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5:28 pm
Wed April 6, 2011

Woodmansee could be forced to stay in R.I.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A bill to eliminate time off for good behavior for some prisoners gets a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon. It was sparked by news that child killer Michael Woodmansee is getting out of prison 12 years early because he followed the rules.

His imminent release has sparked a wave of street protests, calls for changes to the "good time" in prison law, and death threats from the victim's father. "Stay out of my way," John Foreman warned Woodmansee in a recent interview with Good Morning America.' "I want to kill him the same way he killed my son. I can't get it off my mind," Woodmansee said on national television.

And don't think Foreman isn't capable of it, says his son, John Foreman V. "Push comes to shove I've seen him do things other people can't do. If he doesn't do it somebody will," says John Foreman V.

Woodmansee was 16-years-old when he lured little Jason into his Peacedale home. He later told police he stabbed the five-year-old boy in the chest with a kitchen knife because he thought it might be fun.

Jason's older brother, John, remembers that warm Spring day in 1975. "I remember playing with him and he was going home and that's pretty much of what I remember of that," says Foreman. "Then, later in the day mom crying non-stop, Dad driving like a maniac all over the place trying to find him, and the fire horns. The following day the state police with the dogs in the woods; just everybody going through everybody's house."

The Woodmansees and the Foremans lived on Schaeffer Street in the quiet, university town of South Kingstown. Police would search every home on the block in the days following Jason's disappearance but they let Michael Woodmansee's father check his own house because he was a police reservist.

Perhaps that's why the case remained unsolved for seven years.

Then, in April 1982 Woodmansee tried to kill Dale Sherman, a local paperboy. Sherman escaped and reported the assault to police. The following day Woodmansee confessed to the murder of Jason Foreman and directed them to a box in his bedroom where he had kept the boy's shellacked bones.

He also directed them to a journal which described the crime. Under court seal all these years, it has been seen by only a handful of law enforcement officials but reportedly contains details of atrocities the Foreman family did not want revealed. That's why they agreed to a plea bargain of second degree murder, which resulted in a 40 year prison sentence for their son's killer. It's a decision they now regret, says Foreman family attorney Erik Wallin.

"He felt at the time it would let him move on but didn't really quite realize in the long term that this would come back and haunt the family again and that's what it's done," says Wallin.

In the face of community outrage, Rhode Island prison officials have embarked on a plan to have Woodmansee involuntarily committed to a mental institution. But its success is far from certain, says Corrections director A.T. Wall.

"It's a high bar in Rhode Island," says Wall. " Two psychiatrists must present certificates and opinions stating that the individual has a mental disability, is in need of care and treatment in a facility, would likely benefit from that care and treatment and that their presence in the community, unsupervised, would create a likelihood of serious harm to self or others by reason of that mental disability."

And even if two psychiatrists agree that Woodmansee poses a danger to society, a judge must sign off on the involuntary commitment every six months.

"I initiated the process and I wouldn't have called for it if I didn't feel that the evaluation was warranted," says Wall. "I would not be spending time and money on it unless I thought it was necessary."

Wall concedes that there's a chance -- if not this summer then sometime down the road -- that Woodmansee will eventually be released into the community.

Protesters like Carol Durda of Ashaway fear Woodmansee will attack another child. "I think it's terrifying, particularly since he's 52 years old," says Durda. "That's a very young age. He's still a danger. Someone doesn't acquire a taste for such horrific action and then it disappears just because he goes to jail. So I think he will hurt again."

Woodmansee may find that the public spotlight in Rhode Island will make it impossible to fade into the woodwork. But leaving the state is not as simple as buying a bus ticket. He'll be on probation for 22 years and could be ordered to report to a probation officer daily. Moving would require getting another state to agree to supervise him. And that could be impossible, says Foreman family attorney Erik Wallin.

"That is not going to happen," Wallin said from his South Kingstown office. "I can't imagine a state in this country that would take him. So he will return to Rhode Island."

Andrew Horwitz, Associate dean of Roger Williams University law school, agrees. "With the damage we have done in the public arena the likelihood that another state will accept him is, I would think, incredibly remote. Close to zero would be my guess," says Horwitz.

Woodmansee has no immediate family in Rhode Island, few skills and little money. That's a set up for possibly insurmountable problems, notes Horwitz.

"We have created a scenario where it is very hard to imagine how he could find a place to live. How he could find a job, how he could have a life that even began to resemble something like normal functioning and that's putting aside the fact that there are lots of people out there threatening his wellbeing. It's hard to imagine how this can play out very well," Horwitz says.

Although it wouldn't affect Woodmansee, attorney general Peter Kilmartin has proposed legislation that would eliminate good time release for the most egregious violent crimes. State Representative Teresa Tanzi of South Kingstown sponsors the House version of the bill.

"The good time law has its purpose," she said at a recent press conference, "but it goes too far when it allows those who have committed crimes as heinous as the murder of Jason Foreman to go free after just 28 years."

Opposing such a measure is Roger Willliams Law School associate dean Andrew Horwitz, who is also president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"The problem people are concerned about is not that good time is a mistake or that the way good time was applied to Woodmansee. The problem is people are dissatisfied with the sentence he got at the outset. We can't fix that problem," says Horwitz. "And we certainly shouldn't try to fix that problem by messing around with other laws that really aren't what people are concerned about."

Good time laws are not unique to Rhode Island. Most states have them. Some more generous; others more restrictive. The purpose for such laws is twofold: they give prisoners a motive to follow the rules and they keep the prison population down. The latter is a major concern in Rhode Island which is under a federal court order to keep the population below 4,300.

Currently the population is well below that threshold, with a dozen cellblocks unused. But, Corrections director Wall cautions, it would cost money to reopen them.

"The corrections department can do it any way our leaders want. We know how to build prisons and we know how to run prisons," says Wall. "We do it very well. Someone would need to pay the bill if we reach the level where it's costing additional money."

Another option being explored is requiring Woodmansee to register as a sex offender. Although he was not convicted of a sex crime, attorney general Kilmartin believes the Sex Offender registry law can be amended to retroactively include child killers.

"We can properly amend that bill to include Michael Woodmansee in it so he has to register," says Kilmartin. "We know where his whereabouts will be and his neighbors will be aware of where he is."

But Roger William law school associate dean Andrew Horwitz disagrees. The constitutional prohibition against "ex post facto" -- Latin for "after the fact" -- bars the state from changing the rules in the middle of the game, he says.

"We don't allow the laws to be changed in a way that harms somebody who behaved in a certain way based on a certain set of expectations and understandings of what the law was at the time they behaved that way."

Given the level of community hostility towards his release, Woodmansee could decide to be voluntarily committed to a mental institution. The alternative, living as a free man, might mean putting himself in as much jeopardy as little Jason Foreman did 36 years ago by just walking down the street at the wrong time.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.