Some people wait nearly their whole lives to find work they truly love. So it was with Lyndell Zinsmeister.
For years he toiled as a store manager for companies like Montgomery Ward and Woolworth, moving from city to city around the midwest but sustained by his family and a passion for collecting coins. In the early 1960s, when he worked at Woolworth’s regional headquarters in downtown Chicago, he used to walk over to a bank on his lunch hour and order $1,000 worth of silver dollars. During the afternoon he would weed through the money looking for anything valuable, then return the coins to the bank in exchange for bills. At home he’d often stay up past midnight pursuing his hobby.
In the mid-60s Zinsmeister took early retirement and opened a shop on Western Avenue in Blue Island selling rare coins and stamps, World War II memorabilia, guns, fishing rods, and golf and tennis balls. “Zinny,” a personable, good-looking man, logged long hours in the shop and touring numismatic shows. He believed strongly in hard work and was often heard to say, “If you want something done, you have to do it.”
On May 22, 1967, a Monday, Zinsmeister was in the shop with his wife, Marion, and Lou Debus, a customer who’d become a friend. Like many small retailers, Zinsmeister kept a pistol on the premises, “but he wasn’t enthusiastic about guns and probably didn’t know where his was,” says his son Dick. Shortly before noon, Marion asked Debus if he could stick around while she slipped out to pick up stamps and cat food.
A few minutes later Robert Hudson and Carl McFadden walked in, and a third man, Harold Riggins, appeared in the doorway brandishing a shotgun. Hudson pulled a .38 revolver off his hip and announced, “This is a stickup.”
According to Debus, when Zinsmeister reached behind the counter to sound the store alarm, Hudson moved in on him. “Don’t shoot the man,” Debus pleaded, but Hudson fired two rounds into the owner, then leaned over the counter to shoot him again. Bullets penetrated Zinsmeister’s abdomen, right arm, and right thigh. Debus now begged for his own life as Hudson turned the gun on him. When it failed to fire, Hudson and McFadden hightailed it out the door.
Returning from her errands, Marion Zinsmeister heard the store alarm and saw Hudson and McFadden in flight. “People were all crowding around, and they said, “Don’t go inside,”‘ she remembers. “But I did. My husband was lying on the floor, and he was gone.” Zinsmeister was 57 years old.
Hudson, a habitual armed robber, was 35 when he shot Zinsmeister. Orginally Hudson was sentenced to be executed, but this capital sentence was overturned on a point of law and he was ordered to prison for far more years than he could hope to remain alive.
That Hudson deserved to go to prison for the murder goes without saying. How long is a matter of some debate. Today Hudson argues that his draconian sentence was largely rhetorical. He maintains that if the rules hadn’t changed on him after he was imprisoned, he would have been set free years ago. He has strong evidence to back him up.
In 1967 prison sentences in Illinois were “indeterminate.” Even inmates like Hudson were entitled to parole and they usually received it. But in 1978 the sentencing system changed. The state shifted to determinate–or flat-time–sentences, and the possibility of parole vanished for everyone except already-sentenced prisoners like Robert Hudson. Inmates in Hudson’s position, called “C-numbers” for the letter that was the usual prefix to their prison ID numbers, remain eligible for parole. But the get-tough atmosphere has penetrated the state Prisoner Review Board, and they rarely get it.
Today Hudson, confined to Dixon Correctional Center, two hours west of Chicago, is 64 years old and in failing health. As an African-American male from Cook County, he’s a typical C-number, and like the others he feels caught in a curious time warp.
“The bad things I did in my life are all past,” he says. “I have no intention of committing another crime. I’ve had time to think about things. The few principles I originally had I’ve held onto, and I’ve added new principles. On the outside I’d be an asset, in getting to kids before they begin a life of hard crime, but in here I’m of no use to anyone.”
That’s too bad, says the office of the Cook County state’s attorney. It adamantly opposes Hudson’s release.
Certainly Hudson and the other C-numbers aren’t beau ideals. “Some of their crimes shock me, and I’ve been a prosecutor for 14 years,” says Jeanne Bischoff, an assistant state’s attorney who testified against Hudson before the Prisoner Review Board last year. “They are worse than what we see today.” The predicament of the C-numbers speaks to the question of when–if ever–redemption should outweigh retribution. “We go to church on Sunday and talk about forgiveness,” says Coy Pugh, a west-side legislator who champions their cause. “But we don’t practice what we preach. We don’t let out the C-numbers because we lack that forgiving spirit.”
As Hudson was shooting Lyndell Zinsmeister, a young man named Robert Neldon, his girlfriend, and a friend were eating lunch in their car, which was parked at a hamburger drive-in across the street. They watched Hudson and McFadden climb into the car Riggins was driving, then chased the car north into Chicago. Someone in Riggins’s vehicle busted out a back window and started shooting, hitting the radiator of Neldon’s 1960 Plymouth. Neldon kept on coming and pulled alongside the getaway car. When Hudson leveled a shotgun at him, “I drew back,” Neldon recalls, but he forced the stickup men into a dead-end alley in Morgan Park. They abandoned their car and raced away on foot. A police officer collared Hudson as he walked among schoolchildren near 115th and Laflin, and soon the other men were in custody as well.
