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Gay Prisoner Sues Massachusetts Parole Board

by Zachary Violette
Contributor
Thursday Nov 13, 2008
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In a case which advocates say exposes the lingering bias against GLBT inmates up for parole, a Federal District Court late last month decided to allow an openly gay Massachusetts man to proceed with a civil rights lawsuit against the Massachusetts Parole Board.

Bruce Wilborn, who is currently serving a life sentence in the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk after pleading guilty to a 1983 murder, claims that the parole board made anti-gay statements and exhibited bias against him in their November 2006 decision to deny his request for parole.

"There have been very few, if any, cases challenging sexual orientation in the parole process," said Suzanne Goldberg, Director of the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic at Columbia University.

"Yet we believe anti-gay bias sometimes does play a role in parole determinations. It’s critical here to challenge bias as a warning to other parole boards that anti-gay discrimination is not acceptable."

At the request of the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), two students from Goldberg’s organization, Mollie Kornreich and Keren Zwick served as counsel for Wilborn along with the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

On October 31, Judge Patti B. Saris of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts denied the State’s request that Wilborn’s case be thrown out.

"The case now goes into discovery," said Goldberg, "We can now ask the state for records on how the state has treated gay and non-gay applicants for parole, to prove Bruce Wilborn was treated differently than non-gay applicants. Parole is often granted to applicants with dangerous and violent prison records."

"It’s critical here to challenge bias as a warning to other parole boards that anti-gay discrimination is not acceptable" - Suzanne Goldberg

Court documents describe Wilborn as having been a "model prisoner". In the 25 years since he’s been incarcerated, Wilborn has published two books and become active with a Unitarian-Universalist ministry.

During the November 2006 hearing, his second since being incarcerated, Wilborn alleged that three of the six parole board members made statements suggesting a bias towards him based on his sexuality. One board member, Doris Dottridge, criticized him for repeatedly mentioning during the hearing that he was gay.

Wilborn claims he only mentioned his comfort with his homosexuality to indicate the extent to which he had been rehabilitated. Wilborn’s "inability to cope with the fact that he is homosexual" had been cited in court documents as a factor that led him to commit the murder.

"When gay issues came up," explained Goldberg, "Mr. Wilborn tried to explain to the board is that at the time of the crime ... he had not come to terms with being gay and that affected his judgment."

In the hearing, board member Thomas Merrigan referred to Wilborn as "the type of guy" who would become involved with someone who might encourage him to commit another crime. Finally, Board Chair Maureen Walsh suggested that "an average parole officer in the street" would not be able to supervise him properly.

These statements, in light of Wilborn’s claim that the board also misrepresented the nature of a minor disciplinary infraction that occurred in prison in the early 1990s, as well as his claim that heterosexual prisoners in similar circumstances had been granted parole, were enough to convince Saris that the case had merit to go forward.

"This court is not prepared to discount Wilborn’s contention that ’the Board’s repeated antigay comments and questions impermissibly focused on Mr. Wilborn’s sexuality rather than relevant considerations regarding his re-entry into society’ without further development of the record," wrote Saris.

"All we’re asking for is a fair hearing," said Goldberg. "Our argument is that [Wilborn] didn’t have a fair hearing. We are not asking for the court to grant him parole. The argument really is that his rights were violated."

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