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In Tampa hearings, the long-imprisoned and their families chase a slim chance at parole

TAMPA — As red numbers on a digital click ticked down from 10 minutes, the father and sister of a prison inmate declared that they love him and implored commissioners to show mercy now that he has spent nearly three decades behind bars.

Thank you and please step aside, they were told when their time was up.

Then came Jerry Hill, taking a seat before the three members of Florida's Commission on Offender Review. Hill retired three years ago as state attorney in Polk County, where the inmate — Larry Hall — was convicted of murder in 1988.

"If the love of a family was a compelling reason to release people, we could empty the prisons," Hill said.

He used his 10 minutes to describe Hall's crime — a robbery where the victim's skull was cracked with a wine bottle before he was strangled with a telephone cord.

The commission quickly announced its decision: No change in Hall's parole date, set for 2058.

The cycle was repeated again and again for two days this week inside the cramped conference room of a government building in downtown Tampa. The Florida Parole Commission — attorneys Melinda Coonrod and Richard D. Davison and retired police officer David Wyant — was in town to consider the cases of 56 men and women locked up for decades or now on parole.

Florida eliminated parole for most offenses in the early 1980s. The state abandoned the practice completely in the mid 1990s. But parole remains a hope for those sentenced before then — about 4,000 of the 96,000 people confined to the state prison system.

The relative few who are released on parole must return to the commission periodically to talk about how they're doing.

Last year, just 21 people statewide were granted parole. That's fewer than 1 percent of the inmates eligible. Those who remain have a so-called presumptive parole release date — a day tentatively set by the commission to be set free.

Alphonso Fields won release. He spent almost 30 years locked up for a series of robbery convictions in his youth. The commission let him out in 2011.

Fields wore a yellow safety vest to Wednesday's hearing. He said he had to go to work later, helping direct traffic on a construction crew. Behind him stood about 20 graduates of the Corrections Transition Program, a series of in-prison classes designed to prepare inmates for life on the outside. The parolees have all gone through it.

The commissioners cracked smiles as Fields spoke. He talked about his youth, when he never considered the consequences of his actions. He talked about how grateful he is now that he can go to work and come home. He talked about his 5-year-old son and the trip they want to make to Legoland Florida in Winter Haven but can't because travel is prohibited under his parole conditions.

The commissioners commended Fields for his success then granted him a one-time travel allowance, for Legoland.

The commission also considered the case of Jeffrey McCoy, one of four men behind the 1982 High Point murders in Clearwater. Three people were bound then shot in the back during a robbery. An 8-year-old boy witnessed the crime but was physically unharmed.

One of McCoy's co-defendants ended up on death row. McCoy remains in prison, but his mother — now 86 — told the commission she would like him home so he can care for her. His advocates said he fits the profile of men who have been released and done well. They said he lives a peaceful life and is working toward a degree in theology. He has expressed remorse for his youthful mistake.

Then came Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant for the State Attorney's Office in Pinellas County. During his 10 minutes, Bartlett recounted the gruesome crime and disputed that McCoy was a passive participant.

"I feel sorry for the family that they don't have their son there," Bartlett said, "but I believe very firmly there are certain things you do as you travel through your life ... where you deserve to be punished for the rest of your life."

McCoy's presumptive parole date, in 2083, went unchanged.

Local prosecutors stood to make their case, usually against parole, when the families of victims chose not to speak or did not attend.

Jerry Hill, who spent 32 years as the top prosecutor for the Lakeland-based 10th Judicial Circuit, said current State Attorney Brian Haas asked him to keep an eye on parole cases from Polk County. Hill speaks at many hearings, generally pushing the commissioners to keep a parole date the same.

Hill said his aim is to prevent a pattern of sentence reduction, what he calls "the nibble factor."

"The job's not finished as long as someone sentenced to life hasn't completed that sentence," he said.

Hill spoke a second time Wednesday, in the case of Joseph McGowan. The inmate's daughter wept into a tissue as she talked about growing up without her father.

Hill said he had sympathy for her. But he felt even more strongly that justice should be served in the crime — a 1976 rape and murder.

McGowan's presumptive release date, in 2046, went unchanged.

Contact Dan Sullivan at Follow @TimesDan.