Because black-on-white suburban violence was then a novelty, and because the victim was an upstanding citizen, the papers reported at length on the murder. They brought to light the bloody past of Harold Riggins. In 1953 he’d been the getaway driver when a heist went sour out at the stockyards plant of a canned foods company. Paul Crump, a former plant employee, murdered Theodore Zukowski, a security guard captain with four children. Crump received a death sentence. But Crump was in some ways an attractive figure–he’d write a book in prison–and in time a movement was launched to win him clemency. Petitioned by a host of notables, including celebrity lawyer Louis Nizer of New York, Governor Otto Kerner commuted Crump’s sentence in 1962 to life in prison.
Riggins drew a sentence of 199 years in that case but he was paroled in 1966. And here he was again wreaking havoc–a walking argument for lowering the boom on repeat offenders.
Hudson confessed to shooting Lyndell Zinsmeister. “We were doing a stickup,” he says. “The man went for his gun and it was either him or me. I was fortunate enough to pull the trigger first.” In 1967 police investigators had failed to give Hudson his Miranda warning, a lapse that kept his confession out of evidence. But even without it “the state had a terrific case against us,” according to Chester Lizak, the private attorney assigned to the destitute Hudson. Lou Debus and Robert Neldon were eager to testify, and Carl McFadden turned state’s evidence.
As he got to know his client, Lizak was impressed. “Hudson was a very, very intelligent person,” Lizak says today. “He did his homework as far as the law was concerned. He asked excellent questions. Every once in a while he’d raise a beef about what we were researching, and I would discuss it with him and he’d understand immediately. There was something else about him. He was a very, very hard person. He wasn’t mean, but he was strong. I’ll put it this way–if I ever needed to walk down an alley on the south side, Robert Hudson is the person I’d like alongside me, at least the Robert Hudson of 30 years ago.”
Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, Hudson grew up in downstate Cairo in a family of nine children. His mother died when he was a young boy, and his father, a press foreman at a cooking-oil plant, dominated the household. “My dad was from the old school,” recalls Hudson. “He was a damn good father in many ways–he provided for us, and we never missed a meal. But he believed in strict everything. He used to beat me so bad I had welts on my body as big as a finger.” Robert also felt that his stepmother was uncaring. “I wanted to get away,” says Hudson, and he wasted not a second in doing so. At the age of 13, educated only to fifth grade, he took off for Toledo, passed himself off as 16, and got a job in a foundry. Soon he was laying track for the Santa Fe.
His long waltz with crime and punishment began at age 14, when he was sent away for burglarizing a service station in Michigan. He did time first in a reformatory and then in the state prison at Jackson, which he describes as “a gladiator school really, where you had to prove how tough you were.” Released at 21, he returned to Cairo and married a teenage girl he met at a country store. Bertha and Robert Hudson migrated to Chicago and moved in with his older sister Lorraine in Woodlawn. The couple would have two sons, Robert Jr. and Milton, but they didn’t have much of a relationship. “He always stayed off to himself,” says Bertha, now a nurse’s assistant in Los Angeles. “He and I lived in the same house, but he’d only say a few words to me.”
Hudson wanted to become a prizefighter and he trained at a neighborhood gym, but his career went nowhere. “I started out wrong,” he explains, “taking money under the table to throw fights.” His wife began to suspect he was pulling armed robberies, and her hunch was confirmed one morning in 1956 when detectives swooped down on Lorraine’s apartment. Robert had stuck up a tavern, and one of his partners had squealed on him. Hudson pleaded guilty and was shipped off to Stateville. “Soon he wrote me and said, “Why don’t you get a life of your own?”‘ remembers Bertha. She divorced him. When he was released in 1961 Hudson returned to Chicago, but within a year he was back in prison for sticking up a grocery.
Out again in 1967, he took an apartment at 68th and Emerald. “Believe it or not, I did try to get a job,” he says. “I went out to the Zenith plant on the west side ’cause I heard they had jobs, but when I got there the order had come down to make layoffs, so that dream dried up.” He fell in with Riggins, McFadden, and other characters he’d known at Stateville. “I supported myself selling drugs and doing robberies. Somebody would call up and say they had something that looked good, and then we’d get going.”
Hudson says he’d staked out Zinsmeister’s shop beforehand. He and Riggins and McFadden picked up tape, cotton padding, and a pair of gloves at a drugstore. McFadden wore the gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, Riggins put tape over his mustache as a disguise, and Hudson puffed up his cheeks with cotton. In executing any robbery, says Hudson, “You always want that element of surprise on your side.” The plan was working perfectly when Zinsmeister went for the alarm–or a gun, as Hudson believed. “I still can’t understand why he put his life on the line,” Hudson says.
