John Stote was serving a mandatory life sentence for the 1995 murder of a Springfield restaurant owner when he was released in January on medical parole. At the time, the 61-year-old was hospitalized with COVID-19 and on a ventilator. The state’s top correctional official determined it was unlikely he would survive.
But two months later, Stote has recovered from COVID-19 and is receiving care at a rehabilitation center, according to his lawyer. If his progress continues, he may be released to live with his daughter, he said.
“It’s beyond insulting to victims,” said Maureen Regan Moriarty, whose father, John Regan, was stabbed to death by Stote, his body wrapped in a blanket and dumped in the Connecticut River. “This is just an outrage to everybody, to every citizen and other victims’ families.”
In all, 21 convicted murderers sentenced to life without parole have been released under the state’s three-year-old medical parole law, state records show. Most of them were released as COVID-19 swept through the state’s prisons. Among all prisoners, 47 have been granted medical parole, of more than 400 who have applied.
The law allows inmates, regardless of their crime, to petition for their release if diagnosed by a physician as terminally ill, with a life expectancy of fewer than 18 months, or permanently incapacitated to the extent that they do not pose a risk to society. Also known as compassionate release, it gives prisoners, often frail and severely disabled, the chance to spend their dying days with loved ones. But for relatives of their victims, their release can be devastating.
“I’m not sure the members of the Legislature fully realized that they set up a conflict in the law: A first-degree murderer is not eligible for parole, yet we’re allowing them to be released” on medical parole, said Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey. “It’s very hard to go back to a family — some of these cases are 30 years old or older — and tell them the killer of their loved one is now potentially eligible to get out of prison.”
State Representative Bruce Ayers, a Quincy Democrat, said he believes the release of so many first-degree murderers during the pandemic was an “unintended consequence” of the law. Last month, he co-sponsored a bill that would make first-degree murderers ineligible for medical parole unless they were younger than 18 when they committed the crime.
Yet, advocates for prisoners defended the releases and said the Department of Correction is thwarting the intent of the law by refusing to release many other sick and dying inmates who pose no threat. Even after some inmates have been granted medical release, they noted, they have remained confined for months while prison officials search for a place to send them. Currently four inmates who have been granted medical release remain in custody, a state parole board spokesman said.
“Every single one of these people who got released deserved to be released,” said Ruth Greenberg, a lawyer who has represented dozens of inmates seeking medical parole, including 13 who have been released. All but one of those was initially denied release by Carol Mici, Department of Correction commissioner, but prevailed after appealing in court. Several inmates were only granted medical release hours before their death, she said.
Four released prisoners have had their medical parole revoked for violating the conditions of their release, including Ben LaGuer, a convicted rapist who ultimately died in prison last year after his return, a spokesman for the state parole board said. None of the revocations stemmed from an improved medical condition, though the law allows the parole board to order inmates back to prison if they are no longer considered permanently incapacitated. Eleven have died since their release, two from illnesses related to COVID-19, according to the state.
Massachusetts was one of just five states without a medical release program when it enacted the law in 2018 as part of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill. At the time, some proponents cited former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s plight as a catalyst. He was serving an eight-year sentence in federal prison for mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion when he was granted compassionate release while battling cancer. More than four years later, DiMasi is now a registered lobbyist.
The state’s program quickly came under fire, as advocates accused prison officials of creating administrative barriers to discourage inmates from applying. In the first year, just four petitions were granted, prompting criticism that prison officials were failing to comply with the law.
In January 2020, the state’s highest court ordered the Department of Correction to overhaul its medical parole regulations, which required inmates to provide medical data and a physician’s signature before their application would be considered. The Supreme Judicial Court said the prison system handles medical care for inmates and was required to provide that information.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said it was understandable that nearly half of inmates receiving medical parole were convicted murderers.
“The oldest and sickest people in the system are serving life,” Matos said. “It would render the [medical parole] law meaningless to exclude lifers.”
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, who opposed Stote’s release, said the law is “fundamentally problematic” because it places parole decisions in the hands of a single person, the Department of Correction commissioner, who ultimately determines whether inmates are so incapacitated that they couldn’t harm anyone. If an inmate’s condition dramatically improves after his release, prosecutors also have no authority to request that his parole be revoked. That decision falls to the parole board.
“He’s free and really without a whole lot of supervision,” said Gulluni, adding that prosecutors and the victim’s family have not been given any information about Stote’s health condition or where he is. “I think it’s unjust, troubling, and unfair.”
Stote applied for medical parole at the beginning of the pandemic, saying he suffered from numerous ailments that made him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including obesity, back pain, ulcerative colitis, and early renal dysfunction. The commissioner denied Stote’s request twice, then granted it in January after he contracted the virus and was placed on a ventilator at Milford Hospital, according to parole records.
“I believe that Mr. Stote is likely to pass from COVID-19,” Mici wrote in a Jan. 21 decision, citing medical reports. She concluded that if he were to survive, he would require oxygen and be permanently incapacitated.
Stote’s lawyer, Mark Bluver, said Stote recovered from the virus after spending more than three weeks on a ventilator. He has been able to walk several steps at a time but remains on oxygen at a rehabilitation center and needs fusion surgery for his back. He has been fitted with an electronic monitoring device and has parole restrictions, but is unlikely to be sent back to prison, he said. He wants to live with his daughter, who is a nurse.
“If he was somehow capable of playing touch football next Sunday, he probably would be called back by parole, but that’s not what we’re dealing with,” Bluver said. “I definitely think he’s not a threat to anybody. He’s a person who is thankful to be alive right now.”
But Moriarty said Stote’s release has frightened her family, especially the prospect that he might live nearby. Stote lured Regan to the restaurant he had purchased from him, with a promise to pay money he still owed for the sale, then repeatedly stabbed him.
“The only peace we can ever have is knowing the person who did such an egregious thing gets his punishment,” she said.
Raymond Vinnie, who murdered a Milton High School tennis star in 1990, was released on medical parole in June after several petitions had been denied. Greenberg, his lawyer, argued that he was permanently incapacitated and bedbound after having a stroke.
Vinnie was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting of Charles Hardison in the basement of the home that he shared with the teenager and his mother, Adlene. Vinnie and Adlene had gotten engaged, but he had become abusive and she wanted him out. He plotted for a month before murdering Charles, who was about to turn 16, she said.
“He went for my heart,” she said. “It was the only way he could hurt me.”
At first Hardison, 80, was furious when she learned Vinnie was being released from prison. She was told he was being sent to a medical facility in Massachusetts, but he ultimately was allowed to move to Georgia to live with his daughter.
“I was really upset,” she said. “I’ve calmed down since. I can’t go around carrying something inside that I have no control of. I’m not happy but I have to let it go. There’s too much living to do. Whatever time I have I want to be happy.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.