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Governor Pritzker commutes sentences during COVID-19, some with violent crimes

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, announces a shelter in place rule to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, during a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

ILLINOIS (WREX) -- Governor JB Pritzker commutes sentences for some inmates in Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 in the last five weeks, according to documents sent to 13 WREX.

The most recent, involved ten commutations on April 7. On that list, two men who were serving life sentences for armed robberies in Cook County, Basil Powell and Charles Harris. Another serving natural life for murder, and a man from Rockford charged with First Degree Murder, Brian Harrington. Harrington pleaded guilty in 2007 and was sentenced to 25 years.

Brian Harrington

"Those are often the more difficult cases," Governor Pritzker said at his Thursday press conference, when asked a question about how to decide who to let go.

Harrington was a teenager, charged with shooting and killing Bradley Berogen in 2007 during a gun deal, according to 13 WREX archives. Harrington's mother told 13 WREX that she believed he didn't do it. He served 13 of his 25 year sentence, according to records from Illinois Department of Corrections.

The 2007 scene where Bradley Berogen was shot

What is unclear is why these inmates have been released, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board would not say if they were related to COVID-19.

"Please note that neither the Governor nor the Prisoner Review Board have commented upon the reasons why any individual has been granted or denied a request for Commutation of Sentence," Jason Sweat, Chief Legal Counsel for the Illinois Prisoner Review Board said in an email to 13 WREX.

State Representative John Cabello, (R) Machesney Park, isn't happy Governor Pritzker is releasing criminals with violent pasts, like Harrington, from prison. He says the governor has quietly used executive authority to commute sentences of murderers and armed robbers in an attempt to protect prisoners from the virus.

"The administration is showing that they do not want to be transparent in any way, shape or form, especially when it comes to murderers now," Cabello said.

"This is what our governor has been up to," he posted on Facebook with a list of names of commuted sentences since March 11. "Are you happy with this? I am furious. He refuses to answer any questions on it. Please share so the victims might be able to see that their offender has been released!"

Cabello's move to show the names of the prisoners has drawn criticism from the executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, Coleen Connell. Connell told 13 WREX Capitol Bureau Chief Mike Miletich that it is sad to see an elected official playing politics with public health when Illinois prisoners are dying.

The Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge #7 President, Kevin Graham, released a lengthy statement calling out the governor and the department of corrections for releasing inmates.

That statement claims more than 700 inmates have been released by both the Illinois Department of Corrections and Governor Pritzker. Gov. Pritzker did acknowledge on Thursday that he and the IDOC Acting Director Rob Jeffreys have the authority to do so. But, higher level commutations fall under Pritzker's realm, he said.

"The decisions are made in consultation for me, I often speak with the Lt. Governor, my internal legal counsel," Gov. Pritzker said in Thursday's news conference. "But, ultimately those things are charged to me and to the department of corrections director.

"Our Governor and the DOC have chosen to fight a current epidemic at the sake of exacerbating another," Graham said in the statement. "One of which has been killing people for years and continues as we confront COVID with no end in sight. The only thing we know for certain si that these actions are going to make our job as Law Enforcement Officers that much more difficult and dangerous, no matter which epidemic we are fighting."

Tuesday, The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, along with Illinois Senate Republicans, penned a letter to Governor Pritzker, demanding answers about the release of inmates.

The letter asks for a full list of names of convicted inmates released, who was consulted before releasing them, if parole officers can handle it, and a list of names of who is under review.

Also on Tuesday, another reporter asked it a little more bluntly via the governor's Press Secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh.

"Why release convicted killers?" She asked the reporter's question.

"I think some of you may know and understand, because I've said it many times from this podium. I want to keep the risk to people across the state as low as possible," Governor Pritzker said Tuesday. "The risk of COVID-19 and the risk from somebody who has done something wrong in their past."

James Stratton

James Stratton is the Evening Anchor at 13 WREX and reports for 13 Investigates He joined the team in August, 2018 after working at KWQC TV-6 in Davenport Iowa. His work in Illinois and Iowa has been awarded in both states, along with Edward R. Murrow and Emmy Awards at 13 WREX.

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