It's a gross misrepresentation that it was a millisecond decision on your part."

Board members also focused on Soffen's most recent disciplinary report for grabbing a nurse's bottom in the prison infirmary, and inflammatory "Between the Bars" blog posts he said are written by another prisoner using his name.

Soffen, who started off by saying he now understands "the meaning of remorse," finished the hearing just short of making threats.

"If I get denied, I'm not going to say it's my fault. I'm going to say it's your fault," he told the six men and women deciding his fate.

Soffen has been cited by prison rights advocates as a case worthy of compassionate release due to medical problems that have left the 72-year-old confined to a wheelchair.

"Technically, a correction officer is killing me because of the blood I received" after being stabbed trying to protect a guard during a prison fight in Walpole more than a decade ago. A transfusion led to hepatitis, he told the board. Other health problems include heart attacks and cancer.

He also said he thinks he's losing his memory, which might account for why he doesn't remember details of his crimes, like tying up Dube and stuffing him in a car trunk.

"When you plead, you plead to a lot of things, just to get rid of them," he said.

Dube, an Agawam resident, was 24 when Soffen shot him and dumped his body in the Connecticut River. Perrot, a Springfield father of four and longtime friend of Soffen's, was shot six times in the head. Prosecutors said the killings were retaliation for Dube's grand jury testimony against Soffen and Perrot's plans to testify about armed robberies Soffen orchestrated. Since then, Soffen has given various accounts of his involvement. He admitted to second-degree murder in 1973 as part of a plea deal and is currently incarcerated in Shirley.

His lawyer, John Rull, emphasized Soffen's good behavior during work furloughs in the 1970s. A former correction officer testified on Soffen's behalf, saying his poor health "negates any concern he would represent a danger to society."

"We as a society have a responsibility to provide forgiveness," the Rev. Jason Lydon, a prisoner-rights activist and vocal supporter of Sudbury terror suspect Tarek Mehanna, told the board.

Soffen and his lawyer cited a recent religious conversion as a factor to take into consideration.

"We don't judge religious conversion. We judge remorse and rehabilitation," said Wall.

The board judging Soffen may be different than in past years, but their task remains the same: "Risk assessment," said Wall.

"You had the opportunity to come in and show what is different ... I conclude you are not being truthful," Wall told Soffen.

The board's new reputation may be too tough for some Governor's Council members' liking, but it seems unlikely this case will set the pendulum swinging in the other direction.

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