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Jim Kenyon: Friends, family oppose Zantop killer’s suspended sentence request

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Friends of Half and Susanne Zantop aren’t persuaded by Jim Parker’s argument that after 18 years in prison, he’s been punished enough and no longer poses a threat to society.

New Hampshire Associate Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin has heard from about a half-dozen people who oppose Parker’s court motion for early release. The AG’s Office also has been in touch with the Zantops’ daughters, Veronika and Mariana.

“They oppose (Parker’s) request for a sentence reduction,” Strelzin told me in response to an email that I sent him on Monday.

The letters and statements will become part of Parker’s sentence reduction hearing scheduled for Aug. 2 in Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill.

Parker, now 34, is asking a judge to suspend the final seven years of the 25-year minimum sentence he received for his role in the murders of the Zantops in January 2001. Parker and his Chelsea schoolmate, Robert Tulloch, knocked on the Zantops’ front door in Etna on a Saturday morning, pretending to be conducting an environmental survey for school.

“This was not a crime of a robbery by rebellious teens, selling drugs, or even of a purposeful or an accidental shooting in the course of a robbery, which might invite leniency or reconsideration of sentence length after substantial jail time,” wrote Carol Bardenstein, an associate professor of Arabic language and culture at the University of Michigan, who became friends with the Zantops while teaching at Dartmouth in the 1980s.

Instead, this was a “cold-blooded, pre-meditated, thrill-kill murder,” added Bardenstein, who sent me a copy of her letter last Friday.

Annelise Orleck, a Dartmouth history professor, wrote in her letter that she was “not a believer in vengeance. I would support early release for the many people currently in prison for victimless crimes, and even some in jail for nonviolent crimes.

“James Parker’s crime was neither victimless nor nonviolent. Far from it. Nor was it a spontaneous crime, committed without forethought.”

She added, “I understand that Parker’s family loves him and wants him to go free. I am glad that Parker has been a constructive presence in his prison community. But this can’t be only about him. Not today. Not ever.”

Alexis Jetter, a Dartmouth lecturer in English and creative writing, also shared her letter with me. “What would stop James Parker from killing again?” she asked. “A man who needs no motive can easily kill again.”

Not surprisingly, the state isn’t going along with Parker’s early-release request.

“What the Zantops experienced has to be worth far more than the few years (Parker) has served and should serve in prison for what he willingly did to them,” Strelzin wrote in his court filings.

Everyone agrees the murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop were about as savage and senseless as crimes get.

But where the disagreement begins — and what a judge will decide — is whether Parker’s 18 years in the New Hampshire State Prison is sufficient punishment and his rehabilitation has reached a point where he’s ready to re-enter society.

As I wrote on Sunday, court documents filed by Parker’s attorney, Cathy Green, of Manchester, indicate that Parker has made good use of his time behind bars. He’s earned a master’s degree and improved the quality of life for other inmates through his art, theater and music projects.

More important, a psychological evaluation that assessed Parker’s risk for future criminal behavior put him at the “very low end for risk of violent behavior and reoffending.”

Parker was 16 when he killed Susanne Zantop. Adolescent brain research has come a long way since Parker was sentenced to 25 years to life after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

Studies show “adolescents often lack the ability to make mature judgments, control their impulses and consider the consequences of their actions,” the American Psychological Association reported in its “Justice for Teens” journal article in 2017.

The U.S. Supreme Court found in its 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2016, the court made the ruling retroactive for more than 2,000 inmates already sentenced, including Tulloch, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for the killing of Half Zantop.

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, Tulloch, who was 17 at the time of the murders, will have his life-without-parole sentence reviewed during a three-day court hearing in December.

Parker’s sentence wasn’t nearly as severe as life-without-parole, but recent advances in adolescent brain research seem to bolster his case for early release. (Under New Hampshire law, an offender who has served two-thirds of his minimum can ask the court to suspend the remainder of his sentence.)

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor and co-author of Rethinking Juvenile Justice, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in 2015 that I think could apply to Parker’s case.

Wrote Steinberg, “It’s important to note that this debate is not about whether juveniles should be excused from criminal responsibility. Juveniles know right from wrong, should be held responsible for their behavior and should face consequences when they violate the law.

“The question is whether the way we respond to a juvenile who commits a serious crime should differ from how we respond when the same crime is committed by an adult.”

In my view, the answer is yes. There’s no excuse for Parker’s brutal crime, but other than vengeance, what we will gain from his continued incarceration?

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.