On August 4th, 2016, shortly after being denied parole for the tenth time, 70-year-old John Mackenzie died by suicide. He had spent 41 years in prison on a 25-to-life sentence after fatally shooting a police officer following a burglary. During his time in prison, he had mentored numerous men, earned certificates and degrees, and even started prison programs. But none of that mattered to the parole board, which continually denied him parole based on the nature of his crime.
On Monday morning, more than three dozen advocates gathered outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office to commemorate the second anniversary of John Mackenzie’s death after his parole denial, and to demand changes to the state parole board.
Parole commissioners are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. They can serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, earning an annual salary of $106,000. The governor has the power to remove any member of the parole board for cause.
Mackenzie’s suicide led to increased demands for parole reform, including the removal of several parole commissioners with a history of denying parole based on the nature of the crime. In 2017, it seemed that advocates gained a partial victory when the governor declined to reappoint three commissioners. But, over the objections of both criminal justice advocates and 21 state senators, Cuomo reappointed W. William Smith, the board's longest-serving commissioner. (Thirty-two votes were needed to block Cuomo’s appointment.)
Smith, appointed by then-Governor Pataki in 1996, denied Mackenzie parole during his ninth parole hearing. He also participated in Mackenzie’s tenth hearing despite a court order prohibiting him from doing so.
Standing outside the governor’s office on Monday holding white flowers and cardboard tombstones, advocates demanded that the governor fire W. William Smith.
Among the crowd were men who had spent time with John Mackenzie while in prison. Anthony Dixon met Mackenzie in 1993. Even then, he recalled, Mackenzie had already expressed remorse for his actions.
“He told me, ‘What I did, I can never take back. Once you take a person’s life, you can never come back from that,’” Dixon told the assembled crowd. “How would you like to be judged by your worst act forever?”
In contrast, he notes, “The parole board has yet to take responsibility for what they’ve done. They encourage a system of hopelessness.”
James Royall also met Mackenzie in prison. “I was the poster child for the parole board,” he said, noting that by the time he appeared before the parole board after over 20 years in prison, he had not broken any prison rules for years and even had a letter of support from the prison’s superintendent. Still, Royall, who was serving time on a murder conviction, was denied parole twice. He was released in 2013 after his third parole hearing and is now the reentry advocate for Brooklyn Defender Services.
“Smith has a long history of humiliating parole applicants, unfairly denying their freedom and defying the law,” stated Dave George, the associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign. In at least one hearing, Smith referred to the parole applicant as ‘Pinocchio,’ according to the hearing transcript obtained by RAPP. In others, he has berated them and concentrated nearly exclusively on the nature of their crime rather than their conduct and accomplishments since then.
Mackenzie is one of 961 deaths in New York State prisons since Cuomo took office. Fifty-five of those deaths have occurred in 2018 through mid-May alone. “At the rate we’re going, there will be more than 1,000 deaths in prison before Cuomo leaves office,” said George.
Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to request for comment. No staffer from the governor’s office appeared to meet with advocates during the hour-long rally. (Gothamist and The Appeal published a story yesterday noting that the governor has used his pardon and clemency powers sparingly during his two terms.)
The rally ended with advocates reading the names and ages of those 55 people who died this year. Then they placed their flowers at the glass windows of the governor’s office.