A suspect in the fatal Denver shooting of a 21-year-old woman was paroled from Colorado’s prison system due to coronavirus concerns three weeks before the killing.
Cornelius Haney, now 40, pleaded guilty in 2016 to robbery and was sentenced to seven years in prison, court records show. He was paroled April 15 — four months before his mandatory parole date — under powers granted to the Colorado Department of Corrections by Gov. Jared Polis meant to speed up certain releases from the prison system to lower the population amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Haney had been eligible for parole since March 2017.
“Mr. Haney had a mandatory release date of Aug. 22, 2020, and would have been required to be released at that time regardless of the Parole Board decision,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Annie Skinner said in an emailed statement Friday. “Mr. Haney was released due to special needs parole criteria. When looking at special needs parole criteria, the Department of Corrections’ medical staff reviews offenders for risk factors related to COVID as documented by the Centers for Disease Control.”
The department did not immediately say what condition led to Haney’s consideration for special needs parole. Haney’s previous criminal convictions include drug possession, attempted escape, second-degree assault and theft. His release under special needs parole was first reported by 9News.
Polis addressed Haney’s release during the question-and-answer segment of a Friday news conference.
“Nobody should be released simply because of COVID-19,” Polis said. “Of course the parole board is making the individual evaluations and that’s a tough job that they do. They couldn’t have held that person much longer than they did.”
He said the parole board is trying its best to make good decisions on releases.
“No prisoner who is a danger to society should be released early in any situation,” he said. “Of course, nobody on that parole board thought this person was going to do what he allegedly did.”
Denver police arrested Haney on Monday in connection with the fatal May 9 shooting in the East Colfax neighborhood. Haney allegedly confronted the victim, a 21-year-old woman, in an alley in the 1400 block of North Verbena and North Valentia streets.
Police found Haney at the Westerner Motel, where the man was hiding in a bathroom, according to his arrest affidavit. Police also found two baggies of suspected cocaine in the toilet, the affidavit states.
Haney remained in the Denver Downtown Detention Center without bond Friday afternoon, jail records showed. Online court records show he faces charges of felony murder, second-degree murder, theft, drug possession, second-degree kidnapping and possession of a gun by a previous offender.
Polis on March 25 signed an executive order that gave the Department of Corrections more flexibility to manage the number of people incarcerated. Under the order, the department is able to grant early release to inmates through three methods: placing inmates who are at higher risk of dying from the virus on special needs parole, immediately paroling those close to their eligibility date, and increasing earned time so inmates can reach release dates sooner.
Haney was released under special needs parole. Corrections staff review inmates’ medical histories, information about their crimes and their behavior inside the facilities when deciding whether to recommend someone to the parole board for special needs parole consideration, Skinner said in the statement.
Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office prosecuted the robbery case that put Haney in prison, slammed the Department of Corrections and the governor for releasing Haney.
Brauchler questioned why the parole board decided to release Haney in April when it had chosen to keep him in custody in the three years he was eligible for parole. Parole boards generally reject parole applications if the inmate is not following internal rules, Brauchler said.
“You get passed over for parole because you’re not complying,” he said.
Brauchler said he wanted to know if Polis would end the early release program or modify how it operates.
“If the Department of Corrections had not cut this guy loose, he would not have murdered this woman,” Brauchler said. “That’s just the fact.”
Hundreds of inmates are eligible for parole under the executive order, Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams said in a previous interview with The Denver Post. Williams said he hoped to release at least 500 people and that temporarily halting intake from county jails would also help lower the population.
The vacancy rate in the prison system has grown to 11% as of Thursday, up from 1% in early April, department statistics show. The Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple questions from The Denver Post throughout the week asking how many people had been released under Polis’ executive order.
Other states around the country have taken similar steps to reduce their prison populations, though a report released Thursday by the Vera Institute of Justice showed that populations in federal and state prisons had only decreased by less than 2% overall.
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