Hudson went on trial that September in the courtroom of circuit court judge James Mejda. He was the only defendant; Riggins would be tried separately. Carl McFadden described the robbery attempt. Lou Debus told how he’d begged Hudson to spare Zinsmeister’s life. Hudson didn’t take the stand, and Lizak limited his defense to hints that the evidence left room for reasonable doubt.
Hudson struck an impassive pose before the jurors. “You’re cold,” he says. “You show no emotion when the witnesses are on.” Marion Zinsmeister was incapable of attending the trial, but her son Dick and Lou Debus maintained a grim vigil in the courtroom. Sitting there, Dick felt overwhelmed by a desire for vengeance. “I was always visualizing how I could get over to where Hudson was sitting and kill him. But I restrained myself.”
The jury convicted Hudson but deadlocked 11 to 1 on whether to execute him. “I can still see the holdout,” recalls Patrick Murphy, now Cook County’s public guardian but then one of Hudson’s prosecutors. “He was a 30-ish, working-class white guy who just had his reservations.”
Back then any unbreakable deadlock among jurors, even over sentencing, caused a mistrial. So Hudson was prosecuted again, this time with Riggins, and the new jury sentenced him to death. “I knew it was coming, and I was prepared for it,” Hudson says. “I told my relatives not to come to court.” He listened stone-faced to the verdict.
Hudson then turned his attention to finding a lawyer to handle his appeal. “The black-is-beautiful thing was going on,” he says. “I wrote to every black lawyer there was, but I didn’t get a response. So I wrote to Julius Echeles.” Something in Hudson’s letter appealed to Echeles, a flamboyant defense attorney best known for representing mob figures, because he materialized before Judge Mejda on the killer’s behalf. When the judge asked Echeles why he was taking the case for the paltry $1,000 fee paid by the state, the lawyer replied, “It’s like with a 16-year-old girl who’s never been kissed–she asks you, and so how can you turn her down?”
Hudson spent three years on death row. In 1970 the Illinois Supreme Court threw out his death sentence because of the way prosecutors had selected his jury. The court was guided by a U.S. Supreme Court opinion issued two years earlier in Witherspoon v. Illinois, a case involving a defendant who’d killed a Chicago police officer. The high court ruled then that barring prospective jurors for holding religious or moral objections to the death penalty violated due process. “Whatever else might be said of capital punishment, it is at least clear that its imposition by a hanging jury cannot be squared with the Constitution,” wrote Justice Potter Stewart for the majority. On the basis of Witherspoon Hudson (who’d known Bill Witherspoon in prison in Michigan) was remanded to Judge Mejda for resentencing.
Mejda slapped Hudson with the same penalty he’d given Riggins, 100 to 199 years. (Riggins would be stabbled to death in the Stateville dining room in 1969.) As Hudson returned to Stateville to begin his term, he could reasonably hope that sooner instead of later the Department of Corrections would decide to let him out.
Well into the 19th century correctional authorities considered imprisonment to have the single goal of punishment. But as the fields of psychiatry and social work gained favor, a new view of corrections, called the “medical model,” took root. “This model suggested that those incarcerated in prison should be treated and cured of the problems that caused them to commit crimes–‘rehabilitated,’ in common parlance,” wrote Jonathan Caspar in the University of Illinois Law Review in 1984. The turn to the medical model in the 20th century prompted several states, including Illinois, to adopt indeterminate sentencing, which gave authorities the freedom to decide down the line that a prisoner had been turned around–or “cured’–and to release him. The Illinois Pardon and Parole Board was laced with social workers and psychologists as well as corrections professionals, and their eye was on rehabilitation.
In Illinois convicts received a minimum and a maximum sentence, with parole tied to the minimum. Even offenders like Hudson were entitled to a yearly parole hearing after serving at most 11 years and three months in prison, and they generally got out after roughly that period of time. Julius Echeles used to tell his prisonbound clients, “Behave yourself, follow the rules, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get out before you know it.”
In the wake of the violent riots that swept the nation’s prisons in the early 70s, including the deadly one at Attica, reformers took a skeptical second look at the medical model. Among them was David Fogel, a former Minnesota corrections director who headed the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission under Governor Dan Walker. Fogel concluded that the commitment to rehabilitating prisoners was misguided and that it would be better to return to fixed sentences. “There’d never been a real commitment to rehabilitation,” says Fogel, who’s now retired and lives in California. “Better that inmates know when exactly they were getting out. That would be fair, humane, and constitutional, and it would lead to more self-determined behavior inside prison.”
