A life sentence for murder in Minnesota seldom means a lifetime behind bars. As the Fox 9 Investigators discovered, 132 inmates serving life for first-degree murder will be coming up for parole and supervised release review in the next five years, a backlog that’s been building up in the prison system for decades.
VIDEO: 132 lifers set for parole review
‘As cold-blooded as can be’
Nearly 40 years later, retired Anoka County Deputy Chief Bill Hoogestraat, still remembers that apartment in Hilltop.
"It was a gruesome sight as cold-blooded as can be,” he recalled.
March 18, 1976. Two young men, their hands and feet, bound to a chair, shot point blank in the head, a girlfriend of one of the men found upstairs, shot in the head as well.
"It was a tough scene to work. Coroner didn't come to scene until we were finished processing,” he said.
It was the kind of violent crime scene, that sticks to your skin. It didn't help that the motive was a criminal cliché: the drug deal gone bad, 24 pounds of marijuana still hiding in the oven.
“Couple of guys from International Falls were looking to make a big score,” Hoogestraat said.
Edwin Hull and an accomplice had come down to the Twin Cities looking to rip off a couple of dealers and they left killing three people in cold blood. One of the dead men, Robert Sarazin, had a daughter, not quite 3 years old.
"I could tell which clothes were his,” his daughter, Heidi Sarazin, said.
Heidi had never seen the photos from the crime scene.
"It seemed as if I was looking at movie set shots, this is my dad, this is real life,” she said.
17 years instead of 51
At trial, Hull was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder. The judge's intent seemed clear.
"I was in the court room and he said if it was in his power, he would sentence him to death, heinous crime, and if any crime deserved the death penalty it was this,” Hoogestraat said.
However, the judge never specified whether those three life sentences would be served concurrently, at the same time, or consecutively, back-to-back. Instead of serving 51 years before parole, he only had to serve 17 years, which, at the time, was the minimum sentence for life terms.
Over the years, Heidi Sarazin has received the letters from the Department of Corrections when Hull would come up for parole. Each one, she dreaded to open.
"When you go to mailbox and see the symbol 'DOC,' that's unnerving,” she said.
Earlier this year, her worst fears came true. Now 68 years old, Edwin Hull can enjoy a summer day doing yard work around the house. He was released from prison three months ago after serving 38 years and is now living with his son in St. Cloud. Not even his neighbors are aware of his brutal, violent past. And he's not the only one.
5 murder convicts on work release
So far this year, 5 other inmates serving life sentences for first-degree premeditated murder have been granted work release, a first step before parole.
1984: Killed a couple of bankers looking to repossess his father's farm
Released: May 2015
1985: Beat a man to death with a two by four
Released: April 2015
1987: Shot and killed a man in a drunken rage.
Released: April 2015
1989: Convinced four brothers to murder a romantic rival.
Released: January 2015
1987: Shot a woman four times in a gang dispute.
Released: March 2015
‘We are not zoo keepers’
They are likely just the beginning. Over the next five years, there will be 132 inmates with life sentences who will be eligible for parole.
Corrections commissioner Tom Roy is the one who ultimately decides if they get out.
"I have often said we are not zoo keepers, and if we don't believe people can change and get better our work is for naught,” Roy said.
Commissioner Roy is a true believer, and it shows in the numbers. There are 42 lifers currently on parole, he has released nearly half of them, 19 -- more than any commissioner before him.
According to one study, homicide offenders who are paroled have the lowest recidivism rate of any crime. Only half a percent will ever kill again, according to the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, 2014.
Before lifers are paroled, the commissioner gets advice from a panel of experts, with input from prison staff, looking at 13 criteria, like the egregiousness of the crime, the inmates mental health, discipline record in prison, and their support system in the outside world. As a former probation officer for 40 years, Roy goes one step further and meets with lifers in prison, face-to-face.
"I have just found closed circuit TV does not give me human element I need to make an important decision. You need to sit right across from them. You know the feeling,” Roy said.
"I lose sleep. It's on my mind for days and weeks before,” he explained.
Fresh pain decades later
What weighs heaviest for Roy are the words and voices of the victims if corrections can find them. Many of those letters come back return to sender; a crime forgotten. When a victim’s family does show up for parole hearings, the pain is still fresh again after decades.
“I'm not first commissioner they've seen. Most of these individuals have had three or four hearings and those families have come to three or four hearings, and it's torture for them,” Roy said.
It's torture still for Heidi, who never knew her father, except in pictures faded with time. The only clear image she has are those pictures from the crime scene.
"He committed 3 murders and I think he should stay in prison the rest of his life,” Hoogestraat said. "Some people don't get second chances."
The Fox 9 Investigators reached out to Edwin Hull but never heard back from him. He's 68, and like the other lifers, he's only getting only older. Medical expenses for those lifers are soaring as well, but the Department of Corrections says the expense of caring for them is not one of the factors in parole.
Timeline for lifers' release
There are 132 life-sentenced review hearings scheduled between now and 2020. Of the 132, 58 are new cases under the 30-year life sentence since 1989 that have not been heard by the committee and commissioner previously.
2015: 14 remaining hearings (0 are new, all under the 17-year sentence review )
2016: 37 hearings (5 are new)
2017: 29 hearings (11 are new)
2018: 15 hearings (11 are new)
2019: 20 hearings (17 are new)
2020: 17 hearings (14 are new)
Criteria for release
According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, prior to and during the review hearing, the Commissioner and Advisory Panel review, assess, and hear direct testimony regarding multiple factors, which impact imprisonment time beyond the minimum required for parole; these include:
Nature and egregiousness of offense
Extent of victimization
Prior Criminal/Supervision History
Mental Health as evaluated by staff psychologists
Demonstrated behavior change as it pertains to completed programming related to rehabilitation
Educational/vocational programming to prepare for employment and financial independence
External social support system
Transition plan through lower Custody Classification