In denying parole to a Wichita man serving life for a crime he says he didn't commit, the Kansas Prisoner Review Board set conditions that conflict with written policies.
Ronnie Rhodes, who has spent 30 years in prison for murder, was denied parole in July. The 56-year-old has maintained his innocence, and a review of his case by the Washburn School of Law has raised questions about his conviction.
Now, Rhodes' lawyer said he faces expectations that appear impossible to meet.
The Prisoner Review Board, appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback to replace the Kansas Parole Board, said it would reconsider parole for Rhodes in 12 months.
During that time, the board said, Rhodes must obtain employment by private industries, which offer jobs to inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility.
But the application Rhodes had to fill out for those jobs said he has to be a minimum of 18 months from release — a requirement that's been in place since 2004.
"I would say it is a condition that, practically speaking, sets Ronnie up to fail," said Rebecca Woodman, who this June began representing Rhodes through the Washburn Law Clinic.
Rhodes received the same conditions for parole in 2000, and was given two years to comply. Rhodes landed a job in 2001, splicing wires for use on brakes for semis. He was denied parole in 2002.
"Something is wrong with this picture," Rhodes said.
Prisoner Review Board members, who work for the Department of Corrections, did not respond to requests for an interview.
SuEllen Fried, who founded the Reaching Out from Within prisons ministry, said she was surprised Rhodes wasn't granted parole, despite the questions raised about his conviction.
Rhodes has participated in and led group sessions for the program for years.
"I was disappointed for him and for the pursuit of justice," Fried said.
For two years, Woodman's wrongful-convictions class has studied Rhodes' conviction in the 1981 stabbing of Cleother Burrell.
In a brief filed with the Prisoner Review Board at Rhodes' parole hearing, Woodman detailed the "significant problems" in Rhodes' case:
* Wichita police appear to have lost DNA evidence, including hairs taken from underneath Burrell's fingernails, that could prove or disprove Rhodes' innocence claims.
* A supposed eyewitness, Bruce Elliott, picked Rhodes' picture out of a lineup that police did not preserve, and which appears from court transcripts to be unduly suggestive and improper.
* In court, Elliott could not identify Rhodes as the killer.
* Burrell was stabbed 20 times and would have bled profusely. Elliott, who had shared his apartment with Burrell, was covered in blood when picked up by police that night. He only identified Rhodes' picture after police told him he was a suspect.
* The prosecutor failed to disclose to the defense before trial that Elliott had been previously convicted of a crime.
* Rhodes' defense attorney didn't adequately challenge the lineup or order independent testing of evidence, the students concluded.
"What is plainly apparent... is this: Mr. Rhodes' 1981 murder conviction is based on questionable evidence and is marked by inadequate investigation," Woodman wrote in a report to the review board this summer.
No one currently working for the Wichita Police Department or the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office was involved in Rhodes' case.
Fried, with the Reaching Out from Within ministry, said she's seen Rhodes mentor other inmates, including leading groups on changing cognitive behavior.
"I have found him very articulate and able to convey complex issues," Fried said.
Fried said she had no qualms in Rhodes being released from prison. She also said that, as a member of the ministry, Rhodes would qualify for a mentor and have a support network upon his release.
"I think he could make contributions to the community," she said.
Rhodes has again applied for a job to try and meet the conditions by the board. He recently started a job — not in the industry section of the prison, but as a porter cleaning the showers in the maximum unit.
"I am going to stay as positive as possible." Rhodes said in an e-mail. "I am not a quitter; if I was I would had given up a long time ago."