Legislator takes aim at Pa. parole rules

Posted: March 06, 2013

Six weeks ago, as their sister's killer was about to be let out of prison, relatives and friends of Ellen Gregory Robb struggled to get an audience with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

On Wednesday, State Rep. Mike Vereb, joined by other by Montgomery County and state officials, plans to announce legislation that would clear up confusing state laws and give crime victims or their representatives the ability to talk directly to board members about an inmate's possible release.

"What had occurred was that the Crime Victims Act and the parole code were taking people down two separate tracks," Vereb said Tuesday. The confusion allowed the board to come up with its own interpretation limiting in-person meetings.

Vereb (R., Montgomery) and others have been working on legislation since January, when officials and Robb's family were surprised to learn that ex-University of Pennsylvania professor Rafael Robb, 62, was about to be paroled after serving a minimum amount of his five to 10 years sentence for the 2006 death of his wife, Ellen.

Family members got about 10 days notice, they said, before the Jan. 28 date the parole board approved for Robb to be released from a Mercer County prison.

"It was stunning," Vereb said.

A board letter to Robb explaining its decision cited his "positive institutional behavior," participation in programs, a recommendation from the Department of Corrections, and an "acceptance of responsibility" for his crime for the decision to parole him.

That was the opposite reasoning from 2011, when the board denied Robb parole based partly on misconduct and for showing no remorse.

The Gregory brothers, Ferman, Vereb, County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., and retired Judge Paul W. Tressler (who presided over Robb's trial), and others immediately mounted a campaign to have the board reverse itself - and allow the Gregory brothers to make that case in-person to board members.

The board said the state parole code did not give victims' relatives the right to have face-to-face meetings with board members.

Eventually, the day before the board rescinded its decision to parole Robb, the brothers met with Michael Potteiger, chairman of the state Board of Probation and Parole. Potteiger and Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane are expected to be at the news conference Verab is holding Wednesday in Norristown.

Under the legislation, which Verab said he would introduce Wednesday morning, would change language in the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act to require that victims or their representatives are entitled to talk to parole board members before decisions are made, or to communicate their concerns via other channels.

Robb pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2007 to killing his wife as she wrapped Christmas gifts in their Upper Merion home. He told a court at his 2008 sentencing, that he had "lost it" when he and his wife, who had asked for a divorce, fought over her holiday plans.

Ellen's family said Robb was not remorseful and remained a threat to his daughter and others. They were disappointed that the law afforded criminals the right to make their case in-person to parole board members, but family members could not.

Art Gregory, who lives in Haddonfield, was pleased to hear about the legislation.

"It just didn't seem the right process and procedure," he said Tuesday. "It seemed that the perpetrator really had more access to plead their side of the story vs. the lasting effects of their crime."

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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