THE PILOT EDITORIAL - State needs to take responsibility in Pittman case

Thursday, October 4, 2001

The Iowa Department of Corrections and the Iowa Parole Board are falling all over themselves this week to assure the public that it isn't their fault that a Storm Lake woman is dead and her four children are displaced.

It's almost as if it becomes true if they repeat it often enough and loud enough.

The bottom line is that George Pittman Jr. was supposed to be held in prison until at least November 15. Period. He should have been in his cell, not in Storm Lake. And if he had not been here, he would not have had the argument with his wife that led to her death - by her own hand, according to the suspect, or by his, according to the police.

No one has denied that his sentence was set to run until November 15. No one has denied that a representative from corrections and a liaison from parole got together and knowingly decided not to inform the parole board that the sentence had been extended, thus allowing the uniformed board to sign off on his early release.

A spokesperson from corrections says his department will not admit that any mistake was made in that process, and that it has no intentions of doing an internal review on its role in that decision.

Over at the parole board, where the director last week was talking about taking "full responsibility" and suffering personal anguish over the death, this week the tune seems different. No mistake was made by her department, and no disciplinary action will be taken, according to an unsigned statement only three lines long, released at the close of an internal investigation. Pittman would have been out soon enough anyway, and there were no "red flags" that there could be trouble, she said.

And yet we are told of threats to a police officer, threats to shoot people in the local courthouse, assault on an officer and inmate assault charges, and verbal abuse to staff even in his recently-failed work release. How red do the flags have to be?

The fact that his early release was effectively arranged without the full informing of the parole board which is responsible for such decisions was simply a historical practice that she didn't know about earlier, she said.

It might have been going on for 20 years, 30 years, maybe more. Nobody remembers for sure, she says.

Even 20 or 30 years of a wrong does not make

a right.

We can't say that a tragedy would or would not have struck this family some time if the sentence had been fully enforced. But it does seem that a fine woman would be alive today, four children would be in their home today, and a man would not be facing a murder charge today, if state officials had done their job and held an inmate as they were directed to do.

No amount of excuses, denial or shifting of blame will change that.

It is not surprising that the state departments are not willing to admit any error or take any responsibility. The repercussions stand to be expensive.

We notice, however, that a number of policies were changed virtually overnight - from the elimination of the practice that freed Pittman without full information to the parole board, to mandating that violent or high-risk prisoners will not be considered for early release from this day forward.

If no mistakes were made, why all the sudden policy changes?

Did it really have to take a tragedy like this to show the sense for such changes?

Nobody in Des Moines wielded the knife in this death, to be sure, but if state officials really did knowingly ignore a sentence date that allowed the death to occur that day, they do have perhaps a drop or two of blood on their hands as well.