Fogel called his formulation the “justice model.” Under the terms he proposed–but the General Assembly never enacted–convicts would receive fixed sentences, with judges authorized to vary terms by up to 20 per cent one way or the other. Inmates could reduce their terms by one day for each day of good behavior. When Jim Thompson became governor in 1976 he put his own spin on Fogel’s ideas, retaining the concept of flat-time sentences and good time but giving judges greater latitude in fixing terms. He lumped ten felonies less serious than murder–aggravated kidnapping, rape, armed robbery, and hard drug offenses were among them–into a category called Class X. For these crimes judges could impose sentences of from 6 to 30 years in prison. For murder the range was 20 to 40 years. (Now it goes up to 60 years.) Judges who deemed the crimes before them exceptionally heinous could set sentences that exceeded the maximum. The so-called Class X law went into effect on February 1, 1978.
(The Class X law would have served Robert Hudson poorly. A three-strikes-you’re-out provision would have sent Hudson away for life–if he hadn’t been sentenced to death instead.)
Convicts sentenced prior to Class X became the C-numbers. Most were given the option of converting their sentences to fixed terms, but this alternative didn’t apply to C-numbers, Hudson among them, who’d been sentenced to more than 20 years. They remained subject to parole as determined by the new Prisoner Review Board. The panel, made up originally of 10 and now of 12 members appointed by the governor, also oversees supervised release, mediates good conduct credits for inmates, supervises juvenile paroles, and passes on clemency petitions being sent to the chief executive.
In the first six years after fixed sentencing was introduced, the Prisoner Review Board granted as many as 57 percent of the parole requests it considered; but in the early 1980s the board’s attitude hardened. Paroles granted plummeted from 28 percent of requests in 1983 to 4 percent in ’84. Several factors account for the shift. For one thing, some paroled convicts committed stunning new crimes. An angry Richard M. Daley, then the Cook County state’s attorney, brandished a study showing that the average murderer paroled in the county during the first six months of 1983 had logged only ten years behind bars. Daley’s sentiments were echoed in the Thompson administration. “There was a concern that people were getting out who were still violent and that society had to be protected,” says James Williams, then Thompson’s assistant for public safety and criminal justice.
The Prisoner Review Board’s operational rules have been changed to make it more difficult for inmates to win release. Originally a panel of three board members could authorize release on a two-to-one vote; a majority of the full board, or seven votes, is required today. Victims and the families of victims are now routinely notified of any parole hearing, and prosecutors aggressively oppose parole petitions. In 1985 Thompson dumped Ethel Gingold, a Prisoner Review Board member from Springfield who frequently favored parole and who would sometimes write inmates letters of commiseration when it was denied. “I was viewed as a liberal troublemaker,” recalls Gingold, “and so they got rid of me.”
The present board has a conservative face. The dozen members have ties to either the Department of Corrections, other law-enforcement agencies, or the political power structure. Barbara Hubbard, for instance, spent nearly a quarter century with the Department of Corrections in juvenile detention posts. Herbert Brown and James Donahue were county sheriffs. Lawyer Joanne Sevcik Shea is married to Gerald Shea, who was the first Mayor Daley’s floor leader in the Illinois house and is now a prominent lobbyist. William Walsh once served as majority leader of the Illinois house.
The parole of C-numbers has dwindled to a trickle, and a few C-numbers have given up on the process. Since 1984 no more than 5 percent of their parole requests have been granted in any year, and in 1994 just 7 of the 571 C-numbers who sought parole received it. Last year the board released 15 more, according to James Williams, who is now its chairman.
Williams, a former journalist, has chaired the Prisoner Review Board since 1991. He contends that the board let out the likeliest candidates for release between 1978 and 1983. The 588 C-numbers who remain in prison, he says, are the worst apples in the barrel.
“We are dealing now with the most heinous offenders,” says Williams. “The bulk are murderers. Forty of them killed police officers. Seven or eight of them killed correctional officers. There are serial rapists, professional armed robbers, and predators with lengthy records.” Indeed, the average C-number still in prison was sentenced to a term of 148 years, according to the Department of Corrections. Several C-numbers have been poster boys of crime. Richard Speck, who died in 1991, was a C-number. Gangster Disciple chieftain Larry Hoover qualifies, though he’s now in federal custody after being indicted last October for drug conspiracy. C-number William Heirens, who pleaded guilty to killing and dismembering six-year-old Suzanne Degnan and two other people in 1946, is the longest-serving inmate in Illinois.
Williams insists the Prisoner Review Board can be budged. “We do make exceptions,” he says, pointing to Harold Riggins’s old associate Paul Crump, whom Dan Walker made eligible for parole in 1976. “We thought Crump was a good risk. He had done well in his institution. He’d worked with senior inmates, and he’d once saved the life of an assistant warden.” Crump was set free in 1993.
