HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 5:08 p.m.) A few weeks after a convicted murderer walked out of a court a free man, family members of the victim made a passionate plea to make those convicted of serious crimes serve their full sentences.
The Stochmal family, and its supporters, packed the Judiciary Committee’s public hearing Monday to support a bill proposed by House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, that would prohibit anyone sentenced prior to 1994 from earning credits that could possibly reduce their time behind bars.
The bill would not have prevented the early release of David J. Weinberg, who was convicted of killing Joyce Stochmal in 1984. Weinberg was freed from prison early after several problems were discovered with the evidence against him.
Chief Public Defender Susan Storey said that application of Weinberg’s good time credits have absolutely nothing to do with his release from prison.
“Weinberg was released because it was found by all involved in reinvestigating this case that his conviction for the murder of Joyce Stochmal lacked integrity and was based on false testimony, forensic test results now repudiated by the FBI, and the withholding by local and state police of the confession of a person who shortly after the murder claimed to be the actual perpetrator of the crime,” Storey said in her testimony.
Nevertheless, the Stochmal family supports the legislation proposed by Klarides because they believe it forced their hand in making a deal to avoid a second trial.
“A little over three weeks ago, David Weinberg, the person who brutally stabbed our sister Joyce Stochmal to death in 1984, was released from Waterbury Superior Court.” Joe Stochmal, Joyce Stochmal’s brother testified.
“He had served just 26 years of a life sentence, a sentence that was supposed to mean he would spend the rest of his natural life behind bars for his horrific crime. He was convicted by a jury, in the same criminal justice system that said that he was never to be eligible for parole,” Mr. Stochmal told members of the Judiciary Committee.
That’s when things started to fall apart for the Stochmal family.
“The system fell apart like papier mache in a rainstorm, once the decay of nearly 33 years had set in,” Mr. Stochmal told legislators. “An organization that is funded to help wrongfully incarcerated people get exonerated, wasted resources and funding to poke holes in the case.”
Klarides she wants to toughen up the Risk Reduction Earned Credits program created in 2011 that allows certain convicts to reduce their time behind bars if they successfully complete programs that would make them less likely to reoffend.
Three weeks ago a Waterbury Superior Court judge ordered Weinberg, who was convicted of Joyce Stochmal’s killing, released on time served. The order followed seven years of work by lawyers for the Connecticut Innocence Project, who had discovered problems with the case.
The approval of a “sentence modification” by Waterbury Superior Court Judge Roland D. Fasano allowed Weinberg, 58, to be released after serving 26 years of a 60-year “life sentence” — although credit for good behavior and other time he earned raised the time he is credited with serving to 39 years and 27 days.
Klarides said when she became aware of the Weinberg case, she came up with her legislation “in response to this injustice.”
“The goal is to stop the collection of these “good time” credits,” Klarides said. “I understand we will not be erasing credits that have been earned to date, but we need to stop these inmates from continuing to collect these credits going forward.”
The Connecticut Innocence Project got involved in the Joyce Stochmal murder case in 2010, questioning some of the evidence that it said raised doubts about Weinberg’s guilt. The Innocence Project sought a second trial, but before it was to begin an agreement was reached with Waterbury State’s Attorney Maureen Platt.
Connecticut Innocence Project Director Darcy McGraw, who represented Weinberg, said that the decision to let him out of prison, with time served, was agreed to “because we had uncovered problems” with the case.
“And,” she added, “the state and I agreed that rather go through another trial that sentence modification was preferable,” as long as the conviction stood.
The problems included a statement from a woman who told Meriden police that she had killed Joyce Stochmal. Police didn’t find her confession credible, even though she reportedly had details of the crime that had not been released.
The woman, officials said, suffered from severe mental illness.
Additionally, there were conflicting reports about fibers and hair removed from Weinberg’s car – and whether they belonged to him.
Joyce Stochmal’s sister, Marianne Stochmal Heffernan, said the family was advised because of those issues, to not take the chance of taking Weinberg to trial again.
Also, she said, the younger family members didn’t want to put their parents through the rigors of another trial.
The family did insist, however, Heffernan said, that Weinberg’s murder conviction remain – even if he was set free.
While having the conviction remain was important to the Stochmal family the sting remains.
“The system is rewarding dangerous criminals who are incarcerated for their crimes against other human beings simply for getting through their days behind bars,” Mr. Stochmal said.
While sad and “terribly tragic”, Storey said the Stochmal family’s case is not an example of early release.
“This case is not an example of early release due to good time credits and should not be the emotional focus of passing legislation to abolish the good time credit calculations that apply to prisoners prior to 1993,” Storey said.
Klarides isn’t the only legislator proposing new legislation on the issue.
Also proposing legislation is Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, who held a press conference on Monday to trumpet his legislation.
“I’m the leading critic” of the governor’s early release program,” Suzio said, claiming that the program has been a “failure.”
“Violent felons are getting out of prison early and they are committing murders, rapes, and other horrible crimes,” Suzio said. “It’s a revolving door. This year we have the opportunity to increase this program’s effectiveness. Let’s seize the opportunity, let’s end early release for violent offenders, and let’ stop jeopardizing the safety of our families.”
Asked about the early release program, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy defended it. He said while there are fewer overall prisoners incarcerated,those who have committed the most serious crimes “have spent more time in prison while I’ve been governor than in anytime in modern Connecticut history.”
“As a result crime is lower,” the governor said.
Malloy added that it is a better policy to encourage prisoners to rehabilitate themselves behind bars, “to earn GED’s, to learn to cook, to reupholster,” stating prisoners who learn a skill in jail will “be less likely to commit an offense” once released.