Jun. 24—The local Commonwealth's Attorney, who has a lawsuit pending against the Kentucky Parole Board, is optimistic that a new board chairperson can help resolve the dispute over a recent policy change.
David Dalton — who serves as lead prosecutor for Pulaski, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties — was responding Thursday to news that Gov. Andy Beshear has replaced Lelia VanHoose with Ladeidra Jones as parole board chair.
Jones began her career working at the Woodford County Detention Center and later worked as a probation and parole officer. She spent years working in the Fayette County Drug Court and the state Corrections Department's substance abuse program.
VanHoose, whose second term had expired, is no longer on the board at all. On Monday, the governor appointed Sherri Lathan to replace her for a term expiring in 2025.
While Beshear's office did not give a reason for the shakeup, the parole board's policy shift giving dozens of convicted murderers another chance at potentially cutting short their life sentences sparked an outcry from prosecutors statewide and drew legal challenges not only from Dalton but also from Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
Cameron filed suit jointly with Jackie Steele, commonwealth's attorney for Knox and Laurel counties, in Laurel Circuit Court — seeking an immediate statewide ban on the new directive that had gone to effect April 1.
Laurel Circuit Judge Michael Caperton granted the plaintiffs a temporarily restraining order to halt the parole board from giving a new parole hearing to more than 40 prisoners previously ordered to serve out life sentences for such crimes as murder, rape and kidnapping. The inmates "serve outs" had all been converted to 10-year deferments.
Until the rule was blocked, some prisoners previously ordered to serve out life sentences were scheduled to receive another parole eligibility hearing as early as next month, Cameron's office said.
The parole board said Wednesday that it's complying with the court order and that the directive "is no longer in effect."
The 45 inmates who would have been eligible included a man responsible for the murder and kidnapping of two high school students, a woman responsible for murdering her 10-year-old stepson, and a man who killed two teens on their first date.
That last man — Jeffrey Brian Coffey, 51, of Nancy — is the focus of Commonwealth's Attorney Dalton's lawsuit in Pulaski Circuit Court.
A year ago this month, Coffey — sentenced in 1997 to life without the possibility of parole for 25 years for the August 1995 murders of teenagers Taiann Wilson and Matthew Coomer — went before the parole board for his first eligibility hearing and was issued a serve out.
Dalton filed suit June 10 in Pulaski Circuit Court on behalf of the Wilson and Coomer families — arguing in part that the parole board's policy change violates the recent constitutional amendment known as Marsy's Law which gives crime victims the right to be notified of and heard for all proceedings involving the accused.
The parole board has said the new directive came after legal issues were raised in challenging its practice on issuing "serve outs" during an inmate's initial parole hearing — meaning they were immediately required to serve out their life sentence.
Dalton is currently awaiting the parole board's answer to his complaint. Meanwhile, Coffey has filed a motion to be appointed an attorney in the matter.
"I am hopeful that this is an opportunity for the parole board to see the impact that their decision had on the victims in these cases," Dalton said of the board's new lineup, "and then take this as a chance for a fresh start and undo that directive."