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Judge haunted by 26-year-old conviction

She is 65 now, blind in one eye and uses a walker because of a neurological condition. Some days she uses a wheelchair.

In 1988, a jury found Karen Kantzler guilty of second-degree murder after she shot her husband, Paul, a Bloomfield Township radiologist, in a trial that included testimony she had been physically and emotionally abused by her husband for years. There was evidence Kantzler shot her husband while he lay in bed. Oakland County Circuit Judge Norman Lippitt sentenced Kantzler to life, presuming she would be paroled in 10 years.

Twenty-six years later, Kantzler is still in prison.

“I feel like I made an awful mistake, said Lippitt, who left the bench in 1988 for private practice. “It's been haunting me all these years. Of all the cases I tried, this is the one I remember.”

Prior to 1992, the Michigan Parole Board was comprised of professional civil servants who were authorized to grant parole to lifers after 10 years.

The grisly, high-profile case of Leslie Allen Williams changed all that. In May 1992, Williams, a 38-year-old convicted rapist who had been paroled in 1990, confessed to the abduction and slaying of four teenage girls in Oakland and Genesee counties.

Not long after, Gov. John Engler replaced the civilian parole board with 10 political appointees. The date of parole eligibility for lifers was increased from 10 to 15 years and the interval between parole reviews raised from two years to five. The board later substituted a review of prisoner records for personal interviews with those seeking release.

Parole rates for all types of sentences abruptly fell.

In a 1997 study, the Michigan Department of Corrections found that parole approvals declined from 66 percent between 1988 and 1991 to 56 percent under the revised board. Prisoners who served longer than the minimum sentence nearly doubled, from 5,992 in 1991 to 11,855 in 1997.

In 1999, parole board Chairman Stephen Marschke bluntly stated the board’s policy as it applied to lifers, asserting there was no need to actually interview lifers eligible for parole: “It has been a long standing philosophy of the Michigan Parole Board that a life sentence means just that – life in prison... It is a tremendous waste of finite state resources to interview prisoners who will never be suitable for release.”

In 1993, Lippitt's successor, Circuit Judge Barry Howard, overturned Lippitt's sentence and sentenced Kantzler to three-to-10 years. The prosecution appealed and the life sentence was reinstated.

In 2003, Lippitt sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, asking that the Kantzler case be reconsidered. Her husband, he stated, “had a long history of both physical and mental abuse directed toward her.”

“In my humble opinion, 17 years in prison is unfair to the particular defendant,” he wrote.

Kantzler was turned down for parole in 1999, 2004 and 2009. Her next parole review date is November 26.

According to the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a Lansing-based nonprofit advocacy organization, there are more than 850 Michigan prisoners with life terms eligible for parole. More than 500 are over age 50. They cost the state in excess of $40,000 a year to incarcerate.

Lippitt doesn't believe Kantzler would pose a threat to anyone if released. Given her physical state and age, Lippitt wondered if it makes sense to keep her locked up the rest of her days.

“It's ridiculous,” he said. “She isn't going to go out, get married and do this again. There are a lot of people in prison that we are taking care of and they shouldn't be there.”

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