SALEM – A storm of protest is brewing over the Oregon Parole Board’s decision to grant early release to the man who beat a John Day Police officer to death 20 years ago.
Sidney Dean Porter was sentenced to life for aggravated murder in the death of Officer Frank Ward in April 1992. Police reports said Ward was struck with a piece of fire wood and died while trying to stop a domestic assault in the Porter home.
At a hearing in February, the Parole Board set June 7 as the release date for Porter, who is expected to move to a Monument-area ranch owned by relatives.
The House Judiciary Committee scheduled an informational hearing Tuesday afternoon, past Eagle press time, to look into the Parole Board’s decision. Chairman Jeff Barker, an Aloha Democrat and former Portland police officer, has critized the early release, saying that 20 years in prison was not enough for the killing of a police officer.
Parole Board officials were asked to testify at the hearing, which was expected to draw a large contingent of police and law enforcement officials from across the state – including Grant County District Attorney Ryan Joslin, Sheriff Glenn Palmer, John Day Police Chief Rich Tirico, and others.
The release date already has drawn a sharp rebuke from the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association and the Oregon District Attorneys Association, which issued a joint letter urging reconsideration.
“We do not believe the decision of the Board to be in the interest of justice, or to be properly founded on the evidence before the Board,” the groups wrote in a letter to the Parole Board.
They cited an analysis by Joslin, who said he was “deeply troubled” by the decision – especially in light of statements made by Porter during a psychological evaluation.
Joslin said the fatal attack came after Ward, in uniform, went to the Porter home, identified himself as an officer, and tried to get Porter to stop attacking his wife.
Joslin said Porter, during his evaluation, offered excuses for his actions, claiming he was protecting his family and that his “only intention was to get this ‘strange’ man out of his house.”
He also claimed not to know that Ward was a police officer, but conceded eventually “he recognized that Officer Ward was in uniform, he justified his action by suggesting that any person could have posed as a police officer.”
Joslin also noted that during the evaluation, Porter failed to show “any amount of remorse.”
The district attorney said the psychiatrist found Porter to have a moderate to high risk of future violent behavior, diagnosing him with an antisocial personality disorder.
The doctor called Porter “a poor risk for parole at this time,” Joslin reported.
However, Porter told the Parole Board he has had extensive counseling while in prison in Salem, and performed community service during prison time in Pendleton. He said he was sorry and would not be violent again.
He reiterated his account of the night of the killing, saying that Ward’s use of pepper spray on him triggered a fight that ended when Ward slammed into a wood stove, breaking his neck.
He denied hitting Ward with a chunk of firewood, although police reports said that he did.
News reports from the time say Ward, who was 39, died from a blow to the head. He left a widow and three children.
At the hearing, the Parole Board heard from supporters of Porter, but also from Ward’s brother, Ben Ward of La Grande, who objected to the release and said Porter’s story doesn’t jibe with the police reports or the evidence.
Ben Ward told the La Grande Observer “It’s not just that Frank was my brother; it’s that he was a policeman. He took an oath to protect and serve.”
On May 22, the Oregon Peace Officers Association wrote a letter to Gov. John Kitzhaber, expressing “extreme displeasure” with the Parole Board’s decision, calling it disheartening news. The letter grew out of a May 17 meeting of the group’s executive board.
“Men and women join law enforcement to help others and to literally make the world a better place,” wrote David White, association president. “To release someone from prison early for killing a police officer is a slap in the face of every police officer in Oregon, and we hope you’ll help us in our efforts to have the Oregon State Board of Parole reconsider its poor decision.”
The situation also has drawn the attention of the Officer Down Memorial Page online, which posted a protest letter for users to personalize and send on to the Parole Board.
Jay Scroggin, executive director for the Parole Board, wasn’t surprised that there was a strong response to the case, but he noted that the proceedings were done according to state statutes. He said the board held a series of three hearings starting in July 2012 leading up to February’s decision on the release date. The first session resulted in a change of Porter’s status from life without possibility of parole, to life with possibility of parole. The second, in November 2012, was a hearing on his prison term, and the third, last February, was termed an exit interview.
Scroggin said the board sent multiple notices to interested parties, including Joslin’s office, for each hearing but the district attorney didn’t participate.
He said that a district attorney’s statement would be considered by the board in such cases, as one of five factors in the exit interview. The others are the psychiatric evaluation, the inmate interview, input from a supporter of the inmate, and input from a registered victim of the crime.
Scroggin said he wasn’t sure what effect Tuesday’s legislative hearing could have, as the board’s actions are quasi-judicial proceedings. He said the board can act only on the evidence that is presented according to the law.