Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

TOP STORY >>Nightmare not over for victim

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

The Blue Light Rapist’s petition for clemency, filed 12 days ago, has a snowball’s chance in, er, Haiti, according to one long-time observer of Arkansas jurisprudence who asked not to be identified. Having served about eight years of the 80 years to which he was sentenced in 1998 for kidnapping and raping Cabot teenager Shannon Woods, and six years of a life sentence passed down in 2000 in connection with a separate home invasion and rape, Robert Todd Burmingham has petitioned the Post Prison Transfer Board for a sentence commutation.

Burmingham, of Wynne, perhaps Arkansas’ most notorious serial rapist, wrenched Woods’ innocence from her that July night in 1997, but he didn’t take her courage or resolve. Woods has stepped from the shadows where rape victims often seek anonymity and into the bright glare of television lights and camera strobes. Monday and Tuesday alone, the 27-year-old single mom will have conducted four television interviews and at least two newspaper interviews.

She and her father, Larry Wood, have begun a campaign to make sure Burmingham serves at least the 58 years that Circuit Judge L.T. Simes II told the jury he would serve of an 80-year sentence, and they seem to be off to a good start. Woods lives in Ward, where her state senator, Bobby Glover, said Monday that he would oppose Burmingham’s petition.

It was Glover, D-Carlisle, who took the legislative lead two years ago in holding Gov. Mike Huckabee more accountable for his then-generous clemency policy and who helped derail the governor’s announced grant of executive clemency for Glen M. Green. Green was convicted of kidnapping from Little Rock Air Force Base and brutally murdering 18-year-old Helen Lynette Spencer of Gravel Ridge. While Green continues to languish in jail, there is recent precedent for the parole board cutting loose early a violent criminal with local ties.

On Sept. 5, the board ruled that Michael R. Webb, 33, who murdered Cabot teenager Jason Hatcher, 17, in a Sherwood Har-vest Foods parking lot, can be released in December, having served 11 years of his 46-year sentence. That’s despite continuous, vigorous and impassioned opposition by Hatcher’s family. Perhaps emboldened by Webb’s good fortune, Burmingham filed his petition for executive clemency three days later. Burmingham is an inmate at the Grimes Medium Security Unit at Nashville, according to prison spokesperson Dina Tyler. He works inside the facility as a maintenance clerk and has a good institutional record, she said.

“These are the earliest (press) calls we’ve ever received on clemency,” said Rhonda Sharp, spokesperson for the state Post Prison Transfer Board, Monday. “That’s what I’m going for,” said Woods. “To beat him to the punch. Violent offenders should have to serve the time.” Sharp said it was so early in the process that she didn’t even have access to his application.
If during the initial screening, the board sends the petition on with a negative recommendation, Huckabee will decide on the grant, but if the petition goes through the fairly lengthy full process, his successor will make the call next year, according to Tyler.

Burmingham’s screening is set up for Dec 3. In recent interviews with gubernatorial candidates, only independent candidate Rob Bryant took a hard line, saying rapists and murderers must do their time. Sharp described the clemency process as a lengthy one, saying the board’s staff must pull together a file from several resources. That could be completed by October. A group of such petitions will be forwarded to the parole board for screening in December.

It will determine whether the petition warrants a hearing. If so, there will be separate hearings for the inmate and for the victims, Sharp said. At that point, a board member will review information from the hearings and make a recommendation that Burming-ham’s petition has merit or doesn’t.

The five-member subcommittee of the board will decide whether to forward the petition to the entire seven-person board and to put the recommendation of their Web site. Thirty days later, the petition will be forwarded to the governor for his decision. Woods, now a respiratory therapist, was a recent high school graduate at the time, enjoying her summer and looking forward to starting at Arkansas State at Jonesboro on a full scholarship.

She and friends spent that evening hanging out in the Lonoke WalMart parking lot, as they often did. Looking back now, she thinks Burmingham may have scouted her and followed her from the parking lot, waiting until she was in the dark, sparsely settled area of the county, just two miles from her parents’ house. She was pulled over by what she thought was a lawman with a flashing blue light on the dashboard.

“I was getting my driver’s license and registration from my purse,” she said, and she turned to see a man wearing a ski mask pointing a handgun at her. Blindfolded, she was taken to a rent house owned by Burmingham’s father in Cross County, where he raped her several times, she said. Early in her ordeal, Woods began paying attention to her surroundings, like the number of steps from the ground to the door of the house, what station and what music was playing on the radio and other things that helped cement the state’s case against Burmingham.

Still, it was an anonymous tip that led the State Police to him, and DNA evidence that put him away—for 80 years or life, his victims thought. Woods’ father says DNA evidence also tied Burmingham to rapes in Lee and Woodruff counties, but victims and law enforcement officials, who believed he would be in jail until he was in his mid-80s, said Burmingham wasn’t tried in the other cases, which Shannon Woods says couldn’t be tried now because of the statute of limitations. The case and the trial were covered by national television news.

“Our judicial system is messed up,” she said Monday afternoon. The Victims Information Network left a message at her parents’ house Friday, alerting her that Burmingham had applied for clemency. Woods said that since that time, she’s been getting the run-around from both the governor’s office and the parole board, but Sharp says it’s so early in the process that no one has any information.