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An 88-year-old Iowan has served 52 years on a life sentence. Should that be enough?

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Courtesy of the Iowa Board of Parole
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Clyde Johnson during a June 3, 2021 commutation interview with the Iowa Board of Parole. At 88 years old, he has served 52 years on a life sentence for first degree murder.

For Iowans serving a life sentence, the only shot they have at getting out of prison is a commutation from the governor. But during her four years in office, Gov. Kim Reynolds hasn’t commuted a single sentence. Now some advocates say the process is in need of reform.

At 88 years old, Clyde Johnson has been incarcerated longer than most Iowans have been alive. When he was sent to prison back in February of 1969, we hadn’t even landed on the moon yet.

Johnson was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life, for fatally shooting a man at a party after a day of drinking. Earlier this year, he told the Iowa Board of Parole the man had called him the N-word and reached for a gun.

"And when he reached for his gun, that's when I said I’d rather for him to go than me. And so I shot him and took off. I didn’t know it killed him though," Johnson said.

"During the riots there at Fort Madison, I put my life on the line and got four nurses and two female [correctional officers] out. And wouldn’t let nothing happen to them."
-Clyde Johnson, Anamosa State Penitentiary inmate

In June, the Anamosa State Penitentiary inmate made his case to the parole board, the group that reviews commutation requests and makes recommendations to the governor.

By the time a lifer gets this interview, they’ve submitted a textbook of an application: documenting their record and rehabilitation, with letters of support from priests and prosecutors and judges. And they’ve waited up to two years for that application to be processed.

At Johnson’s hearing, he told the board that in the five decades since his crime, he’s become trustworthy and dependable. He became a devout Christian and went back to school. He worked as a driver, transporting a van full of inmates to work release programs.

And in 1981, he helped get multiple staffers to safety during a deadly riot at the Iowa State Penitentiary.

"They transferred him to New Mexico for his own personal safety. I believe I read glass in his food and different items that were happening to him because of what he did for others. I consider that extraordinary."
-Susie Weinacht, Iowa Parole Board member

"During the riots there at Fort Madison, I put my life on the line and got four nurses and two female [correctional officers] out. And wouldn’t let nothing happen to them," Johnson said.

Afterwards, Johnson was transferred out of state for two decades for his own safety. Board member Susie Weinacht called Johnson's actions "extraordinary."

"They transferred him to New Mexico for his own personal safety. I believe I read glass in his food and different items that were happening to him because of what he did for others," Weinacht said. "I consider that extraordinary."

What does it take to get a commutation in Iowa?

But now, Johnson's time is running short. After more than a half century behind bars, he's not only missed out on his loved ones’ lives, he’s missing their deaths too.

"Three of my children have passed away and I wasn’t able to go to their funerals," Johnson said. "My friends and stuff that I grew up with, they all are starting to pass away now. So it's rough on me."

Ultimately the board was convinced: in a rare move, they voted unanimously to recommend Gov. Kim Reynolds commute Johnson’s sentence to a term of years, making him potentially eligible for release.

But Reynolds denied Johnson’s request, saying the 88-year-old’s recollection of his 50-year-old crime was too different from what he’s said in the past.

Always a rare remedy, commutations now feel unattainable for some

Under Reynolds' administration, the Board of Parole has received dozens of commutation requests, but she hasn’t granted any of them.

"That’s a shame. When politics overrides morality and compassion and mercy and justice," said Sue Hutchins, co-chair of the Iowa Justice Action Network. She’s also served as an advocate for people applying for a commutation.

Hutchins says she’s seen lifers accomplish incredible things, with no guarantee of ever getting out.

"They're very interested in bettering themselves and on the other hand, they feel like no matter what they do, it’s never going to be enough."
-Sue Hutchins, Iowa Justice Action Network

"I have seen honesty. I have seen mentorship. I have seen people volunteer and do wonderful hospice work," Hutchins said. "I've seen people grow spiritually…I've seen people with degrees all the way up to PhDs.

But she says there’s a feeling among lifers that getting a commutation isn’t possible under this administration.

"They're very interested in bettering themselves," Hutchins said, "and on the other hand, they feel like no matter what they do, it’s never going to be enough."

Commutations have significantly declined in the past 50 years

The past half century has marked a dramatic decline in executive clemency in Iowa. Gov. Terry Branstad issued just three commutations in his more than 20 years in office, while some past governors issued dozens.

Iowa Board of Parole Chair Andrew Boettger says it doesn’t bother him that Reynolds hasn’t approved any commutations.

"I'm not troubled by it, no," Boettger said. "I think it should be a rare remedy."

In Iowa, it’s ultimately up to one person: the governor. Boettger says he respects that.

"We make our best recommendation to the governor, but the legal power is vested in her as the chief executive of the state and it’s her prerogative to grant or deny. And we respect her decisions when she makes them," Boettger said.

In her time in office, Reynolds has championed second chances. She herself was arrested twice for driving under the influence.

Taking questions from reporters back in 2019 about her push to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions, she spoke of the capacity for change.

"I have been very up front about some of the struggles that I have gone through as an individual. I know that you can…change when provided second chances and I just believe that it’s the right thing to do," Reynolds said.

But so far that hasn’t translated to commutations. In response to a request for comment, the governor’s office says she stands by her belief in second chances and she regularly reviews commutation requests.

As commutations drop off, the number of lifers increase

At the same time that commutations have dropped off over the past few decades, Iowa’s number of lifers has increased to more than 700, almost 10 percent of the prison population, due to a number of factors.

And just like on the outside, as they age, these Iowans develop serious medical conditions like cancer, dementia and kidney failure.

"We are incarcerating people on life sentences who have to seek dialysis several times a week," said Alison Guernsey, a professor at the University of Iowa Law School who oversees law students who work on commutation cases.

"It makes financial sense to take a look at people who are living in Iowa prisons and saying, are the purposes of punishment served any longer by keeping this person incarcerated? And if they aren't, why are we doing it?"
-Alison Guernsey, professor, University of Iowa Law School

Iowa advocates and Boettger, the parole board chair, are both calling for one major reform: creating a compassionate release process in Iowa, a kind of specialized release for individuals who are incapacitated or suffering from a terminal illness.

According to the advocacy group FAMM, Iowa remains the only state in the country that does not have a compassionate release provision. Boettger plans to push a compassionate release bill in the upcoming legislative session, saying the proposal has bipartisan interest.

Guernsey says allowing for compassion and mercy is simply the right thing for the state to do. And she says, it’s the practical thing to do.

"It makes financial sense to take a look at people who are living in Iowa prisons and saying, are the purposes of punishment served any longer by keeping this person incarcerated?" Guernsey said. "And if they aren't, why are we doing it?"

Guernsey says the research bears this out: analysts have demonstrated that overwhelmingly, people age out of crime, making them very unlikely to recommit their offense.

"The people who are serving life sentences, or even really incredibly lengthy sentences for murder are very, very, very, very unlikely to recidivate in that way," she said.

Advocates want to see many broader reforms to Iowa’s criminal justice system. But they say because commutations are just up to one person, this is a great place to start.

Clyde Johnson, the 88-year-old who saved the prison staffers during the riot, says he just wants to go home to his family.

"That’s it, I’d just like to get out and spend some time with my children that I have left," Johnson told the parole board.

Johnson can reapply for commutation. But he has to wait 10 more years to do so, if he can hold on to age 98.

IPR's Katarina Sostaric contributed reporting to this story.