Prosecutors, victim advocates speak out about criminals being released early from prison
HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Outage continues to grow across Alabama as more and more convicts are being released from prison early, allowing them to commit more crimes.
Madison County prosecutors shed light on the issue on Wednesday as the case of a career criminal now charged in a deadly Huntsville car crash made its way to court. The suspect was released six years early from prison and now he’s accused of hitting and killing a decorated veteran.
Shauna Barnett is prosecuting the case of Antonio Fearn, 31. He’s charged with manslaughter after Huntsville police say he struck and killed retired Lt. Col. Mike Redding. According to officials, Fearn broke into a number of cars at UAH and a BOLO was out for his car in August when he was spotted casing cars on campus. A police chase started, ending in the fatal collision.
“He literally should have still been in prison and if we had truth in sentencing and if we actually held folks that are repeat, lifelong criminals like we should- and I say we, I mean the entire system- but we don't so he was out on a fraction of his sentences so that's why he was out there to kill the victim in this case and do what he was up to on that day,” Barnett stated.
On Wednesday, Fearn waived his preliminary hearing and his attorney asked for a bond reduction on his breaking and entering charges, which was denied. Prosecutor Shauna Barnett said Fearn should still be in prison on prior convictions and now an innocent man is dead because of his actions.
“The state's position is that we're opposed to him being out at all for any reason so we want the bonds left as high as they can possibly be. The judge agreed that he does not need to be out and she left the bonds where they were currently,” Barnett said.
The state asked that if Fearn is able to post bond on all of his charges, that he be placed on house arrest with an ankle monitor as a condition of that bond.
“I don't anticipate that he will be able to make the bonds that are in front of him, but if he does, we want him locked down as best we can,” Barnett added.
Barnett says Fearn has “double digit prior felony convictions.” On Nov. 30, 2015, a Madison County judge sentenced Fearn to nine years in prison for breaking and entering into a vehicle.If he had served his full sentence, Fearn would have been released in November 2024. Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said Fearn was released on June 25, 2018, six and a half years early.
His prior convictions were mostly for breaking and entering, that stacked on top of some old burglary cases.
“He would just keep piling on cases. Every time they would let him out of prison, he would get more cases. We would pile on more convictions and more time. The most recent breaking and entering cases were mandatory guidelines offenses so he was getting the minimal, not the habitual offender time, he was getting the sentencing guidelines time which is a fraction of the old habitual offender time and then they only do a fraction of that time in jail. He had multiple 100 month plus sentences but didn't do a fraction of that time,” Barnett explained.
The case sheds light on the larger issue in Alabama. Montgomery County District Attorney says the Board of Pardons and Parole needs to be fired after learning that the board released Marquelle Sweeting this month, who’d only served six years of a 25-year sentence.
“Three people, Montgomery citizens, had a gun put to their head, and one was shot and almost had their life taken away from them and five years later, they are back out - on the streets,” Bailey said.
Sweeting pleaded guilty to three counts of first degree robbery and assault. Behind bars, he had disciplinary action multiple times, including for assaulting a corrections officer.
Board rules and procedures state inmates convicted of a Class A felony must serve 85 percent of their sentence or 15 years, whichever comes first. That means Sweeting was up for parole nine years early.
“It’s a fraud on the whole system, you have judges when they sentence someone they expect them to be in prison for a long time, the prosecutors - even the defense attorney,” Bailey said. “If this is the kind of decisions they are making I am calling on the governor of the state of Alabama to replace them.”
Antonio Fearn remains in custody with a total bond of $160,000 on all of his charges. His attorney had no comment coming out of court on Wednesday. Next, the case will be presented to a Madison County grand jury.
“It’s extremely frustrating when we’re all here doing our jobs. The police are doing their jobs, trying to keep the people behind bars. And not the first time offenders. We all give second chances, we understand that. But I’m talking about the people who do nothing productive in society. They just commit crime after crime and people say it’s just a property crime, they just broke into cars. Well, that’s great until it’s your car that gets broken into and your insurance doesn’t want cover it. And especially when you’re doing this 20-30 times. That’s problematic. Or someone ends up dying because he’s out,” said Shauna Barnett.
