'He was coming home': Michigan prisoner who served 44 years died from coronavirus days before release

William Garrison was 16 years old when he was convicted of murder.

April 21, 2020, 9:24 PM

Yolanda Peterson says she had prepared a room in her Michigan home for her brother, eagerly anticipating his release from prison after serving 44 years for a murder that initially got him a sentence of life without parole when he was barely old enough to drive.

On April 12, she said a parole agent inspected her suburban Detroit residence and deemed it a suitable place for 60-year-old William Garrison to live.

"He was looking forward to getting out," Peterson told ABC News of her older brother. "He wanted to work as an advocate for people in jail. He was a very knowledgable person. He had a lot going on. He helped a lot of prisoners, reviewing their cases. He got people out of jail."

But a day after the parole agent visited Peterson's home, Garrison died at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township, Michigan, and a postmortem test confirmed he had contracted the novel coronavirus, prison officials said.

His death came just 24 days before he likely would have been released.

"I'm grieving right now," Peterson said on Tuesday while adhering to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's statewide coronavirus stay-at-home orders. "I'm the only person who closely stood with my brother for 44 years and walked this road with him. We're heartbroken because he was coming home. Justice should be served because my brother shouldn't have died."

At the age of 16, Garrison was convicted of murder for gunning down a 50-year-old man during a 1976 home-invasion robbery, a mistake his sister said "he repented for over and over again." However, her brother, she said, had felt the courts had done him an injustice by making him a juvenile lifer.

After the U.S. Supreme Court banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2018, Garrison was resentenced in January to a term of 40 to 90 years. By then he had already served more than his minimum sentence.

Garrison rejects offer of early parole

Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the case is even more heartbreaking because the state parole board had granted Garrison early parole back in February before the first cases of coronavirus appeared in Michigan, but he refused to accept it. He decided to wait out the remainder of his sentence, which, at that time, would have ended on Sept. 4, Gautz said, noting that Garrison had been awarded more than 7,000 days of "good time" credits.

"What he told the board was, 'I would rather stay in here until September and walk out a completely free man rather than walk out right now and be on parole and have to report to a parole agent and have to go through all that,'" Gautz told ABC News.

PHOTO: A photo shows William Garrison, May 22, 2018. Garrison, who declined to be paroled earlier in 2020 after decades behind bars, died on Monday, April 13, 2020 from COVID-19 complications, officials said.
A photo shows William Garrison, May 22, 2018. Garrison, who declined to be paroled earlier in 2020 after decades behind bars, died on Monday, April 13, 2020 from COVID-19 complications, officials said.

But when the first presumptive cases of COVID-19 were announced in Michigan in early March, corrections officials began scrambling to reduce the state prison population, anticipating that social distancing would be tough to accomplish in packed prison cellblocks.

"We started proactively looking for individuals who were elderly, who might be more prone to contracting the virus. So, he popped up on our list," Gautz said. "We went to him again and said, 'Hey look, we tried to parole you before and you didn't want to go, but now that this virus is here and you're over the age of 60, and the experts say that you're more prone to get it, we'd like to consider you for parole again.'"

This time, Garrison accepted the offer.

But before he could be paroled, corrections officials were obligated to send a letter to prosecutors in the county where Garrison was convicted of murder advising them of his impending release. The letter was sent on April 8, giving the Wayne County prosecutor 28 days to appeal, Gautz said.

"Obviously they're our most populous county and we've sent them more than 100 letters," Gautz said of the county that encompasses Detroit. "We haven't heard back on any of them, but we know that they have many other things that they're doing."

Barring an appeal from the Wayne County prosecutor, Garrison was set to be released on May 6, Gautz said.

'Gasping for air'

On April 13, Garrison's cellmate cried out for help when he noticed Garrison appeared to be in medical distress, Gautz said.

"His bunkmate said that he was gasping for air and he called out for help, and our officers rushed in, performed life-saving measures, got the ambulance in there, got him to the hospital," Gautz said. "Once he was at the hospital and died, the doctors there decided to test him postmortem for COVID-19."

Peterson claims she was contacted by her brother's cellmate, who she says told her that he had symptoms of coronavirus prior to Garrison's death. She said other prisoners who witnessed her brother's fatal episode told her that prison staff was slow in responding to repeated calls for help from Garrison's bunkmate and that corrections officers handcuffed her brother when he fell unconscious onto the cell floor.

I'm the only person who closely stood with my brother for 44 years and walked this road with him. We're heartbroken because he was coming home.

"He caught it from his roommate, being locked down in there since February. He hadn't been outside since February," said Peterson, adding that she has contacted an attorney about taking legal action. "He's not going to die in vain because he did ask for help. His roommate asked them for help. Then they put him in shackles after he died on the floor.”

Gautz said Peterson has apparently been misinformed.

He said Garrison nor his cellmate exhibited symptoms or complained of being ill before the fatal episode. He said that the prison's nursing staff had even gone cell-to-cell examining inmates prior to Garrison's death.

Gautz said that Garrison's cellmate was immediately placed in quarantine and was tested for the virus. He said the test on the cellmate came back negative.

"It speaks to the insidious nature of this virus that some people can have no symptoms at all and all of a sudden, just like that, they're having these issues," Gautz said. "It's just very unfortunate."

Hundreds of prisoners test positive in Michigan

He said that 81 prisoners at the Macomb Correctional Facility, which houses about 1,300 inmates, had tested positive for the virus as of Monday night. He said no other coronavirus-linked deaths have occurred at the prison.

Gautz said that of the 38,000 inmates in the entire state prison system, 574 had tested positive and 21 had died.

His bunkmate said that he was gasping for air and he called out for help.

Overall, Michigan had recorded more than 32,000 positive cases of the virus as of Tuesday and at least 2,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Gautz said the Department of Corrections is continuing to work to reduce the prison population, adding that 200 inmates are scheduled to be paroled this week and 700 to 900 others by the end of this month.

"That's just a little bit higher than average. We parole about 9,000 prisoners every year in general," Gautz said.

He said only about 5,000 prisoners are eligible for early parole.

"Certainly every prisoner that we release, the parole board is first and foremost looking at whether or not they are going to be a harm to society if they're released," Gautz said. "[Garrison] certainly was not one that we were worried about committing new crimes and that's why the board was happy to vote him out twice."

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