Timothy Eling was paroled in September after serving 29 years for killing an off-duty police officer during a hospital pharmacy robbery in St. Paul.
That decision has not set well with many Minnesotans, especially those in the law enforcement community, leading Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy to appear before the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee to explain his actions.
“I was not happy with your decision,” said Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder), the committee chairman. “A lot of cops are not happy about your decision.”
An Oct. 27 letter to Gov. Mark Dayton from legislative leaders expressed concern about the parole of Eling and John Scruggs, a Minneapolis gang leader who ordered a teenage girl’s execution fearing she was a police informant. Scruggs was paroled on March 21, 2011.
“We believe Commissioner Tom Roy’s decisions to release convicted killers serving life sentences deserve further transparency and review,” the letter states.
Roy explained that since 1993, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is the minimum sentence for anyone who kills a police officer. But when Eling was sentenced in 1983, anyone given a life sentence was eligible for parole after 17 years of incarceration. The minimum was raised to 30 years in 1989. “I must follow the statute in place when the offender was sentenced,” Roy said.
According to a Corrections Department fact sheet, of the 561 men and women now serving life sentences, 468 will have their cases reviewed for parole at some time. Of the 468, 150 were sentenced under the old law and are expected to be considered for parole in the next few years.
Former commissioner Joan Fabian, in 2006, noted Eling had made significant progress, something Roy believes had continued. “He was a fully compliant offender in every regard.” Roy said he “would have abused my authority” to deny Eling parole. “I would have had to abandon the statute and my ethics.”
However, the 62-yeard-old remains behind bars, serving four years for a 1997 conspiracy to sell cocaine conviction. “If he is able to serve this sentence with no additional discipline he can be released on Dec. 15, 2015,” Roy said.
“It’s frustrating, but I believe the commissioner has acted in good faith,” said Rep. Kerry Gauthier (DFL-Duluth).
Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said most of the public believes there should be no chance at freedom for cop killers, no matter when they were sentenced.
But Former Gov. Al Quie wasn’t quite as unforgiving.
“There’s something hopeful in redemption and I ask you not to take away that hope,” he said. “I think the system is working good and should be left how it is.”