Redding helped oversee a team of 170 people responsible for designing, developing, testing, and fielding interceptors that defend the U.S. from ballistic missiles. He worked as deputy program manager for Deputy Ground-Based Interceptor at the Missile Defense Agency. Before that, he was the deputy product manager for THAAD Ground Components.
Redding served all over the world during his time in the Air Force. A retired lieutenant colonel, he went into government civilian work after his military career so he could continue to serve his country.
Relatives say Redding was killed on his 54th birthday. He had taken a rare day off from work and was out riding his motorcycle when he was fatally struck by Fearn’s fleeing car. Redding's burial will be at Arlington National Cemetery on January 23rd.
“Most of these types of cases are completely innocent victims. They're completely innocent, hard-working, tax paying, productive citizens that literally get run over by someone like this,” Barnett said.
The statewide group, Victims of Crime and Leniency’s sole mission is keeping violent offenders in prison, and they’re deeply concerned.
“They got a sentence in court, but that doesn’t mean anything. When it gets to Montgomery you might as well throw out what the judge and the jury did cause that doesn’t mean a thing. When we get to where a life in the state of Alabama is not worth a five or six-year sentence, what have we become,” VOCAL state director Janette Grantham told our sister station WSFA.
Grantham says the Board of Pardons and Paroles has blood on their hands after an incident earlier this year involving parolee Jimmy O'Neal Spencer, who's spent the greater part of his life in prison.
“He was listed as low to medium risk of re-offending,” said Grantham.
Spencer's victims weren't notified, he was paroled to the Jimmy Hale Mission - and walked away weeks later. The shelter says they contacted Spencer’s parole officer, but didn’t hear back. Spencer was in the wind for months before reportedly murdering three people in Marshall County.
Grantham says the Board never put out an alert or warrant for Spencer.
“He came into contact with the law two times. Both times they contacted the Parole Board and never heard back. On July 13 he was in court in Marshall County that morning at 10 a.m., they contacted the parole board and asked if they should keep him. All they knew was he was out on parole and had committed another crime. They called the pardon and parole board and was told no comment. That day they found the three bodies including the little 7-year-old boy. If he had been kept that morning he wouldn’t have killed them that day,” she said.
In August, Board of Pardons and Paroles Executive Director Eddie Cook called the murders unfortunate.
“He made this choice, okay”, Cook said. “The Board didn’t do anything wrong in the parole, the police didn’t do anything wrong. This is a conscious decision he made.”
Grantham disagrees, and she's taking action by drafting a bill that would require the board to instantly notify law enforcement and the public of a parolee's disappearance.
“If that had happened in the Spencer case those three people would still be alive”, she said.
Police believe Spencer killed Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin's great-grandson, Colton Ryan Lee, 7. Authorities say Spencer hit Reliford in the head with a hatchet and strangled her.
Reliford was a member of VOCAL who lost both her siblings to murder.
“She had a brother that was murdered and she was faithful to come to the parole board and protest his offender’s release,” Grantham stated. “She had a sister who was murdered, and she fought hard to get [the offender] convicted. They wanted him to take a plea, and she wouldn’t have it.”
Investigators believe after Spencer killed Reliford, he then strangled Martin, her great-grandson Colton Lee was killed by blunt force.
As for categorizing Spencer as unlikely to re-offend: “We have no way of knowing if they have corrected those mistakes, we have no way of knowing whether they have done something to keep that from happening again,” Grantham said of the incident. “We have to protect our victims. We should have protected 7-year-old Colton Lee, but we didn’t.”
Grantham says she has the family’s blessing and plans to name the bill after the young murder victim, titled “Colton’s Law”.
“We need to not forget that little boy had nothing to do with any of this,” she said.
The bill is in the early stages, but is expected to be taken up in the next legislative session.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s office says she shares the concerns over the Board of Pardons and Paroles and is monitoring their actions. She plans to meet with them in the near future.
The board released this statement:
“The Agency’s position is we do not have data showing a dramatic increase in violent inmates being considered for parole prior to their original set date. If such data exists from another entity, we would be happy to analyze their numbers. There have been no procedure changes that would generate an increase in cases considered fitting your description.”
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