The Prisoner Review Board has been criticized for a lack of thoroughness. “Instead of release decisions based on data, research findings, and personal observations, the Board too often relies on the instincts of its members,” wrote Thomas Peters and David Norris in the John Marshall Law Review in 1991. “Decision by hunch frequently carried the day.” Williams dismisses the charge. “We consider each case on its merit. Obviously each inmate has a different personality and background. I’m not going to characterize the board’s attitude for you.” But when pressed Williams says, “If we let most of these people out the public would raise hell. Is that clear enough? It would bring disrespect for the law.”
The Stateville that Hudson returned to in 1970 had deteriorated from the prison he remembered from the 50s and 60s. Joe Ragen, a tough warden Hudson credits for keeping order, had moved on to become state director of public safety and then had retired. “Now the gangs ran the place,” says Hudson. “It was a madhouse. Although I never had any trouble myself because I used to box, still the situation bothered me. I’d go to the officials to get them to exert control, but they’d say, “We know what’s going on, but there’s nothing we can do.”‘
In 1972 Hudson made his own attempt at control. “A young white kid I had befriended, the son of a mayor downstate, was raped by several gang members,” he says, “and I took it upon myself to do something about it. I called this one gangster by the name of Bo Diddley down off the stairs, and I hit him in the chest with a shank [a makeshift knife]. After I settled with him I did the same thing with three more guys, though I didn’t killed none of ’em.” Hudson spent two and a half years in disciplinary segregation.
In 1977 Hudson wrote to the Chicago Daily News criticizing prison reformers. “The well-meaning, misdirected organizations that are always in the news screaming about inhumane conditions and ill treatment of prisoners would better serve themselves, society and the prisoners if they would work with the youth that have not as yet become involved with crime,” he said. “They are the ones that can be helped, and they are the ones that deserve to be helped.”
The letter prompted the paper to send a reporter to visit Hudson, who elaborated on his views. He expressed support for the death penalty. “I think we need it more so now than we ever have before,” he said. “These murderers in here are what I call TV babies, born after the Korean war. When they were old enough to sit up, their mamas would put them in front of the television. They will kill you because they don’t understand what it means to take a life. Death to them has no meaning, like on TV.”
Dolores Newman, a 47-year-old nurse’s aide from the Kankakee area, was moved by Hudson’s remarks and wrote him. Soon she began visiting the prison, and after her husband died in 1980 the relationship deepened. “I reached out to Robert,” says Newman. “You never know why the attraction develops between people, but I fell in love with him.”
Hudson’s prison record is a mixed affair. Aside from the stint in segregation, he’s racked up his share of disciplinary reports, called “tickets.” But he’s also earned a GED and he’s taken some junior college courses. He’s been a factory worker and a clerk, and he takes great pride in having trained other prisoners to box. He remained at Stateville until 1987, when he was transferred to a prison in Danville and then to one in Galesburg. Since 1988 he’s been a resident of the medium-security prison in Dixon.
He shares a cell with a murderer named Chester Lester. Awakened at six o’clock in the morning, he’s in bed by 11 PM. He’s still a boxing instructor. He reads the Bible and other religious material and he’s 400 pages into writing his autobiography. His family has scattered–son Robert Jr. lives on disability in East Saint Louis, son Milton is in prison for burglary in California, and sister Lorraine, a retired nurse, has resettled in Minneapolis–and he rarely receives visitors anymore.
Dolores Newman talks to Hudson on the phone every Sunday and comes to see him twice a year. “We hold hands and have eye contact,” she says of their reunions in the Dixon visiting room, really two rooms containing tables, an inmate-run cafeteria, and a tiny walled yard for walks. “There’s no hanky-panky. When there’s a time, there’ll be a place. His heart cries and my heart cries because he’s still there. He’s an old man now. But what can we do but go with the flow of the show.” Hudson says he wants out in order to make an honest woman of Newman (he calls her “the world’s greatest woman”) and to counsel young people away from crime. “Some of them can be saved,” he says, “and I can be of help in that.”
Hudson first came up for parole in 1977, and he’s received a hearing every November or December since. At Dixon these sessions are held in a glass-enclosed cubicle in a corner of the visiting room. A single Prisoner Review Board member interviews him, taking notes and tape-recording the proceedings. When they conduct these interviews, says Jim Williams, board members generally ask about the crime or crimes involved, looking for any sign of remorse or sympathy for the prisoner’s victims. They look into the inmate’s conduct in prison. They inquire about his plans on the outside–is there someone to live with or a job in the offing?
To Hudson the interviews are a sham. “They ask your name and number,” he says. “They listen to you talk about the case. I say what I’ve always said, that it was either my life or his and that I’m sorry it happened. They ask one or two questions, like where would you be staying when you get out? I say I will be living with Dolores and that at my age it would be difficult for me to find work. It’s just going through motions.”
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office always opposes Hudson’s release. “We get notified of every parole hearing,” says Andy Knott, spokesman for State’s Attorney Jack O’Malley. “This office feels strongly that these people are serious offenders–Robert Hudson was on death row, you know–and they shouldn’t be let out.” O’Malley’s office not only writes a letter opposing the freeing of every C-number within its jurisdiction but dispatches an assistant state’s attorney to Springfield to argue the position.
