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Connecticut parole board grants first commutation in two years

The Board of Pardons and Paroles granted its first commutation in two years on Friday morning, creating a path to freedom for a man who has spent three decades in prison for murder and assault.

Michael Cox killed two people and was responsible for the death of another in a string of violent crimes in 1991, when he was 19 years old. Having spent 30 years of his life in prison, he has been incarcerated for longer than he was alive at the time of his crimes. Absent the board’s intervention, Cox could have been incarcerated until 2056.

“I’ve carried every one of these individuals with me for 30 years,” Cox said from a room at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. “Even to this day, it kind of tears at the fiber of my being because I can’t take it back. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

The board commuted 30 years off Cox’s 75-year sentence. Board members expressed concern at reducing his sentence so he could walk out of prison today, since he hasn’t lived in the free world in 30 years. Noting Cox’s medical conditions, which include chronic renal failure, anemia, diabetes and gout, the panel opted to commute his sentence so he would be eligible for compassionate parole, a narrow form of release only available to prisoners who have served more than half of their sentence.

“Mr. Cox is sincerely remorseful for the crimes that he committed, has dedicated more than 30 years in prison to rehabilitating himself, and as he showed the board today, he now stands as an example to others on how to do their time and to young people as an example that crime doesn’t pay,” said Alex Taubes, Cox’s attorney.

Appearing for the video hearing after completing dialysis Friday morning, Cox told the board about his medical ailments and how they’ve affected his life. He explained how much it has affected him not to be able to sing in his choir group, the crippling pain he often experiences, and the worry that he’ll never make it home to his mother and children.

“My biggest fear is lying in bed and my port opens up, and I end up bleeding out in here,” he said.

A photo of Michael Cox and Stephanie Hyman, his mother. Hyman said as a mother she has a sense of failure about his imprisonment. “I’m wondering what I could have done differently,” she said.

Board members appeared moved by Cox’s extensive rehabilitative efforts over the past three decades. Cox has taken college courses, worked as a certified nursing aide and mentored young people both incarcerated and visiting prison as part of a school trip.

“I was trying to figure out what you haven’t done,” said Deborah Smith-Palmieri, one of the three board members who commuted his sentence.

Cox said the lives he took, and those whose were ruined in the wake of his actions, have pushed him to make something of his own.

“Every college course, every time I got up there and sung in the choir, everything positive that I do in here, I try to live for the moments that I took from them people,” said Cox.

Board Chairperson Carleton Giles noted that the Office of Victim Services had been in contact with one of the victims affected by Cox’s crimes, and they were in favor of commutation. Smith-Palmieri asked Cox how he would respond to survivors of crime who were upset that he was released from prison despite being responsible for the deaths of three people.

“I’m a different person,” Cox said. “I understand that some people will still be upset with me, some people might not forgive me. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I can show through my action and through my ways how much I have changed.”

Cox will now have to apply for compassionate release and go before another panel of parole board members. If he is paroled, he could be on community supervision for five years.

Acknowledging the amount of time he has spent behind bars, Cox said he anticipates culture shock once he is released.

“I would like to seek professional counseling, and programs or things that will help me get acclimated to the world out there,” he said.

Cox is the first person to be granted a commutation since the board updated its commutation policy. Last week they decided to allow 11 men a commutation hearing in January. All of them, like Cox, had been 25 or younger at the time of their crimes and were otherwise ineligible for parole due to the nature of their convictions.

“We know about brain development,” Smith-Palmieri said during Cox’s hearing, explaining part of her reasoning for commuting his sentence. “We know they don’t think all the way to the point of consequences.”

In light of Cox’s commutation and the board’s decision to consider the commutation applications of the 11 men, the board appears to be using its expansive commutation powers as a workaround for narrow state laws.

“Absolutely, the law needs to be updated to reflect the reality of an aging, elderly incarcerated population that no longer poses a threat to society,” Taubes said. “However, the power to commute also exists because it is frequent that the law creates overly harsh outcomes, and mercy must be a component of any just system.”

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