Siemon apologizes for insensitivity to murder victims

Convicted killers could still get second chance at freedom

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Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon is apologizing to the families of murder victims after announcing plans to possibly commute the sentences of some prisoners serving life in prison without parole, as detailed in last week’s cover story in City Pulse.

But that doesn’t mean her plans have been paused. She’ll just be more “considerate” about the rollout, she said.

“I regret that I did not fully take into account the impact on victims and their families when I prematurely discussed the concept of reviewing older cases of life-without-parole,” Siemon said. “My intent has always been that the victim’s families or their representatives would get their first notice from trained professionals in our office after any review and before offering support or opposition to any application to commute a sentence.”

Siemon faced widespread community backlash in recent weeks after she discussed plans with City Pulse to review about 90 prisoners serving life in prison without parole and to seek a gubernatorial commutation for those who displayed the most rehabilitative process. Prison is about justice, not vengeance, she explained.

But after stirring up concerns from families of victims who leaned on those life sentences for closure, Siemon is apologizing for her “premature” announcement. And she has since promised to make sure victims’ families are in the loop on any upcoming plans to release convicted murderers back onto the streets of Ingham County.

“I apologize that I discussed this project first with the news media, before we could develop a system to contact victims and their families and that my action has caused suffering,” Siemon said. “We would never take a position on an application to commute a sentence without first seeking input from the victim’s family.”

Siemon previously told City Pulse that the views of victims’ families don’t always “drive the decision.” She also previously declined to address criticism of her prosecutorial policies, noting that she didn’t want to rally “unwarranted opposition” to her upcoming plans to seek commutations from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Siemon also hedged her subsequent apology this week by doubling down on her judicial philosophy on prison.

“I don’t believe ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ is the right approach in most cases,” Siemon wrote in a statement sent Tuesday. “I have worked to develop policies that move this guideline into action to acknowledge that some persons truly become rehabilitated over time and can be safely returned to the community.”

Read Siemon's full statement: 

I believe that serving as the Ingham County Prosecutor is a great responsibility. I’ve worked on cases of murder, sexual assault, and child abuse and seen the pain and trauma that violent offenses cause to victims and their families. It’s my job to be sensitive to the needs of victims and their families and to consider them in all of the work that I do.

I recently spoke with Kyle Kaminski, a reporter with Lansing City Pulse, about a variety of projects our office is considering, including one to review older cases of “life without parole” from the 1970s and 1980s. The purpose of the project would be to review these older cases and determine whether we would be willing to take a position on an application to commute a sentence. My statements to Kyle Kaminski about the concept of reviewing life-without-parole cases were premature.

Homicide is the ultimate crime in our system of justice, and life without parole is the greatest criminal sanction that may be imposed under Michigan law. Because the criminal justice system has such an enormous impact on the lives of those whom it impacts, plans to change any policies or practices in that system are of great interest to the public.

I regret that I did not fully take into account the impact on victims and their families when I prematurely discussed the concept of reviewing older cases of life-without-parole.  My intent has always been that the victim’s families or their representatives would get their first notice from trained professionals in our office after any review and before offering support or opposition to any application to commute a sentence.

Before taking any position, we would give victims’ families an opportunity to ask questions and provide input.  We would explain that any case we choose to review would also be subject to a further review by the Parole Board. We would state clearly that under Michigan law, only upon a recommendation from the Parole Board would the Governor consider granting an application to commute a sentence and that only the Governor has the authority to grant a commutation. I apologize that I discussed this project first with the news media, before we could develop a system to contact victims and their families and that my action has caused suffering. We would never take a position on an application to commute a sentence without first seeking input from the victim’s family or their representative.

Since the article was published, I have heard from victims and their families and listened to their stories. I have apologized directly to those who have contacted me. I also understand that for every person who picks up the phone or sends a message, there are generally many more who feel they won’t be heard or don’t believe their voice will make a difference. I sincerely apologize to victims and their families for the pain caused by my premature announcement.

I have also been contacted by the supporters of incarcerated persons and their families who are hopeful that I will soon intercede to have their loved ones released from prison. While we have started planning a process to review cases from the 1970s and 1980s, I do not have the authority to have inmates released and I apologize to anyone who had hoped otherwise.    

I deeply regret that those impacted by the homicide cases in our community had to read about this for the first time in the newspaper, without being first contacted by someone who was available for a real conversation about this subject. Our office handles over 10,000 cases a year, and behind every one of those cases there are lives changed.

I don’t believe that “lock them up and throw away the key” is the right approach in most cases. That has consistently been my position and I have worked to develop policies that move this guideline into action to acknowledge that some persons truly become rehabilitated over time and can be safely returned to the community.

I can’t reverse cases that predate my tenure or change a jury’s verdict, but as the elected Prosecutor for Ingham County, I do believe that in current cases, we should offer alternative resolutions to life-without-parole. With the United States representing less than 5% of the world’s population, it holds 40% of the world’s life-sentenced population.* Other countries have successfully kept the public safe while not resorting to the large number of life sentences the U.S. has and I hope that we can learn from their experiences, data, and research.

An apology doesn’t mean much unless it’s accompanied by action. I pledge that if the concept of reviewing life-without-parole cases becomes a project with defined parameters, I will share real, honest, and accurate information about this project directly with the public so they can be assured that the voices of victim’s family members and their representatives will be heard during the review process. 

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