Murder's stain: Can it be erased?

A killer can be rehabilitated, but entering a profession is not always a choice

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Tricia McInroy/Associated Press
James Hamm, was paroled in 1992 after spending 17 years in prison for a 1974 drug slaying. Since then he has finished law school at Arizona State University and passed the state bar exam.

James Hamm is a rare murderer.

He readily admits his brutality and his guilt, recounting how he shot and killed a customer who intended to buy marijuana from him in 1974. But in prison, Hamm says, he transformed himself from drug-peddling thug into law-abiding scholar.

He graduated from college while still incarcerated, later completed law school and passed the bar exam on his second try. Now about to turn 55, he wants a license to practice law in Arizona, the same state that imprisoned him for 171/2 years for first-degree murder.

Critics of Hamm say his violent past makes him unfit to work as an attorney. Hamm welcomes the debate. He says the public usually is content to warehouse criminals and ignore parolees. But he believes that his case and a handful of others around the country are forcing people to consider whether murderers who have rehabilitated themselves should be allowed into the more prestigious professions.

"I have genuinely tried to do everything in my power to atone for what I did, but I know they aren't going to roll out the red carpet for me," he said in an interview last week.

Paul Krueger knows it, too. A triple murderer who was on the faculty at Penn State University until his criminal background was uncovered, Krueger resigned this month as an assistant professor of education.

Nobody at Penn State asked whether Krueger, or any other member of the faculty, had a felony record. In turn, Krueger did not volunteer that he was convicted of shooting and killing three fishermen near Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1965. He was 17 years old at the time.

Krueger served more than 12 years in prison before being paroled, after which he completed a doctorate and pursued the life of an academic.

David Monk, Penn State's dean of education, called Krueger "an exemplary faculty member." But the murders he committed 38 years ago proved impossible to ignore.

"The university and Dr. Krueger both recognize that his ability to carry out his responsibilities effectively as a faculty member in the college of education has been compromised in light of the revelations about his history," Penn State said in a statement.

Krueger also found himself unwelcome at another campus, National University in La Jolla, Calif., which had recruited him for a higher-ranking teaching job than the one he held at Penn State. It withdrew the offer after learning of his convictions.

Krueger, now 55, probably remains too controversial to be accepted, even at institutions that study crime, punishment and rehabilitation, said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

"He clearly did something horrendous, but he paid a price. And the very heavy hand of the state of Texas released him," Blumstein said. "I don't consider him much of a risk today, but I'm not the president of Penn State."

What happens next for Krueger is uncertain. He has not responded to requests for interviews.

Hamm said human nature made it almost impossible for even the most remorseful killer to be accepted in a profession.

"We don't trust the idea of rehabilitation because we feel like we're being taken in by a con man," he said.


Keeping a secret

Many paroled murderers try to keep their past a secret, fearing that the public can be unforgiving and the media, relentless in dredging up their crimes.

Carl Coppolino, 71, is such a man. His story once filled America's newspapers and magazines, but he has guarded his privacy since being paroled in 1979.

"My life has gone on very nicely, but I don't want to talk about it because then I'll get more calls," said Coppolino, who twice stood trial for murder in the 1960s.

In those days, he was Dr. Coppolino, an anesthesiologist who moved in wealthy circles and strayed in his marriage. Prosecutors said Coppolino's infidelity and greed led him to murder twice.

He was acquitted in 1966 in New Jersey on charges of killing his lover's husband. The next year, a Florida jury convicted him of second-degree murder in the poisoning of his first wife, Carmela, who was heavily insured. The district attorney said Coppolino injected her with an anesthetic that was almost impossible to trace.

Paroled after 12 years on condition that he not attempt to regain his medical license, Coppolino always maintained that he was innocent. He wrote a book about his case called "The Crime that Never Was," then shrank from public view. He will not discuss what he's done with his life or whether he's been accepted in the 24 years since his release from prison.

Convicted murderers in the era of Coppolino and Krueger often had a crack at freedom, provided that they behaved themselves while in prison.

But starting in the 1980s, sentences became longer, and paroles and commutations became rarer.

America incarcerated about 110 of every 100,000 people from the 1920s until the 1970s, according to Blumstein. Today, the rate of those in prison has more than quadrupled, to 470 of every 100,000.