The Prisoner Review Board also hears from the victims’ families. Dick Zinsmeister, a fireman, and his wife Pam, a secretary, recently retired and moved to a spacious house in another state. They share the house with Lyndell’s widow, Marion. For several years Dick wouldn’t tell his mother, who’s now in her 80s, that he and Pam were going off to testify against Hudson; they didn’t want to upset her. But finally they let her know.
Pam finds the experience of appearing before the board degrading. “You arrive at the prison, and they search you before you go in,” she says. “They go through your purse. There’s the clanging of the bars and all those other prisoners walking around you. It’s not a good feeling. Once we get inside the board members are sympathetic and easy to talk with. But it’s definitely something I could do without.”
The Zinsmeisters feel compelled to appear. “My dad’s dead,” says Dick. “We loved him and we don’t have him anymore. My kids don’t have a grandfather, and my mother’s sitting alone. If Hudson got out he’d get a second chance. My dad never got a second chance so Hudson doesn’t deserve one. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t make any difference if he’s reformed or not. It’s an eye for an eye, as far as I’m concerned. If he’d just have robbed a store, fine, but he killed somebody, too, and that’s it. It’s like in the old west–you shoot a guy, and you shoot the guy who shot the guy. They should give him the death penalty again.”
What, Dick Zinsmeister asks, would Robert Hudson even do outside? “He couldn’t earn a decent living, outside of working at McDonald’s, and I doubt he could get a job there with his record. He’d go back to a life of crime, and though I doubt he’d murder again he would still steal from you.” Dick reconsiders that conclusion. “I think he’s capable of almost anything. There should be no parole. That’s what I believe. When he dies I’m going to go out, get drunk, and have a party.”
In 1994 the Prisoner Review Board heard from the Zinsmeisters just after 68 people died in the crash of an American Eagle flight in Roselawn, Indiana. One of their sons lives near Roselawn, and Pamela was struck by a bitter irony.
“That plane crash, that was an accident,” she told the board member interviewing her. “But my father-in-law’s death, that was no accident. And not only wasn’t it accidental but Hudson shot him not once but three times.”
Williams says an inmate’s Department of Corrections file figures in the board’s decision making. In Hudson’s case, Williams notes, “he received a segregation in the distant past.” Williams reports that in 1988 Hudson earned 14 tickets for offenses such as unauthorized movement and refusing to obey an order; in 1990 he was ticketed five times; a couple of years ago he was written up for violating health and safety rules.
The board member who has interviewed a C-number discusses the case with two other members, and the panel of three makes a recommendation to the full board. At the next board meeting–they’re held at least every two weeks in closed session in Springfield–“the lead person re-creates how it all went with the inmate’s case,” says Williams. The tape recording of the interview is not played either to the panel of three or to the full board, something C-numbers frequently complain about. (“We aren’t required to play the tape, and we don’t,” Williams says.) Then comes the vote. If parole is denied, the board must specify a reason why: either the board thinks that release would have a negative impact on discipline within the prison or that the inmate cannot conform to the law in the outside world or that an inmate’s release “would deprecate the seriousness of the offense and promote disrespect for the law.”
“When they interview me, they say I’ll hear back in seven to ten days,” says Hudson. “I always get a letter that’s checked, “Parole denied.'” The invariable reason is that his release would deprecate the crime’s weight. In other words, the board feels more punishment is in order.
“But how much is enough?” Hudson wonders. “I’ve been locked away for 28 years. Keeping me penned away any more is not going to restore the life of my victim. If it would, believe me I’d stay here until the world comes to an end. But I don’t see anything to be gained by punishment for the sake of punishment.”
In addition to that arguable point, C-numbers make a more quantifiable case for their release, beginning with their advancing ages. Prisoners serving indeterminate sentences average 47 years of age, and 17 percent are 55 or older. The average age of the general prison population is 31.
The medical problems of C-numbers are mounting. Chris Rickard, a 55-year-old engineer convicted of murder, suffers from prostate trouble, cataracts, and arthritis. “And I’m losing my teeth,” he says. The 65-year-old Homer Hanrahan, another murderer, has diabetes and has had a heart attack. Last January Hudson underwent quadruple bypass surgery at the University of Chicago Hospitals. (“I had a guard along with me,” he relates, “though he didn’t go into the operating room with me, least not that I can recall.”) Hudson walks with a limp because the surgeons had to borrow veins from his right leg. “I got aches and pains all over,” he says. “When you start getting up in your 60s everything starts breaking down. I’m falling apart piece by piece.”
