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No easy answers
The decision to parole a man who killed a John Day police officer in 1992 has drawn criticism from law enforcement groups around Oregon and from the slain officer’s brother in La Grande.
by BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / for The Observer
Recently, the three-member Oregon Parole Board voted to free Sidney Dean Porter, who was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life for the beating death of John Day Police Officer Frank Ward. Porter, judged in a mental health evaluation to be at risk for future violent behavior, is set to be released June 7.
A coalition of law enforcement organizations, including the Oregon District Attorneys Association, the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, say that Porter remains a threat to public safety and should serve his full term. They recently petitioned the board to reverse its decision.
“We do not believe the decision of the board to be in the best interest of justice, or to be properly founded on the evidence before the board,” the groups said in a joint letter dated April 3.
Included with the letter is an analysis by Grant County District Attorney Ryan Joslin. Joslin said the board is paroling Porter despite a mental health evaluation that pegged Porter as a “high to moderate risk” for future violence.
According to Joslin, Porter was diagnosed in the evaluation as having an anti-social personality disorder. The evaluating psychologist, H.F. Sheldon, said he judged Porter as a poor risk for parole. Joslin told the parole board that “Mr. Porter seems to present the classic example of a person who ought not to be released on parole.”
Ward was beaten to death when he responded to a domestic disturbance call at Porter’s house in John Day on April 7, 1992. He left behind a wife and three children. Since then, Porter has served his time at the state penitentiary in Salem and also at the state prison at Pendleton.
He is currently incarcerated at Salem.
While the law enforcement community believes Porter should not be released, the Oregon Parole Board, which consists of Kristin Winges-Yanez, Amber Kaatz and Candace Wheeler, does not share that sentiment.
In February, the board held an exit hearing on Porter’s parole that included interviews with Porter, with friends and relatives who support the parole, and with Ben Ward of La Grande, Frank Ward’s brother. At the end of the hearing, the board gave Porter his June 7 release date.
“Based on the information the board is considering, including the doctor’s report and diagnosis, the board has concluded you do have an emotional disturbance, but it is not so severe as to constitute a danger to the health and safety of the community,” Winges-Yanez, the board chairperson, told Porter.
During the lengthy hearing, Porter told the board that he has undergone extensive counseling, and has been a model worker in the Salem facility’s furniture factory. He also said he performed community service work while incarcerated at Pendleton.
Porter spent some time recounting the night he killed Ward. He said Ward used pepper spray on him without warning and that a fight ensued.
According to his account, the fight began in the kitchen and ended in the living room when the two men crashed into a wood stove. Porter said Ward’s neck was broken at that point.
‘We went into the wood stove and I felt his body go numb,” Porter said. He said he was not immediately convinced Ward was a police officer, and fought with Ward out of concern for his son who was asleep in a car seat in the living room and was convulsing and turning colors as a result of the spraying.
Porter said Ward sprayed him and beat him with a club before identifying himself as a police officer. He denied hitting Ward with a chunk of firewood, though official reports said that he did.
A different version
Joslin in his analysis gives a different account of the incident.
Joslin said that on the night of the killing, a neighbor saw and heard Ward knock on Porter’s door and announce himself as a police officer.
Joslin said that at the time, Porter was in the process of assaulting his wife. Ward entered the residence and saw the assault taking place.
According to Joslin, Ward again announced himself as a police officer and commanded Porter to “get off of her.” Porter then attacked Ward, beating him with his fists and a chunk of
Joslin said that during the psychological evaluation with Sheldon, Porter offered a variety of excuses for his actions, claiming in essence that he was protecting his family.
“Conceding that he eventually recognized that Officer Ward was in uniform, he justified his actions by suggesting that any person could have posed as a police officer. During the evaluation, Mr. Porter failed to demonstrate any amount of remorse,” Joslin said.
Ben Ward, Frank Ward’s brother who lives in La Grande, said during the exit hearing and in a later interview with The Observer that he is opposed to the parole.
“It’s not just that Frank was my brother, it’s that he was a policeman. He took an oath to protect and serve,” he said. “He (Porter) should have gotten the death penalty but he didn’t. He got life and that’s OK, but now they’re letting him out.”
Ben Ward said the account of the killing given by Porter doesn’t agree with police reports he saw after the killing.
“Some of the things he said were not how the detective said Frank was killed. The detective told me what happened and some of it isn’t jiving with that,” Ben Ward said. “I understand that he (Frank) wasn’t going into that house until someone asked him.”
La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey said that after listening to a recording of the exit interview, he believes Porter successfully worked the system. He said prisoners put on their “Sunday best” during parole hearings, and that can be deceiving. Harvey said that as a police chief, he can’t advocate for political causes. He did say, however, that he had some concerns about the parole process in Porter’s case.
“In law enforcement we have extensive experience with how criminals manipulate,” Harvey said. “As a police officer, I want to know if the criminal has taken responsibility for his crime, and have things changed to where there’s no longer a danger to the public. When I listen to the hearing, those things have not been
Harvey also said he is troubled by the fact that one of the parole board members told Porter during the hearing that she believed “you whole-heartedly did not mean for this to happen.”
Porter’s guilt, Harvey said, has been determined.
“It’s not the parole board’s job to second guess the court. He appealed and it was rejected. They’re not supporting the decision of the court,” the chief said.
Harvey said he also finds it troubling that while the parole board did notify Joslin’s office about Porter’s parole, it did not notify other law enforcement agencies. He said he thinks police departments should have been made aware.
“I’m not sure it’s a legal requirement, but you sure would think they’d notify law enforcement,” he said.
Other brushes with law enforcement
Porter told the board he is sorry for Frank Ward’s death and said he will never be violent again.
“I said last time to this board and I’ll say it again, that I’ll never raise my hand in violence again. I won’t have no problem with authority again,” he said.
That seemed to be small comfort to Ben Ward, who reminded the board about other brushes Porter had with the law before the killing.
“He has had his chances before killing my brother, and has a second chance after my brother’s death. I would like every one of you that are making the decision to look at each other and ask, what if it was your brother, sister, father or brother? And then tell me if you think he needs to be out of prison,” Ben Ward said.
The Oregon Parole Board and Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office did not respond to requests for comment in time for today’s press deadline.
State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, said he had no knowledge of the case so he couldn’t talk about it in detail. Hansell did say that in general, he would be opposed to parole for a prisoner evaluated as a risk for violence.
“If there’s a moderate to high risk, there’s no rhyme or reason for this release,” Hansell said.
Porter will be released to Grant County parole authorities. He plans to live and work on a ranch owned by relatives.