BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) – A “model prisoner” who pleaded guilty to raping and murdering a convenience store clerk 30 years ago when he was a soldier, and who was two days away from being released for good behavior this year when his parole agreement was abruptly rescinded, has sued Louisiana for turning him into a “political football.”
Samuel Galbraith, 47, said in the federal lawsuit Thursday that plans for his early release from the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in April were abruptly aborted only because of politics in the Legislature after the media published stories about his crime and impending release.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections said Galbraith will have to return to the state parole board and ask again for early release because the victim’s mother, Jessie McWilliams, was not properly notified of Galbraith’s parole hearing last November.
But Galbraith says in the lawsuit that his “grant of parole became a major tool for the opponents of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ criminal justice reform proposals,” and the stated reason that the victim’s mother had not been properly notified of a hearing is beside the point.
Word of Galbraith’s pending release created a stir among Edward’s political opponents, Galbraith says. For instance, an “online petition was widely distributed calling for Galbraith’s continued incarceration.”
Edwards is a Democrat.
The same day Galbraith’s parole was declined, Edwards met with the parole board, after which parole board chairwoman Sheryl Ranatza issued a statement announcing the rescission of Galbraith’s parole, citing news reports of the failure to inform the mother of the parole hearing.
“She stated: ‘During recent interviews with various media outlets, the victim’s mother did state that her parole hearing notification letter for the originally scheduled October hearing was mailed to an address in Albany, New York rather than her address in Albany, Illinois,’” the complaint states.
“She further stated: ‘Although Mrs. McWilliams did receive the required notice for the November parole hearing, because of the apparent procedural error which occurred with the initial victim notification, the board will reschedule a subsequent parole hearing for Mr. Galbraith, so that Mrs. McWilliams and the district attorney has [sic] the opportunity to fully participate in the process.”’
Galbraith says in the lawsuit that whether or not McWilliams was properly notified of the hearing, the victim’s husband was notified, and under Louisiana law “La. R.S. 15:574.2(D)(9), only one family member of the victim must be notified.”
Galbraith pleaded guilty in 2000 to the manslaughter and aggravated rape of 21-year-old Karen Hill after abducting her from a Circle K where she was working in Leesville. He took her 10 miles away into Kisatchie National Forest, where he raped her, tied her to a tree and shot her with a .22-caliber handgun through the left eye. Galbraith was stationed at the Fort Polk Army base at the time.
Hill’s body was found the next day, but Galbraith walked free for another 9 years before he was identified as a suspect.
Upon pleading guilty and being sentenced to 71 years in prison, Galbraith was eligible for parole under La.R.S. 15:574.4, which was in effect at the time of his crime, he says in the lawsuit.
The law allowed Galbraith to be parole eligible after serving 20 years and reaching the age of 45. The law was amended in 1995 to restrict it for people convicted of a crime of violence, but because it was in place when the crime was committed, and because Galbraith was a “model prisoner,” early parole was granted.
Galbraith’s release date was April 23. But on April 21 the Board of Pardons, Committee on Parole said his parole was being rescinded.
“Galbraith became a political football in the debates and discussions surrounding the criminal justice reforms the 2017 session of the Louisiana Legislature,” his complaint states. He “became a pawn in the debates over whether persons convicted of violent offenses should be parole-eligible.”
Galbraith was not given an opportunity to challenge rescission of his parole or to challenge false information, he says. He says he was only given notice that his parole could be taken away “only if he engaged in misconduct while in custody.”
“Galbraith had a liberty interest that arose from an expectation created by state law and policy,” the complaint states.
He was set to join his family in Texas, where his mother and wife live, and where he would be able to work at his family’s construction business.
Vernon Parish District Attorney Asa Skinner has told reporters that Galbraith admitted to detectives that he killed Hill because he wanted to see “what it felt like.”
Two fellow soldiers eventually led investigators to him, saying Galbraith had told them he would like to take a girl from a convenience store and rape and kill her, just to see.
“This was something he envisioned doing,” Skinner told the Advocate newspaper.
“I would’ve never in my wildest nightmares dream he’d be granted parole,” Skinner told KALB-TV, a CBS station, in April.
Skinner said two homicides that happened around the time of Hill’s death are still unsolved. The victims were both young women who were reported missing from convenience stores and were found in the woods near Fort Polk.
Charges were never filed, but Skinner told KALB he suspects Galbraith might be connected to those deaths. He said Leesville has never seen a case like those before or since the 2½ years Galbraith spent at Fort Polk.
Galbraith wants his grant of parole reinstated and immediate release.
Defendants include Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections James LeBlanc and Chairwoman of the Louisiana Board of Pardons Cheryl Ranatza.
Galbraith is represented by Nicholas Trenticosta of New Orleans.