Long-time inmate hopes for parole after 54 years

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Associated Press

Posted on July 19, 2014 at 3:01 PM

LA GRANGE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's longest-serving prison inmate has two black-and-white photographs hanging on his nursing room wall at the Kentucky State Reformatory showing the world's biggest movie star the last time he was free. Picture: Marilyn Monroe.

Now, Willie Gaines Smith, 76, is hoping to qualify for parole after 54 years behind bars. Kentucky lawmakers approved a program to let out some infirmed inmates provided they meet certain criteria, such as not being a sex offender or on death row and is a low risk.

The project would save money for the state, which pays millions each year taking care of aging prisoners, by granting some inmates medical parole to private nursing homes where the federal government would pay most of the bills through Medicaid. For inmates like Smith, it costs $182 a day for care.

Kentucky Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson makes the ultimate ruling on which inmates will be paroled; the parole board must follow the decision.

Lisa Lamb, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, told WDRB-TV in Louisville (http://bit.ly/1m8xQuo) that Smith is among a list of inmates who have qualified for the pilot project. Thompson is reviewing his case.

The problem, officials say, is even if Smith or others are granted medical parole, it will be extremely difficult to find a nursing home to take in an inmate, given the liability. Smith says he didn't want to go to a nursing home.

"I want to go home," he said, then recalled his address as "5th Street in Lexington."

Smith entered prison at age 22 on August 31, 1960 after he and a co-defendant, Hassie Cane Martin, were sentenced to death for murder and robbery. Smith was deemed insane in 1963 and has remained in prison nearly a decade longer than any other current Kentucky inmate.

Smith's case is believed to rank among the tops in the nation. The average prison sentence for a murder conviction in the United States is seven years.

Martin was paroled in 1981. It's a point Smith made multiple times in letters to the state parole board. But, in 2004, the board ordered Smith to serve out his life sentence.

"I've been in here long enough," Smith said in a recent interview, in which he was at times lucid and other times unintelligible, unable to say how long he had been in prison or how old he was. "I've served it out."

Louisville defense attorney Ted Shouse, who has worked for the state Department of Public Advocacy and Kentucky Innocence Project, reviewed Smith's prison file and said Smith seems to have "fallen through the cracks."

"Why has he served 54 years? . Having a mental illness does not make you ineligible for parole," Shouse said.

But Smith's mental illness and finding a place for Smith seems to have been a challenge for years.

In 1980, shortly before Martin was paroled, Smith's case manager wrote that "parole plans were discussed with Mr. Smith" but his family "has displayed no interest in providing a home." Smith's family could not be reached for comment.

And in 2004, the board cited the seriousness of his crime and prior felony convictions in ordering Smith to serve the rest of his life in prison.

Aaron Smith, warden of the La Grange prison, said that while it is a "sad case in some ways" that Smith has been in prison since 1960, it shouldn't be forgotten that a man was killed and his family affected.

"While you have compassion on one side, you also have compassion on the other," Smith said. "It's a two sided thing."

Also, the warden said it would be tough for Smith to adjust to life outside of prison, especially with his physical and mental issues, which he said are being treated right now.

"It's a different world than it was when he came in," and Smith doesn't have a lot of family support, the warden said.

Smith said no family or anyone else has visited him in prison, which officials confirmed for as many years back as possible.

"I haven't heard from any of my family for a long time," Smith said. "I guess they don't love me anymore."

Smith is now wheelchair user and mostly answers questions with a simple "Yes" or No."

He denied having robbed or killed anyone and remembered little about his trial.

"I didn't pay attention to the trial," is all he will say about his conviction. "It sent me down the road."

His days are spent watching TV - he enjoys "Gunsmoke" - playing Bingo, attending church on Saturday, doing arts and crafts and talking with others in the nursing facility, including his roommate of two decades.

When asked what he missed most about the outside world, he gave a one-word answer: "Freedom."

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Information from: WDRB-TV, http://www.fox41.com

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