'In for life, out on parole,' Part 1: Violent criminals released from prison early

SEATTLE -- When you hear a criminal has been sentenced to life in prison, you would think that means they stay behind bars forever.

In  Washington states, that's not always the case.

There are more than 200 prison inmates in Washington who were sentenced to life in prison, but have a chance of being released.

One of those prisoners, Larry Knox, was convicted of killing a Lakewood woman’s parents and raping her in December 1977. He was sentenced by jury to life in prison. Now, he has a shot at getting out.

The female victim -- who prefers to go unnamed -- said Knox getting out would be tragic. On that night in 1977, Robert and Maxine Hibbard were getting ready for bed.  Their 18 year-old daughter was upstairs doing her homework. She remembers it like it was yesterday.

“There was a knock at the door and I figured it was one of my friends," the victim said. "Without thinking I opened the door and he was standing there and had his face covered with a bandana. I tried to slam the door but he got a foot in it.”

Knox was a high school classmate who had been stalking her for months.  Once he forced his way into the house, things got violent fast.

“I took off and ran for the phone," she said. "My dad came down and I saw them struggling. The next thing I know he ripped the phone out of my hands and the phone out of the wall.”

Knox stabbed both parents repeatedly before raping their daughter.

“He stabbed my father in the back and my mother in the chest multiple times. I saw my father lying there in the entry and my mother in the flower bed.”

Knox tried to take the Hibbards' daughter with him, but she got away and ran to a neighbor's house.  He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Three decades later, Knox’s fate is in the hands of a small panel of appointees.  Lynne DeLano is head of the state Department of Corrections' Indeterminate Sentence Review Board.  The review board oversee more than 250 inmates who are under non-time-specific sentences, like “life” as opposed to, say, 25 years.

“The natures of the crimes on virtually all of the offenders under our jurisdiction are pretty horrific,” DeLano said.  “People say, 'Why are you even looking at paroling him?'  If they have a life sentence in Washington state before 1984, they have the opportunity to be considered for parole.”

It was the summer of 1984 when state sentencing laws changed.  Since then, convicts must be given either a set number of years behind bars, life without parole or the death penalty.  Deciding if murderers and other violent predators sentenced before 1984 should remain in custody until they die is a tough job.

“It weighs on us constantly,” DeLano replied.  “I never thought the decision-making would be so difficult.”

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo fought the Department of Corrections earlier this year, when they notified him they were planning to release Donald Hooper, a kidnapper and child rapist.

“I’m very concerned about this person coming back into our community and I think he’s putting our citizens at risk,” Elfo said.

In 1982, Hooper kidnapped a 14-year-old girl from a West Seattle bus stop at gunpoint and stuffed her in his trunk.  He then took the ferry to Kingston, drove to a remote area, tied her up and raped her.  After that, thinking she didn’t know how to swim, he pushed her off a pier into the Puget Sound, expecting she would drown.

“I kept telling him I couldn’t swim and not to throw me in.  You could see the gun on him and I didn’t want to get shot and thrown in the water,” the victim said.

In reality, she was an excellent swimmer, she made it back to shore and found help.  Hooper was given a life sentence, and as recently as 2010 a prison psychologist found he still posed a risk for violence with “the possibility of serious physical harm or lethality.”

Despite that, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board found him fit for release and let him out late last year.

“He’s admitted to victimizing other women and he has a long history of doing this.  Obviously the people charged with doing psychological evaluations in the state prison system think he’s going to do it again so that’s very alarming,” Elfo said.

The head of the ISRB explained why the board made that decision.

“He tried to kill that young woman, there’s no question about that.  The concern by that psychologist was that there was a potential that he could do that again.  That’s absolutely something we pay very close attention to.  We do not want to see that happen.  We don’t want him to commit even a traffic offense, let alone a heinous crime of violence,” DeLano said.  “But at this point we are confident he is rehabilitated.”

DeLano said the board considered many factors in Hooper's case.  She said he completed sex offender treatment, showed empathy for the victim and had no infractions behind bars for 17 years.

“The reality is if we only released people that had no risk, nobody would get released.  Virtually every offender released presents some level of risk,” DeLano said.

That's no comfort to victims or their families, who never know if or when these guys are going to be freed.

“What seems really unfair to them, whether they (prisoners) did programming or whatever, they feel like they’re never going to get their loved one back or their life back the way it was before, so how is it that this person should be given another chance,” said Nancy Hawley, who works with a group called Victim Support Services in Everett.

She has attended these parole review hearings and says they are extremely emotional.

“All of those fresh memories are there.  The things they didn’t want to think about before, those fears.  It’s like it just like it happened yesterday,” Hawley said.

In 2003, Knox's victim got a letter from the Department of Corrections, notifying her Knox was up for parole on his first life sentence.

“They told me he was still a paranoid schizophrenic and that he was still violent and angry.  He threatened to kill the people who put him there.  I was the only witness and I assume that means me.  Despite all that, they still felt it was OK to parole him."

Knox is now more than 10 years into his second life sentence and eligible for review again in nine years.

“That’s not that far away.  It’s not that far away.  I feel trapped.  If they parole him and let him out, I’m out of here.  I’m out of here far, far away,” said the victim.

DeLano said she feels that of the pre-1984 lifers, nearly one-third of them are releasable right now.

On Q13 FOX News at 10 p.m. Thursday, we will uncover which offenders have been released in the past year, and who is under review right now.  Plus, we profile a child kidnapper and killer who hanged one of his victims from a tree.  You'll hear from the family members of those teenage girls in Part #2 of “In for Life: Out on Parole.”