"We're certainly being tougher and handing down longer and longer sentences," Blumstein said. "It's getting to a point of geriatric burden, where we have prisons as nursing homes."

The movement toward longer sentences and fewer paroles sprang from political campaigns that seized on crime as an issue voters would remember. Blumstein said the 1988 presidential election became the turning point in keeping more killers locked up longer.

Republican George H.W. Bush used television ads to depict his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a soft administrator whose crime policies endangered the public.

Bush highlighted the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer in Massachusetts who was furloughed while Dukakis was governor. After Horton went free, he raped a woman and stabbed her companion.

Steven Blackburn, a convicted murderer who was paroled and is now a social worker in Philadelphia, said ambitious politicians now are afraid to commute prisoners' sentences for fear of a single case backfiring.

So Blackburn is working on a clemency project with Pennsylvania Quakers. Their idea is to establish a reliable evaluation system that the governor could use to return rehabilitated inmates to society.

Blackburn, 52, was convicted of murder after a 1975 street fight in Philadelphia turned deadly. He came to blows with a neighborhood adversary, who eventually tried to run away. Then a cohort of Blackburn's pulled a gun and shot the man dead. Both were charged with murder, though Blackburn said he had no idea that his friend would fire at the man.

The shooter eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and received a prison sentence of 18 months to 10 years. Blackburn did not want a plea bargain, thinking he would win an acquittal if he went to trial.

Instead, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Shaken by the prospect of living out his life behind bars, Blackburn decided that he had to prove himself worthy of freedom. He took college courses from his cellblock in the Graterford prison, and tutored and counseled other inmates.

"Prisons are there for a purpose. There's some fools that need to be there," Blackburn said. "But there also are inmates worth saving. Other people in prison positively affected my life, so I know it's true."

After 14 years in prison -- a longer sentence than the gunman served -- Blackburn received a commutation from then-Gov. Robert P. Casey, clearing the way for his parole.

Since then, he has completed his bachelor's degree at Temple University, gotten married and landed a job with the Philadelphia city government.

His first assignment was to try to reform gang members and youths doing little but hanging out on street corners.

"I guess my background was an asset for that job," Blackburn said.

He has since been promoted and now directs a family development center specializing in programs to prevent teen violence, drug abuse, truancy and child abuse and neglect.

The idea of helping troubled people become productive citizens invigorates him. "After doing 14 years inside, this is heaven," he said.

Blackburn also has reached a stage where he can admit that he was on a destructive path long before the night of the killing. "I sure wasn't no saint. I was out there partying and getting high. I've been blessed to get my life back."

Other people, he says, deserve the same chance, and he aims to help them get it.

Embracing the debate

Some who shared Blackburn's sentiments say they have given up on rehabilitation of murderers after being burned by them.

David Band, a New Orleans lawyer, is one employer who's come to believe that ex-convicts too often are con men.

He hired a convicted murderer and onetime heroin addict named Kenneth Johnston to work in his office. Johnston had served 21 years in prison, where his skill in writing legal briefs awed fellow prisoners and impressed judges across Louisiana.

"He's a typical jailhouse lawyer but a bright guy; and he writes beautifully," Band said. "I just couldn't keep him anymore because he hadn't changed."

Band said he fired Johnston for forging his signature and because drug paraphernalia started turning up in his office.

"I don't know if it's worth trying to help these people," Band said. "It's really dangerous hiring anybody with a criminal background."

Yet Hamm, the convicted murderer in Arizona, says he wants to become a practicing lawyer to show the world that a one-time murderer can be an asset to society, not a menace.

He expects the question of whether he is rehabilitated enough to practice law to be decided by the five-member Arizona Supreme Court. Meantime, he works as a paralegal in the Phoenix area. In addition, he and his wife, Donna, run Middle Ground Prison Reform, an advocacy organization for inmates.

Hamm says he knows the killing he committed will always haunt him, and he says it should. Still, he is one paroled killer who embraces the controversy about what he did and what he wants to do.

"All the furor over my crime, my release and my attending law school is a good thing because it makes people think about whether people like me can be rehabilitated and make a contribution."