Levitt isn't only inmate worthy of compassion

WILEY A. HALL

November 24, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

It does not particularly bother me that the state Parole Commission voted last week to free Jeffrey A. Levitt in 1993.

Levitt was the president of the now-defunct Old Court Savings and Loan who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $14.6 million from his own institution. In the mid-1980s, he came to symbolize the greed and dishonesty of the deregulated thrift industry, in part because of his high-flying lifestyle.

But time passes. By next year, Levitt will have served nearly eight years of his 30-year sentence. He has lost much of his wealth and social standing, and his family has been shattered. Even though the commission granted him a rare parole on his very first try, few people would argue that Levitt poses a threat to the community.

If someone is silly enough to put Levitt in charge of another financial institution, and if he then proceeds to rob that institution blind, well, we can always take solace in what appears to be the working motto of the state's penal system: There is always room for one more.

No, I cannot take offense because the Parole Commission members chose to show compassion in the Levitt case. But I do take great offense because of the cases in which these same men and women choose not to show compassion.

One such case involves Jerry Paul Cooper.

Cooper, who is black, has served 34 years of a life sentence after his conviction for the attempted rape of an elderly white woman in 1958. The catch is this: The alleged victim never accused Cooper of attempted rape. Neither did any of the witnesses. At best, they accused him of shoving the woman to the ground.

Cooper, who was 16 years old at the time, later told a court-appointed psychologist that he was attempting to snatch the woman's purse.

But the victim died of unrelated causes before the case could come to trial. And police produced a signed confession in which Cooper allegedly boasted, "Every once in a while I feel like I want to get something from some white woman, you know what I mean? I want a little bit because I like it better when I get it from a white woman instead of a colored woman."

Cooper, who was illiterate at the time and of limited IQ, claims that he never said those words and that police read to him a different confession before asking him to sign.

The court psychologist wrote in his report that he doubted the authenticity of the confession. Nevertheless, Cooper was convicted on the basis of the confession and sentenced to life in prison.

Last March, the Parole Commission decided to keep Cooper in prison for at least another year despite his age, the time he has been in prison, and a very impressive show of support from his family -- who had arranged to get him a job and a place to live, and promised to help him adjust to life on the outside.

A second case involves Terrence G. Johnson. In 1978, Johnson was 15 years old and lived in Prince George's County when he and his brother were picked up by police for alleged vandalism.

At the station, Johnson apparently annoyed one of the officers. The officer took him into a back room and began to smack him around. Panicked, the youth grabbed the officer's revolver and shot him. He then burst from the room, firing wildly and fatally wounding a second officer before he was subdued.

A jury found the youth guilty of manslaughter in the first shooting and not guilty by reason of insanity in the second. A county judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

To date, he has served about half of that sentence. He has been a model prisoner, earning a GED and a bachelor of science degree in business. Nevertheless, in July 1991 the Parole Commission denied Johnson's petition for parole on the ground that his release would send the wrong message to the community.

I believe the commission could have and should have shown the same kind of compassion for Jerry Paul Cooper and Terrence G. Johnson that it showed for Jeffrey A. Levitt.

Cooper and Johnson, unlike Levitt, were convicted under very questionable circumstances.

But, like Levitt, they have been punished enough.

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