Pilot Editorial

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Justice system also on trial

George Pittman Jr. goes to court this week for the alleged murder of his wife, Keo Pittman, but we should not forget that the justice system itself could just as easily be on trial here.

Pittman is to be considered innocent unless/until proven otherwise. The parole system has already proven itself suspect.

If Pittman is eventually convicted, it should be pointed out that an early parole system put him in that position, releasing him from prison just four days before Keo's death. And if he is found not guilty, it should also be pointed out that the system cost her husband nine months of her life by putting him in position to be a suspect.

Our interviews with state corrections officials indicate that George Pittman had been ordered held until November 15 after his work release from Oakdale State Prison was revoked. He had served only half a sentence after being charged with terrorism following an incident in which he allegedly threatened to get a gun and kill people in the Buena Vista County Courthouse.

State Parole Board officials were apparently never notified of his release, or the revoked status of his work permit after he had allegedly shown threatening behavior toward staff of a halfway house in Sheldon.

The decision to release Pittman was apparently made by a parole liaison officer meeting with a representative of the department of corrections, a situation that has been going on for some 20 years, according to Elizabeth Robinson-Ford, representing the Iowa Parole Board.

She claimed the Storm Lake case is the first in history in which an Iowa prisoner given early release under such circumstances is accused of murdering someone once they got out.

After the arrest, changes were hastily promised. No more prisoners would be released without the full knowledge of the parole board. No staff members other than the board would be allowed to make decisions on releasing a prisoner. No violent or high-risk offenders would be considered eligible for early release.

It could be a little too late. And with the state budget crunch and high prison population rates, how do we know that the state is going to fulfill those promises?

With those announcements, the parole system basically cleared itself of all wrongdoing, never admitting an error and taking no action against those who signed off for Pittman's release.

Does that make the system right?

In a nutshell, the people sentenced in Iowa serve half the sentence that a judge gives them, which is unfairly misleading to the public to begin with. Five years should be five years. The parole board is empowered to determine how much before the end of that sentence to release the prisoner. We are told that the practice is to give a prisoner a "bank" of good behavior time up front equal to half the sentence, then when a prisoner does not behave, time is taken from that bank, extending the sentence up to the full term.

In Pittman's case, the past record shows a plea of guilty to harassment in 1993 for threatening Storm Lake Police Officer Todd Erskine. Later problems reportedly included a drug-related charge, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, inmate assault, and finally the terrorism sentence. His exploits reportedly include throwing urine on a deputy and alleged suicidal tendencies. He has also been medicated for manic-depressive behavior, according to past reports.

But all of that behavior took place in Buena Vista County Jail, and is not considered against an inmate's prison behavior record by the state.

To be fair, it should be noted that George Pittman's alleged aggression has usually been limited to verbal behavior, and not physical injury.

Bottom line is, had the parole system not acted as it did, he would not have been in the Storm Lake home on September 23 to be blamed for his wife's murder on that day. In our minds, he is not the only one that should be on trial in this tragedy.