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Parole Board member criticized

Inmate advocates say he slept at hearing; he blames medicine

(By Carlos Santos, Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 18, 2006)

Advocates for convicted murderer Jens Soering complained that a state Parole Board member fell asleep during a recent hearing held to help decide if Soering should be granted parole.

Gail Marshall, a former deputy attorney general, and Tom Elliott, a retired coordinator of prison ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, attended the 20- minute hearing in Richmond on Aug. 9 headed by Parole Board member Herbert V. Coulton of Petersburg.

Marshall and Elliott were at the hearing to lobby for the release of Soering, a former University of Virginia student convicted of the 1985 murders of his girlfriend’s parents.

Both said Coulton nodded off repeatedly during the hearing, which was also attended by a stenographer. Prisoners do not attend the hearings.

“His eyes rolled back in his head,” Elliott said. “He dozed off immediately after Gail started testifying. He kept dozing off and on.”

Marshall, a lawyer who handled Soering’s unsuccessful appeals, said she was disconcerted because Coulton “had his eyes closed during most of the 20 minutes. . . . When he did open them, they were very heavy slits.”

Coulton, 72, said in a telephone interview that he had had open-heart surgery and at the time had taken “a tremendous amount of medicine. I was drowsy. I might have fallen off.

“I don’t think it’s a fact that I was falling asleep that much,” he said. “I was taking medicine, and I might have fallen asleep but not continuously.”

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine who reappointed Coulton to the board, said: “We feel confident this unfortunate incident was the result of issues with his medication. We have asked the chair of the Parole Board to schedule a makeup hearing for Soering.”

Hall said Coulton “has assured us that it was new medication, and those issues are resolved.”

Coulton, who was first appointed to the part-time, paid position on the board in 2002 by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, said he heard about nine to 10 parole cases that day.

“I don’t think we were the only victims of this,” Elliott said.

Hall said the other cases will also be investigated. Coulton said he had heard no additional complaints from people attending hearings that day.

Soering was given two life sentences for the murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom in Bedford County. He was denied parole at his first parole hearing three years ago.

Inmates like Soering, who committed their offenses before Jan. 1, 1995, are still eligible for parole. There is no parole in Virginia for inmates who committed offenses after that date.

Helen F. Fahey, the chairwoman of the Parole Board, said board members “of course are paying attention” during the hearings. “They are one of the most difficult parts of the job we have. Whether it’s the victim’s family or the family of an inmate, it’s a very emotional situation.”

Fahey did not comment specifically about the incident involving Coulton.

The five-member Parole Board takes into account the prisoner’s offense, his behavior during imprisonment, previous criminal record, behavioral development while imprisoned and information from family, friends or victims such as that given to Coulton in determining to grant parole.

Soering, who has been in prison about 20 years, is now 40 years old. The Haysoms’ daughter Elizabeth pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the murders and is serving a 90-year sentence.

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