Families of violent crime victims call on CT Board of Pardons and Paroles to pause commutations

John Aberg could barely hold back tears when he stood beside Republican lawmakers in Hartford on Tuesday and spoke of his 3-year-old grandson Andrew Slyter, who was murdered 16 years ago, and begged the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles to pause commutations until their policies can be reviewed.

Aberg and his family never thought they’d see a day when Craig Sadosky, the man convicted of Slyter’s murder, had an opportunity for a potential early release.

“The person who molested and savagely beat him to death accepted a plea agreement, to plead to murder and a 40-year sentence,” said Aberg.

“My family left the courthouse that day with the understanding that the monster who murdered Andy would be kept apart from all of us for 40 years, and kept apart from all of you and your own children and your own grandchildren for 40 years,” he said.

“Now we are told that the plea agreement may not stand at all, we’re told that this murderer can apply for commutation right now.”

The grandfather of the slain boy said he cannot come to understand how an agreement so carefully crafted during the 3½ years their case moved through the judicial system can be overridden by three members of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, each appointed by the governor, who decide on commutations.

In June 2021, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles issued its policy on commutations, which says it has the power to reduce sentences for any person who has committed any offense. Since that policy went into play, the number of commutations granted — and applied for — has skyrocketed.

Between 2016 and 2021, the board granted a total of six commutations that reduced sentences for convicted felons who are currently incarcerated. In 2022, it granted 71. Among those, Republican lawmakers said Tuesday, were the sentences of 44 convicted murderers who had time shaved off their remaining sentences by the board, an autonomous state agency that operates without legislative oversight.

In 2021, 18 inmates applied to have their sentences commuted. In 2022, the number of applications jumped to 431.

State Sen. Heather Somers (R-Groton) and fellow Republican lawmakers joined families of victims during a press conference on Tuesday in Hartford to call on the board to pause its commutations of inmates’ sentences until the state legislature has time to review the policy. According to state law, the board oversees its own policymaking.

Audrey Carlson, whose daughter Elizabeth Carlson was murdered by her ex-boyfriend during a home invasion in 2002, said she feels that “Connecticut is turning its back on survivors of homicide.”

Although it’s been more than two decades since Jonathan Carney hid in the family’s Newington home before gunning down the 24-year-old, her family felt that their wounds were torn earlier this year when Carney’s case went before the board for a pre-screening hearing for a commutation.

In February, they heard that Carney would go before the board with just five days’ notice. After gathering thousands of letters of objection that were sent to the board ahead of Carney’s hearing.

Though his request for a full commutation hearing was ultimately denied, the notification that a commutation was even a possibility sent the family into a tailspin of grief, PTSD and exhausting self-advocacy.

“Imagine the unimaginable for just a second. Your world crashes around you. You’re caught in a riptide, you can’t breathe. And just when you think and you feel that you might find your way, you learn that your killer can be set free,” said Carlson. “We buried Elizabeth 21 years ago and now it feels as if we’re right back where we began, reliving the worst nightmare of our lives.”

The Carlsons had reluctantly agreed to a plea bargain that put Carney behind bars for 44 years, although he would have faced more if he had been convicted at trial. The family said they decided to accept the plea deal to avoid the trauma of repeated appeals. They were under the impression that it was iron-clad.

“Not one day less, not one day more, he would serve the sentence in its entirety,” Audrey Carlson said in Hartford on Tuesday.

Unlike other states, Connecticut puts the power of pardons in the hands of the appointed members of the board, rather than the governor. It exercises independent authority over its policies and decisions, according to the governor’s office.

Somers said that the practice and volume of commutations took a drastic shift following the policy change.

“We are shaving decades off of criminal sentences,” she said Tuesday.

Somers called on Gov. Ned Lamont to suspend commutations until the administration can explain the “astounding increase” in the number of those that are granted.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Monday that he does not have the power to do that. The governor plans, however, to organize a meeting soon to put board members, members of the General Assembly, and stakeholders like victim’s families together to discuss policies and practice and decide if changes should be made, a spokesperson for Lamont’s office said Tuesday.

“Connecticut remains one of the safest states in the country in large part because of the data-driven approach used to develop and evaluate criminal justice policy and practice,” said Lamont in a statement following Tuesday’s press conference. “The commutation process has accelerated rapidly since coming back online mid-2021. Given the substantial progress the Board already has made in hearing commutation cases, it’s time to step back and see how the policy is working. The seriousness of the topic demands a careful approach involving the General Assembly as well as stakeholders, especially victims.”

Somers said Tuesday that the board’s policy, implemented in June 2021, was “written in the dark without any legislative input, oversight or notation.”

Sen. John Kissel (R-Enfield) said that although he has been a ranking member of the judiciary committee for years, the policy change in 2021 went completely under the radar.

“We weren’t apprised of what was going on,” said Kissler, who has served on the committee for nearly three decades.

“I am absolutely appalled, devastated by what I have learned. And I am calling on Governor Lamont: Stop this right now,” he said. “This needs to be a state policy that is rigorously overseen, the legislature has got to weigh in. We need a real heartfelt analysis of what we’re doing here.”

Lamont has encouraged the full board “to undertake a collaborative and comprehensive review of the commutation policy,” his office said, and members of his administration have been working with the board so far this year to understand the policy’s impact. The role of the board, as a whole, is to facilitate certain offenders’ successful reintegration into the community and provide relief to incarcerated people who have shown enough change to become productive members of society.

Somers, who last year sat through a triple murder trial with the surviving members of the Lindquist family, said that commutations for violent offenders convicted of murder set a dangerous precedent and cause further harm to survivors who have already endured unimaginable pain.

“Serious offenders leave trails of victims in their wakes, the victims’ families are left with the pain and the trauma of the unimaginable loss and of course the loss of the life that could have been if not for the murdered,” she said. “Granting a commutation sends a clear and poignant message that the life of the victim is not valued. It diminishes the severity of the crime and can cause additional harm and trauma to the victim’s loved ones for years.”

The senator said she is angered by the policies and practices that allowed this policy to go into effect, bringing survivors like Carlson and Agner to a place where their trauma has been forced to the forefront of their lives once again.

“It’s simply outrageous this is happening in the state of Connecticut,” said Somers. “The public expects that murderers and other serious offenders will be held accountable for their crimes and that justice will be served. Granting commutations for these types of individuals makes the public feel that the justice system is failing by not fulfilling its duties. It also creates a sense of injustice, particularly for victims and for their families.”

Lessening sentences for felons convicted of crimes as serious as murder, said Somers, also sends a dangerous message to potential criminals.

“It can send a message that murder is not a serious crime and that if you murder you can get time away with a lighter sentence. This can have a ripple effect on society with potentially dangerous consequences,” she said.

The families of Slyter and Carlson agreed, both echoing that the heartache they’ve experienced can be suddenly thrust upon any family.

“We stand in front of you as living proof that this can happen to any family,” said Agner.