Serial killer parole considerations prompt bills changing parole timeline in Michigan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate is considering legislation that would give Michigan's parole board the discretion to delay parole hearings by five years in cases where parole is highly unlikely and a hearing would be unnecessarily harmful to victims.

The proposed five-year deferment between parole hearings considered by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Thursday would restore the discretion the parole board had prior to 2018. New laws since then seeking to ease the state's parole process inadvertently eliminated the parole board's ability to space out parole consideration for an individual longer than one or two years.  

The 2018 change had a devastating effect on some of the more "heinous" cases in Michigan, bill sponsors said Thursday, where victims were asked to relive their experience for the parole board annually instead of every five years. 

Lansing-area victims who survived serial killer Don Gene Miller were notified in January to come before the parole board — just six months after the board denied Miller parole for the ninth time in June.

"I feel like I was served a life sentence because I have to fight this over and over again," said Randy Gilbert, who was strangled and stabbed by Miller at age 13 when he interrupted the serial killer's rape and strangulation of his sister in 1978. 

The House bills seeking to address the issue — introduced by Reps. Sarah Lightner, R-Springport, and Angela Witwer, D-Delta Township — passed last June in the House in a 101-8 vote. 

"I know Randy; we grew up together," Witwer said. "And I find this just disgusting that he gets revictimized every six months.”

Don Miller was convicted of rape and attempted murder in Eaton County in May 1979 and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter in Ingham County. Miller's maximum sentence is up in 2031, when he will be released at the age of 76 regardless of parole board consideration.

Miller was convicted of rape and attempted murder in the Gilberts' case in Eaton County in May 1979 and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. In Ingham County, when police were unable to find two of four of Miller's female victims, they entered a plea deal that allowed Miller to plead guilty to two counts of manslaughter, for 10-15 years in prison, in exchange for him leading police to the women's bodies.

In the 90s, his sentence was extended after he was convicted in Chippewa County of possessing a weapon in prison. 

The plea deal allowed Miller to avoid what would have otherwise been a life sentence for four separate killings and made him eligible for parole in recent years. His maximum sentence is up in 2031 when he will be released at the age of 76 regardless of parole board consideration.

In the meantime, having victims and victims' families relive their experiences annually over the next nine years is akin to revictimizing them, said Eaton County Prosecutor Doug Lloyd, who's worked with Gilbert through each of the recent parole hearings. 

"I personally watched a good man go to a bad place when he began to relive his story of being a 13-year-old boy," Lloyd said of the parole hearing. "...The effect of the change to this law in 2018 was that Randy, Lisa and the family members of the four dead women are being revictimized every year and potentially for the next nine years."

The bills, which the Michigan Department of Corrections supported Thursday, would allow the 10-member parole board by a majority vote to waive the one- to two-year timeline between parole consideration in favor of a five-year delay. The waiver would be permitted if the board had no interest in granting the prisoner parole, had analyzed the prisoner's future probability of parole and found the shorter timeline would cause unnecessary additional harm to a victim.

The bills require the Michigan Department of Corrections to report to the Legislature how many times the waiver was used in a given year, but officials at Thursday's hearing believed the uses of the waiver would be narrow. 

"These are the most heinous cases of people who have done very serious damage to communities," Lightner said. "We want to make sure the victims still have rights.”