In quick reversal, parole board won't restrict public access after allBy TODD FEATHERS
New Hampshire Union Leader
June 14. 2018 9:18AM
CONCORD — State officials quickly reversed direction Wednesday on a new policy that would have prevented members of the public from attending Adult Parole Board hearings or obtaining audio recordings of them.
Conflicting accounts emerged about whether the board, which has been under public scrutiny recently after it paroled a kidnapper who was later charged with murdering his ex-fiancee, had actually implemented the policy changes or was just considering doing so. But the Attorney General’s office said it was withdrawing guidance given by one of its attorneys to the parole board that was the basis for the policy change.
“This office gave guidance to the Adult Parole Board, and at this time that guidance is suspended,” Associate Attorney General Jane Young said after a reporter contacted her office about the policy change. “The matter is under further review, and that review is to ensure compliance with the constitution, the various statutes at play, and to ensure maximum transparency.“
She added that no parole board hearings had been held.
On Wednesday, parole board Executive Assistant Ashlyn St. Germain told a reporter that the board would no longer make audio recordings of hearings available and that members of the public could not attend hearings unless they were specifically invited by the offender.
After the Attorney General’s office became aware of the changes, parole board Chairwoman Donna Sytek said in an interview that the policies were still under discussion and had not gone into effect.
“We need to reconcile the statute and the rules, but in the meantime it’s business as usual,” she said. “My natural inclination is transparency and accountability.”
Sytek added that the board recently discovered that its internal rules were inconsistent with the state’s Right-to-Know law, and that the recent case of Brian Chevalier had brought the issue “to a head.”
The board granted Chevalier parole on Oct. 19, 2017, less than halfway through a maximum 30-year sentence he was serving for kidnapping a Jaffrey woman in 2003.
On parole at the time of that kidnapping, Chevalier was also charged with repeatedly raping the victim, choking her and threatening to kill her, but a jury acquitted him on all but the kidnapping charge.
During his parole hearing eight months ago, the board did not discuss details of the crime or his previous record on parole. Several media outlets, including this newspaper, used audio recordings of the hearing in their reports.
Sytek has said the board’s reviews are extensive and go beyond the hearings to include risk assessments and interviews with relatives and employers. Following the news in April that Chevalier was charged with strangling Wendi Rose Davidson to death in her North Andover, Mass., apartment, the Adult Parole Board said it would open an internal investigation into how it handled the case.
Victim advocates and the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sharply condemned the parole board’s policy changes as they became public on Wednesday.
“Parole is a privilege, not a right, and this decision prioritizes an offender’s privilege over the rights of their victim,” Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said in a statement. “This drastic change in procedure is a significant deviation from current practice and a significant step backwards for the rights of victims. This decision should not have been made without the input from the victim advocacy community.”
The state’s Right-to-Know law exempts parole board records from public disclosure, but the board’s rules say that audio recordings of hearings should be released to the public. The law also allows “consideration of applications by the Adult Parole Board” to be conducted in non-public sessions.
But Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the New Hampshire ACLU, said he believes that provision only protects the board’s deliberations, not the hearings, at which offenders answer questions and victims can give impact statements.
“(The law does not) bar the parole board hearings themselves from being public,” he said. “In fact, having these hearings held publicly is critical for the public — as well as victims and defendants — to hold the parole board accountable for its decisions.”