SALEM – Legislators and law enforcement officials from across the state this week beseeched the Oregon Parole Board to revisit its decision to release a man who bludgeoned a John Day cop to death 20 years ago.
Sidney Dean Porter is in prison for the 1992 killing of Officer Frank Ward, who responded to a domestic assault call and found Porter beating his wife.
The Oregon House Judiciary Committee held an informational hearing Tuesday afternoon on the action of the board, which has set a June 7 release date for Porter. He is expected to move to a Monument-area ranch owned by relatives.
Parole Board officials told the House Judiciary Committee they won’t reconsider the decision. They said they followed statutes in a series of three hearings that led to the release date.
The House hearing elicited frustrated and heartfelt testimony from a range of law enforcement officials, who recounted the circumstances of the killing.
On April 8, 1992, Ward, 39, responded to a domestic abuse complaint at Porter’s home, identified himself as a police officer, found Porter assaulting his wife and ordered him to stop. The officer pepper sprayed him, and a violent fight ensued.
John Day Police Chief Richard Tirico told lawmakers that Porter, who was drunk, beat Ward unconscious with his fists and then hit him in the back of the head with a piece of firewood, fracturing his skull.
“It was a brutal, brutal murder,” said Tirico, who went to the scene that night.
Porter, then 32, was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The board’s chairwoman told legislators the evidence at Porter’s parole hearing led the board to conclude he is no longer a danger to the community.
“The question before the board is, does the person present a danger to society? And the board determined that (Porter) had an emotional disturbance but that it was not so severe that it could not be controlled in the community,” said Chairwoman Kristin Winges-Yanez, who was a member of the three-person panel that voted to release Porter.
She noted that the board had already considered a request for reconsideration from a coalition of district attorneys, police and sheriff’s groups.
“The board decided there was not a compelling enough reason to reopen the hearing,” she said.
The Oregon District Attorneys Association, the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and Oregon State Sheriff’s Association all contend that Porter remains a threat to public safety and should serve his full life term.
“We find it reprehensible that this offender should receive parole at this time,” said Woodburn Police Chief Scott Russell, speaking for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police.
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, brought a personal perspective to the hearing, saying “I’m aghast.”
A few months before the killing, Sprenger was a Grant County Sheriff’s deputy out to prove her worth to the force when officers gathered in a dark creek area to pick up Porter on an unrelated case. Porter was known to be violent even then.
“You knew not to look for Sidney Dean Porter by yourself,” she said, but at 22, she was brash enough to try.
Sprenger set out alone along Canyon Creek but then returned to her car for a radio. The next thing she knew, a group of city cops and deputies had Porter captured and cuffed. She had missed her chance.
As she came upon the scene, Porter looked straight into her eyes and said, “You almost had me … I’m glad you didn’t.”
“That’s intent,” she said. “That’s evil.”
Rep. Brent Barton, D-Oregon City, was visibly upset over the board’s decision.
“Respectfully, it’s your judgment that’s in question,” he told Winges-Yanez.
Barton also criticized Grant County District Attorney Ryan Joslin for not attending the board’s hearings on Porter, saying a malpractice claim would be reasonable. Barton said the board might have come to a different conclusion if Joslin had been there to explain why Porter shouldn’t be released.
Joslin, who did not prosecute the case, told lawmakers that his office received some notices prior to the board’s February hearing, and his victim’s assistance office passed on word to victims from the case. However, the notices weren’t clear about the import of his participation in the hearings, he said.
Other district attorneys testified in his defense. Josh Marquis, who has been a prosecutor in four counties, said the notices are “incredibly confusing” and usually deal with cases that date back 20-30 years.
Marquis also said the entire process “is hostile” for the district attorneys, as well as the victim families.
Porter was prosecuted by the state Department of Justice, as is common with such cases in rural counties, and the Parole Board is not required to notify that office. The board told lawmakers that it sent multiple notices to the district attorney’s office and the victim’s family, offering them the opportunity to speak at the hearing.
Ben Ward, the brother of the deceased officer, said he doesn’t understand why the board would consider releasing Porter.
“I don’t even know why I’m here to try to defend something that’s black and white,” he told lawmakers in a shaky voice.
He quoted Porter’s own contention that everybody deserves a second chance.
“Did my brother get a second chance?” Ward asked. “Does his death, my brother’s, as a police officer mean nothing?”
The House committee does not have the authority to change the board’s decision.
However, legislators said new evidence may cause for reopening a hearing, and several said the board’s action was based on faulty or lacking information that was rebutted in the House hearing.
Opponents of the parole also said the board relied too heavily on statements by Porter that were not credible. They stressed that he mischaracterized the cause of Ward’s death, saying the officer fell against a wood stove during the fight and broke his neck. Police reports, which were not available to the Parole Board, said Porter struck Ward on the head with a chunk of firewood.
Others said the board apparently acted with the understanding that Monument pastor Ron Schaffer was willing to counsel and monitor Porter in the Monument community. However, they said the pastor decided against that course after doing his own research into the case, agreeing with others in the community that the release doesn’t serve justice.
Officials also were appalled by Internet website posting from a couple of years ago in which Porter touted his physical prowess and said he was looking to meet women “who are sexy, twisted, perverted.” The web posting was pulled recently, reportedly after it came to the notice of a family member.
Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, testified at the hearing that “the concern of the community about this convicted killer cannot be understated.”
He said residents are fearful of having Porter back in the community.
He urged the House panel to write a letter to the board, detailing the new information that came out of Tuesday’s hearing, including the medical details, the autopsy information and some procedural issues, such as notification. Ask the board to revisit the decision in light of the new information, he said.
Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, who called the hearing, said the Legislature also may need re-evaluate some of the laws governing the state Board of Parole’s procedures.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.Read more on bluemountaineagle.com.