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38-year inmate's bid for parole is on hold

by John Lynch | February 13, 2021 at 3:19 a.m.
Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

The Arkansas Supreme Court has blocked, at least for now, a Little Rock man's first chance at parole in 38 years for crimes he committed at 17.

Absent a ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza that made him eligible for parole as of next Tuesday, 56-year-old Terrance Proctor would not qualify for early release from prison for another 61 years when he would be 117.

The high court split 4-3 Thursday to stay Piazza's November ruling in an appeal of the decision by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. The court unanimously agreed to expedite the appeal.

The Republican attorney general turned to the high court to stay Piazza's decision with an emergency motion after Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who inherited the case upon Piazza's retirement, declined to stay the ruling while Rutledge appealed.

Three of the justices -- Karen Baker, Robin Wynne and Courtney Hudson -- voted to deny Rutledge's request for a stay. Proctor's arguments that persuaded Piazza that he was qualified for parole were based on legal strategy that Hudson had suggested during the course of an earlier unsuccessful effort by Proctor to get his sentence reduced.

In calling on the high court to stay the ruling, Rutledge, represented by Senior Assistant Attorney General Pamela Rumpz, argued that she is likely to prevail on appeal because the 2017 law Piazza based his decision on was not intended to apply retroactively and that the judge further wrongly applied court precedents that allow laws to work retroactively.

Proctor was sentenced to life, plus 200 years, in January 1983 after pleading guilty to robbery and 10 counts of aggravated robbery on the advice of his attorney. The sentencing judge told Proctor that he wanted Proctor imprisoned until Proctor was "an old man. My intention is to keep you there for most of the rest of your life." Proctor later said he was never told that prosecutors had offered him a 30-year prison sentence.

Proctor, who had been recommended for executive clemency in 2008, had few grounds to challenge his sentence -- since it was the product of a guilty plea to the court -- until 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no-parole life sentences are unconstitutional, "cruel and unusual" punishments for juvenile offenders who have not killed anyone.

Four years later, Proctor, without a lawyer representing him, succeeded in having his life sentence vacated in a ruling that replaced it with a 240-year term. He went to the Arkansas Supreme Court to challenge that sentence as illegal, arguing that 240 years still amounted to an illegal life term for crimes committed as a juvenile who did not hurt or kill anyone. The justices rebuffed his arguments last April.

In that decision, the state high court held that Proctor had not presented any arguments showing that he was entitled to any more relief from the courts than he had already received.

Four months after that decision, Proctor, with the volunteer assistance of Little Rock attorney Michael Kaiser, turned toward challenging the way parole laws were applied to inmates like himself who had committed their crimes before turning 18.

Their strategy, suggested by Hudson's writings in that April ruling, was to challenge the way prison authorities were wrongly applying a 2017 law, the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, which they said should have made Proctor immediately eligible for parole when it passed. The law imposed a 20-year minimum for inmates whose crimes had been committed before turning 18.

Piazza, the judge, sided with Kaiser and Proctor in November, stating that if the law didn't work the way they argued that it should then it did not make sense. His ruling resulted in Proctor's parole eligibility being recalculated back to February 2009, which made him immediately eligible to be considered for parole at the first opportunity, which would be next Tuesday.

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