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Dying Inmate, In Prison Since Age 15, Paroled

9:04 AM, Dec 4, 2013   |    comments
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DES MOINES - An Iowa inmate suffering from inoperable breast cancer will be released to a central Iowa hospice facility, the state's parole board decided Tuesday.

Granting a "compassionate release" to Kristina Joy Fetters, 33, marks a historic decision by the parole board. Once the state's youngest inmate serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Fetters will be the first Iowa inmate released because of last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

Fetters was 15 when she entered prison after a jury convicted her in the death of her great-aunt Arlene Klehm, 73. She's been in poor health since September, when doctors in Iowa City diagnosed her with stage 4 inoperable breast cancer.

"I just can't wait to see her," said friend and former prison inmate Jamie Ross on Tuesday after learning the news. "It's heartbreaking to know that she's getting so bad."

The board's decision means Fetters will probably be released to a Hospice of Central Iowa facility within the next two weeks, said Fred Scaletta, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections. Fetters will be appointed a parole officer and will be barred from going anywhere but the hospice facility.

Tuesday's decision may not be the board's final word on Fetters, depending on how her disease progresses, board member W. Thomas Phillips said.

"Should things change, miraculously or whatever ... the Board of Parole would reassess," he said. "I do not see this necessarily being the final vote that the board would take."

Fetters' release from prison was the outcome family and friends had hoped for after Polk County District Judge Douglas Staskal in November resentenced her to make parole an option. The judge recommended the parole board release Fetters immediately because of her declining health.

Fetters' prison counselor told the board over the telephone Tuesday that Fetters had been accepted by Hospice Care of Central Iowa and would be put on Social Security to pay for her health care. During their hourlong review, parole board members looked closely at the care Fetters would receive if released.

"Not only are we worried about public safety, we're also concerned about her safety," said board member Doris Kelley.

Though the Social Security Administration has no special programs for released inmates, Fetters is able to receive support because of her terminal cancer, an official said.

Members of the general public are eligible for Social Security payments if they suffer from a disease that takes away their ability to work for at least a year, said Jewell Colbert, a Social Security communications director for the region.

Board chair Jason Carlstrom initially told board members that he didn't support releasing Fetters.

Des Moines oncologist Dr. Robert Shreck reviewed Fetters' medical records ahead of the review and told the board that, though still experiencing pain, Fetters has responded to hormone therapy treatment that began in October.

A tumor in Fetters' breast has reduced in size, and doctors can assume that cancer cells in her bones also have shrunk, Shreck said. Despite her improvement, Fetters' condition most likely remains incurable, and it's impossible to make an estimate of how long she could live, he said.

Shreck told the board that in his 34 years in practice he's had patients who have responded well to therapy and lived for several years after a cancer diagnosis. Carlstrom said he'd like to see how Fetters continues to respond to treatment instead of granting a parole.

"I would recommend or throw out to the board that perhaps we should wait a little while to see what happens with the treatment for Ms. Fetters," he said. "Her response to treatment may change the kind of re-entry plans that need to be made for her."

Board members Kelley and Phillips, however, disagreed and argued for a "compassionate release." Though Fetters was not a "model inmate" - she's had eight disciplinary write-ups since 2007 - there are signs she's taken responsibility for her great-aunt's death, Phillips said.

The state's doctor at the Mitchellville, Iowa, women's prison also agreed that the care would be better in a hospice facility, Kelley said. "Although the care is good at Mitchellville, she could get better care at hospice," she said.

Fetters was taken to an Iowa City hospital Sunday because of severe pain she experienced over the weekend, said Ross, the family friend. The pain had made it difficult for Fetters to move her neck, she said.

The board's review of Fetters' file attracted more attention than a typical inmate's file review and the room was filled with supporters. Darcy Olson, Fetters' aunt, told board members that the family was hopeful about a release.

"It's now time for my family to have closure," Olson said. "Kris' impending death cannot be denied, and while there has been negative comments, we believe, as the victims, that this family has suffered enough."

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