Before Leaving Office, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin Commutes the Sentences of Two Death-Row Prisoners

In his last series of acts before leaving office, outgoing Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (pictured) has commuted the sentences of two of the state’s longest serving death-row prisoners to life with the possibility of parole. On Friday, December 6, 2019, Bevin commuted the death sentence of Gregory Wilson, whose trial proceedings had been described as a travesty of justice. Then on Monday, December 9 — the governor’s last day in office — he commuted Leif Halvorsen’s death sentence in response to a remarkable story of redemption.

Because of the age of the cases, both men became eligible for parole.

Wilson was convicted in 1988 in a trial one federal judge has described as “one of the worst examples I have ever seen of the unfairness and abysmal lawyering that pervade capital trials.” The court took more than a year to locate counsel to handle the case, after most of the lawyers in Northern Kentucky refused to work for the then-maximum state capital-representation fee of $2,500. Eventually, two lawyers agreed to take the case after the judge put a note on his courthouse door, saying: “PLEASE HELP. DESPERATE. THIS CASE CANNOT BE CONTINUED AGAIN.”

One of the lawyers, John Foote, had never tried a felony case. The second, William Hagedorn, volunteered to be lead counsel for free. A semi-retired lawyer, Hagedorn had no office, no staff, no copy machine, and no law books, and listed the phone number of a local bar as his office number. The lawyers failed to interview and subpoena witnesses, investigate evidence collected by police, or contact family members who would have testified on behalf of sparing Wilson’s life. They presented no defense to the murder charges and no mitigating evidence in the penalty-phase of trial.

To compound matters, Wilson’s co-defendant, Brenda Humphrey — a former prostitute who testified against him — was having a sexual relationship with another judge in the circuit during the time of the trial. Humphrey, Wilson’s clemency petition pointed out, had “confessed to her sister that she, Brenda, was the one who killed the victim by slitting her throat.” Humphrey — who is white — was sentenced to a term of years, while Wilson — who is black —was sentenced to die.

Bevin’s statement accompanying the commutation said that “Justice should be served on all sides. It was not.” The fact that the “actual admitted killer is now out of prison and [Mr. Wilson] is on death row would indicate that Mr. Wilson got the short end of the justice stick,” Bevin said. Wilson had been involved in a “brutal murder,” the Governor wrote, but “to say his legal defense was inadequate would be the understatement of the year.”

Wilson’s current lawyer, retired Chief Louisville Metro Public Defender Dan Goyette, praised Bevin for his “courage and sense of justice.” “[A]t long last,” Goyette said, “a shameful travesty of justice has finally been remedied.”

Bevin commuted Halvorsen’s sentence in the waning hours of his service as governor, after reviewing a clemency petition detailing what Halvorsen’s lawyer, David M. Barron, described as a “unique and inspiring story of redemption.” The petition described how, in his 36 years on Kentucky’s death row, Halvorsen went from being a drug addict to a college graduate, completing two college degrees. The petition said that during that time, Halvorsen had raised money for underprivileged children, mentored at-risk youth, and was the only death-row prisoner the warden trusted to be part of a panel of prisoners who spoke with troubled students. Corrections personnel also credited Halvorsen with restoring calm in the prison, likely preventing attacks on corrections personnel and other prisoners.

Several of the students to whom Halvorsen had spoken wrote letters in support of his petition. One wrote: “Listening to your story made me realize that if I don’t change something about my life, I could end up somewhere close to where you are now.”

Halvorsen had previously written in a magazine story, “[m]y years in prison have been spent reclaiming my life from the ashes of its ruins.” Granting the commutation, Gov. Bevin said, “Leif has a powerful voice that needs to be heard by more people.”

Bevin texted Barron at 10:02 p.m., just under two hours before his term expired, to inform him of the commutation. “I’m very pleased and grateful that the governor has recognized Leif Halvorsen’s nearly four decades of efforts to demonstrate remorse, build reconciliation and attempt to use his life situation and story to save other lives and turn other lives around,” Barron said.

Sources

Andrew Wolfson, He was sen­tenced to death after a scan­dalous tri­al. Matt Bevin com­mut­ed his sen­tence, Lousiville Courier Journal, December 10, 2019; Bill Estep and Jack Brammer, Bevin com­mutes Kentucky Death Row inmate’s sen­tence to life in Lexington slay­ings, Lexington Herald Leader, December 112019.

Read Wilson’s Commutation of Sentence here and Halvorsen’s Commutation of Sentence here. Read Wilson’s clemen­cy peti­tion. Read Halvorsen’s clemen­cy peti­tion and the let­ter accom­pa­ny­ing it.