Corey Turner, now 49 years old, convicted for the murder of Richard Woods in Hartford in 1998 when Turner was 22 years old, was denied a commutation of his 60-year sentence by the Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP) because he maintained his innocence.
The case against Turner was built on shaky evidence, as documented by Connecticut Inside Investigator, and was prosecuted by Joan Alexander, who was recently confirmed to the Connecticut Supreme Court over the protestations of Turner’s family and his attorney Alex Taubes, who claimed Alexander suppressed evidence in order to secure a conviction.
Taubes said that Turner has served as a law librarian while incarcerated, influencing, mentoring and guiding peers in the prison system, and building a strong relationship with his sons.
“If Corey Turner’s case does not show exceptional and compelling circumstances, no case does,” Taubes said. “His journey of personal growth, mentorship and relentless pursuit of justice for all makes a compelling case for his early release from prison.”
Turner himself said he struggled initially upon entry into prison but was influenced by an older inmate who was instrumental in changing his situation and outlook, sparking his interest in law and reading, which contributed to a new point of view.
While Turner could not challenge his conviction during the hearing, he does have a habeas petition that is pending, saying he will never stop trying to clear his name and will continue to maintain his innocence. Turner has made multiple attempts to challenge his conviction, but all were denied, which caused some concern among board members regarding his commutation.
Turner repeatedly, under questioning, maintained that he did not commit the crime. He says he knew the victim and feels for the family but could not express remorse because he didn’t do it, leaving him in a Catch-22 when it came to convincing the commutation board.
“It’s not that I don’t care, but I didn’t commit this crime,” Turner said. “I’m not indifferent to the loss of the Woods’ family.”
The Office of Victim Services read a statement by the Woods family, who said he should have to serve his full sentence and did not believe that he had changed.
The Board said that Turner maintaining his innocence was a roadblock for them because they are not able to adjudicate such matters and that it seemed he was applying for commutation based on his innocence, which elicited an outburst from Taubes during the board’s deliberations.
Taubes argued that neither he nor Turner mentioned his claim of innocence until it was brought up by the board and that they are holding that against him.
“You brought it up and then you’re using it against him,” Taubes said over the protestations of board chairwoman Jennifer Zaccagnini. “You all should be ashamed of yourselves. You don’t belong on this board! What you’re doing is a travesty.”
Ultimately, the board decided to deny Turner’s commutation request because it was based on his innocence, despite the work and growth he’s shown while incarcerated.
The BOPP recently began holding commutation hearings again after a hiatus following an outcry by Connecticut Republicans in the General Assembly and victim families, concerned over the commutation of 44 murder convictions during 2021 and 2022, the majority of the 73 commutations given out during those years.
The BOPP had previously only given one to three commutations out per year, but under an updated policy and with a renewed focus on criminal justice reform, the BOPP began taking on many more commutation hearings and the increase in commutations shocked legislators and the public.
The resultant political pressure led to Gov. Ned Lamont pushing pause on commutations and ample debate over the confirmation of BOPP members in debate before the Judiciary Committee and on the floor of the Connecticut House and Senate. Lamont then replaced BOPP chairman Carleton Giles with a new chair, Jennifer Zaccagnini, although Giles remains on the board.
The debate over commutations took place over several months in 2023 and expanded more broadly into questions around sentencing for those who committed crimes before the age of 24, harsh sentencing in the 1990s and Connecticut’s criminal justice system more broadly.
The commutation board did shave 15 years from Miguel Sanchez’s 60-year sentence for a gang-related murder he committed at age 17 during an altercation. Now 45 years old, Sanchez has completed his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees while incarcerated.
Sanchez had been offered a 30-year plea deal for murder but said he didn’t take the deal because it wasn’t premeditated.
Sanchez expressed remorse for his crime and discussed his troubled family life in his statement before the board. Largely separated from his father and with little contact with his mother, he says he found a sense of family with a gang. Sanchez said he was a changed person who now serves as a teacher’s aide in a program through Wesleyan University and considers his son – who was born while he was in prison – his best friend.
The victim’s brother and sister, however, were against any commutation. The Office of the Victim’s Advocate read a statement by Gonzalez’s brother and his sister spoke directly to board members saying their family will never recover from the loss of their family member.
The Board also held a commutation hearing for Bernard Smalls, who gunned down a father in New Haven over an argument in 2000 when he was 20 years old and sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2001. The victim’s 12-year-old daughter was a witness to the crime.
Smalls was also represented by Taubes, who detailed a childhood similar to Sanchez said that Smalls’ crime was not premeditated and that he was not properly given counsel over an offered plea deal of 25 years. Smalls has embraced faith, received his GED and a certificate for carpentry while incarcerated, as well as therapeutic programs, Taubes said.
Smalls said he is “truly remorseful” for his actions and said he wished he could undo the crime but is not the same person he was more than twenty years ago. “Given the opportunity, I know I can be a big part of society,” Smalls said in his statement.
Under questioning by the board, Smalls said he did not intentionally pull the trigger, which concerned the board.
The victim’s daughter and former fiancé spoke at the hearing and expressed extreme anger at Smalls and over the commutation hearing, after having to testify at 13 years old, for having to relive the crime. “Every couple months we’re having to relive this,” the daughter said. “Where’s the remorse?”
State’s attorney John Doyle pointed out that Smalls’ conviction was upheld by the appeals court and the state supreme court and that his request for sentence modification was denied, as well as a habeas petition.
The board denied Smalls’ commutation, saying his case didn’t rise to the threshold of making a compelling or extraordinary case for commutation.
The BOPP has commuted 34 sentences in 2023 so far, according to the board’s website, which doesn’t include the commutation for Sanchez.