The physical deterioration is coupled with a change in personality, say many observers. “Many of these people have been locked away 20, 30, or 40 years, and they have gone through a significant amount of behavior modification,” says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who directs the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS), a program with offices in five states and the District of Columbia (but not Illinois) that advocates for geriatric prisoners. “What happens when these older prisoners slow down is that they become less likely to commit violence. The tendency toward aggression drops after the age of 35, and it continues to drop.” According to a 1993 POPS report, the recidivism rate for all Illinois prisoners is 42 percent, but for those 55 and older just 17 percent. “And it’s zero for the 80 prisoners we have identified and helped get parole,” says Turley.
The Department of Corrections spends $16,000 a year to house its inmates, but Turley says the state must spend two or three times that amount to care for aged inmates. (The cost disparity is a national one, says Turley.) The department’s resources could be put to better use, he thinks. The prison system is under severe strain for reasons that include more crime and tougher sentencing. Illinois has constructed 16 new prisons since 1978, has 3 more under construction, and still can’t keep pace with demand; the Department of Corrections accommodates 38,000 inmates in facilities meant to contain only 23,800. The overcrowding can only be exacerbated by a new law that requires Class X offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their flat-time sentences, regardless of good behavior, and murderers to serve their full terms. “When you’ve got more and more young thugs coming in the front door,” wonders Michael Mahoney, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison advocacy group, “why not release some of these old guys out the back door, and especially when the risk is low?”
The final point made in the C-numbers’ favor presents them as victims of a chilled political climate. In 1973 a convicted murderer in Illinois left prison after an average of 11.7 years, David Fogel once determined. Imprisonment for such a period was the expectation not only of the prisoners themselves, C-numbers argue today, but of the judges who sentenced them. Under flat sentencing, the average sentence for first-degree murder has been 36 years, according to the Department of Corrections, and since last summer there’s been no time off for good behavior.
The British-born Rickard drew a 40-to-80-year term for slaying a coworker and concealing the body. The murder occurred four hours before the Class X law went into effect. “If it had been the old days, there’s a good chance I’d have been out in 14 years, I’d say,” Rickard argues. “That reflects the judicial intent at the time; I was sent away by a judge who thought I’d be doing that amount of time.” And if the murder had occurred four hours later and Rickard had received the then statutory minimum sentence of 20 years–“I had two traffic tickets before that,” he says–with good time he’d have been freed years ago.
He says, “I have no hard feelings about my punishment–I deserve it–but now I’m here undergoing a harsher punishment than the concept was at the time I was sentenced–it’s the idea of ipso facto.” The concept of ipso facto–that punishment can’t be hiked after the fact–is contained in Article One, Section Nine of the U.S. Constitution, though whether it can be applied to C-numbers remains untested legally.
Prisoner-advocacy groups, sympathetic lawyers, and C-number families have waged battle for years to force the Prisoner Review Board to change its policies. State Representative Anthony Young (who’s now a circuit court judge) and his successor Coy Pugh, himself an ex-offender, have introduced several bills in Springfield on behalf of C-numbers. Young offered measures to entitle C-numbers to flat-time sentences and to require that three board members, not one, be present at all inmate interviews. Both bills failed. Last year Pugh pushed a bill to enable the board to release C-numbers other than murderers and sex offenders if they wore electronic monitors. “We couldn’t even get the matter out of committee,” says Pugh.
Whenever C-number legislation comes up for a hearing, supporters from the Chicago-based Prison Action Committee, the Illinois Inmate Relief Organization, and Operation PUSH’s Jessie “Ma” Houston Prison Outpost travel to Springfield by the busload, all to no effect. “The politicians know we’re there, but they don’t want to take the heat for doing what we’re asking,” says Doris Johnson, the Houston outpost chairman, whose brother is a C-number. Pugh sees little hope of anything changing: “Most legislators run for office on a platform of being tough on crime. To be sympathetic to the C-numbers would mean they’d risk being perceived as the opposite, and their opponents would eat it up.”
Then there’s been the good government approach. In 1992 Governor Edgar appointed the Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections, chaired by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas, to deal with the problem of prison overcrowding. At the suggestion of the John Howard Association, POPS’s Jonathan Turley made several suggestions for dealing with old, low-risk prisoners, principally C-numbers–either paroling them or releasing them with electronic monitors or moving them into correctional nursing homes. Turley says he and Department of Corrections officials were prepared to establish a POPS office in Illinois. Yet although the eventual task force report touched on electronic monitoring, it had nothing specific to say about seniors behind bars, and Turley’s comfortable relationship with the Department of Corrections ended when Howard Peters resigned as its director in January 1995 to become the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
Action has now shifted to the courts, particularly in the form of suits filed on behalf of C-number Homer Hanrahan. Found guilty of killing his estranged wife during an argument in 1974, Hanrahan was sentenced to spend 50 to 100 years in prison. Now a law clerk in the Dixon library, he’s been turned down for parole 13 times, despite a spotless prison record and two sympathetic affidavits from his sentencing judge, Robert Collins. “I have never believed that Homer Hanrahan constituted any threat to the community,” wrote Collins, who went so far as to say that at the time of trial he did not think Hanrahan had intended to kill anyone. “If Homer Hanrahan’s conduct in prison was exemplary and reflected credit upon him, this would weigh heavily with me upon any consideration he should receive for release. I am certain the Parole Board will similarly view his application for release.”
