Minnesota family fights to keep their father's killer behind bars for 'true life sentence'

John Isakson and his sister Kim Nygaard met with the Dept. of Corrections commissioner in regards to the parole hearing for the man who killed their father.

A Minnesota family is fighting to keep their father’s murderer behind bars three decades after the killer was sentenced to life in prison. Due to old Minnesota statutes, the killer continues to be eligible for parole.

John Isakson and his sister Kim Nygaard spent Wednesday at Department of Corrections headquarters in Saint Paul battling for their father.

Their dad, Don Isakson of Hermantown was murdered on December 8, 1988 after he picked up a pair of hitchhikers on the Iron Range.

Nygaard recalled the killer, James Fields, pleaded guilty just as his trial was about to start three decades ago. She had had no idea at that time that his life sentence meant the chance at parole after just 17 years.

“This is new to us,” said Nygaard. “You don’t understand that this was the process and he’d be eligible in 17 years and that a life sentence isn’t a true life sentence. We are here to make it a true life sentence.”

For Don Isakson’s loved ones, the meeting was their fourth parole hearing since their family was shattered by Fields, who was already a convicted murderer when he shot and killed Don in the woods of Koochiching County.

James Fields is up for parole after killing Don Isakson of Hermantown on December 8, 1988. (Department of Corrections)

“It just brings up a lot of emotions,” said John Isakson, Don’s son who tells FOX 9, the murder has now rippled down through three generations of the family.

The Isaksons got a chance to tell a new corrections commissioner about their father and what he meant to them and the community, including his role as a founding member of the Saint Louis County Rescue Squad.

“The first and foremost consideration is always public safety,” said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

Schnell met with Don Isakson’s family before video conferencing separately with Fields, who has been in a trio of Minnesota prisons over the years and is currently housed at Moose Lake.

While Commissioner Schnell has an advisory panel, ultimately parole for a killer like Fields is solely Schnell’s call.

“I take the responsibility of this very seriously,” said Schnell. “Certainly, no one wants to be wrong in these decisions.”

“I feel like we have a say in part of the decision and hopefully influence on the decision,” said Nygaard.

Ultimately, Commissioner Schnell elected to stay a parole decision, which means there will be another review hearing down the road. The Isakson family promised they will be there.

Schnell continues to believe these type of parole decisions are so significant that he wants to see the decision made by a majority five-person panel and not exclusively by the commissioner. Efforts to change that law failed during the last legislative session.