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December 2, 2013

Notification is vital for parole hearings

The Daily Star

---- — There are prisons for all kinds of purposes. Regrettably, some are used to interrogate or isolate political foes. Most are used to punish lawbreakers. But the primary reason why society requires prisons is to protect people from those who would do them harm.

One such incarcerated person is David Dart, who on Sept. 12, 1989, murdered Milford High School graduate Gillian “Jill” Gibbons by stabbing her repeatedly with a 17-inch survival knife.

Dart was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life, but someday, Gibbons’ older sister, Jennifer Kirkpatrick, knew, Dart would be coming up for parole. What Kirkpatrick didn’t know was when.

Kirkpatrick said she had signed up on the New York state website for crime victims who want to be informed about parole hearings, but it wasn’t until Nov. 18 that she found out that a hearing for Dart, who will be 45 in January, had been scheduled for that week.

No one from the state ever contacted Gibbons’ family to let them know that Dart’s first parole hearing had been placed on the prison system calendar, Kirkpatrick said.

“I was blindsided,” she said. “I think the court was blindsided as well. I feel like I have been abandoned by the system.”

Had it not been for the alert work of Otsego County Judge Brian Burns, Kirkpatrick would not have known that a hearing that could have put her sister’s killer back on the streets had been scheduled.

Burns, whose office had received a Nov. 14 correspondence about the hearing from the medium-security Otisville prison that houses Dart, contacted a friend who knew Kirkpatrick and relayed the information to her.

That hearing was postponed to January on Nov. 20, shortly after reporter Joe Mahoney of The Daily Star contacted the state Department of Corrections and Supervision, inquiring about the parole hearing.

A spokeswoman for the agency said the hearing was postponed because Dart’s file was “incomplete.”

“Victim impact statements serve a vital role, and the system needs to be reliable,” said state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford. “It is the least that can be done out of respect for a family that has already been through more trauma and suffering than anyone ever should.”

Seward said the Senate has passed a measure he supports that would require notifications of upcoming parole hearings to be sent by certified mail to county prosecutors and crime victims at least 30 days before crime victims.

It is, of course, not anyone’s job except a parole board’s to ascertain whether a criminal is rehabilitated, has served an adequate sentence and is deserving of release. But the way the ball was dropped in the Dart case was intolerable and should never be repeated.