Hanrahan calls board members “vicious, vicious people,” and he suggests they are blocking parole for C-numbers in order to keep the board in business and protect their own $50,000-plus salaries. “That argument is without merit,” maintains Williams, who says the board has plenty to do besides weighing C-number paroles.
In the legal arena Hanrahan and his attorneys have achieved some success. His murder conviction was actually overturned in 1991 by a federal judge who found a peculiarity in the original trial. For ten months, until the state concluded its successful appeal of the judge’s ruling, Hanrahan was a free man, living an apparently responsible life as a plumbing contractor. “He was this little old guy having breakfast at McDonald’s,” says Locke Bowman, Hanrahan’s current lawyer. “We honestly thought that when the parole board heard about how well he’d done, he’d get out.” He didn’t; but now Hanrahan and Bowman have persuaded the Illinois Supreme Court to consider whether it’s legal for a court to review the board’s actions in denying him release in 1993.
The MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago, where Locke Bowman is legal director, is filing a class-action clemency petition Monday on behalf of Hudson, Chris Rickard, and six other C-numbers. The petition will be presented first to the Prisoner Review Board and then to Governor Edgar; it will argue that the board has been cavalier in denying the plaintiffs parole. But its prospects are dim. The board will surely reject the petition, and although Edgar can overrule the board, it’s unlikely that he will. The governor may have seemed merciful in sparing Guinevere Garcia last month, in releasing an AIDS patient in December, and in earlier giving clemency to several female inmates on the grounds that their crimes were provoked by abuse, but he normally takes a hard line on matters of crime and punishment. Garcia was the only death-row inmate he’s spared during his administration, and last September he rejected fresh clemency petitions filed on behalf of 17 allegedly abused women while shortening the sentence of an 18th.
At present a clemency request on behalf of William Heirens, who insists on his innocence, sits with the Prisoner Review Board; it’s expected to be turned down by the board and then the governor. “The anticrime atmosphere is everywhere,” remarks Operation PUSH’s Doris Johnson, “I pick up the paper, and anytime I read about somebody committing a big crime I cringe for the C-numbers. The door is closing even tighter on them.”
A cynical Homer Hanrahan withdrew from Locke Bowman’s clemency appeal because he figures the plea is futile. He’s decided he’ll no longer submit to parole hearings. “What’s the point?” he asks. “They just play with you, and it hurts, it hurts. I’ve pretty much given up hope. I have to do what I have to do in terms of my legal stuff because it’s a way of life, but realistically my chances of getting out of here are about the equivalent of taking a ticket in the Iowa Powerball and winning $60 million.”
Robert Hudson’s 1995 parole interview occurred November 27 at Dixon. He met with board member Victor Brooks, a Naperville businessman and former superintendent of a juvenile detention facility in Saint Charles, who was appointed in July. The conversation was so brief that afterward Hudson couldn’t remember Brook’s name. “He was a black guy,” remarks Hudson. “He had the tape recorder on, but I don’t even know if there were batteries in the machine.”
Jack O’Malley and Scott Nelson, chief of the state’s attorney’s felony trial division, wrote a letter opposing Hudson’s release: “The brutal and cold-blooded nature of this prisoner’s crime warranted the lengthy sentence imposed by the court. It was not the court’s intent that this prisoner would be released at an early date. Therefore, we again strongly urge that his parole be denied and that it be recommend that the defendant spend the rest of his natural life in prison.” Assistant State’s Attorney Jeanne Bischoff drummed home the message when she traveled to Springfield in mid-November, emphasizing that Hudson had escaped a death sentence on a technicality. “Robert Hudson is a dangerous man,” says Bischoff. “It’s one thing to botch a holdup. It’s another thing to shoot up the entire town on the way out.”
Last year Dick and Pam Zinsmeister asked to testify not at Dixon, which is far from their new home, but at Stateville. “We had a very nice interview,” says Pamela, “but nothing we said was new, since nothing’s changed.”
The full board considered Hudson’s parole at a meeting just before Christmas and turned it down on the advice of a three-member panel headed by Brooks. In Hudson’s long prison tenure, says James Williams, he has never received a single “yes” vote.
The political winds continue to blow against Hudson. A new law allows the Prisoner Review Board to permit a C-number to apply for release not annually but just once every three years. “It’s the politicians,” thinks Hudson. “They are preying on the public to get into office. “Lock ’em up,’ they say, and here we sit. They talk about balancing the budget. Well here I am, and everyone’s money is going down the drain.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Kathy Richland.