Iowa Murderer's Freedom Could Hinge on Townhall Meeting

PHOTO: Rasberry Williams is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting an acquaintance over a $30 debt outside a Waterloo, Iowa, pool hall in 1974.PlayIowa Department of Corrections/AP Photo
WATCH Iowa Governor Holds Public Hearing Over Murderer's Release

The governor of Iowa is holding a rare public meeting today to discuss whether he should set free a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, who many believe is contrite and deserves a second chance.

Rasberry Williams, 66, is serving a life sentence for the 1974 murder of Lester Givhan, a neighbor who owed Williams a $30 gambling debt. Williams waited for Givhan to leave a Waterloo, Iowa, pool hall where he shot him once before turning himself over to police.

Already, the Iowa Board of Parole, the prosecutor who put Williams away and the judge who sentenced him have said the inmate's sentence should be reduced with the possibility of parole, meaning Williams could walk free.

Despite those recommendations, the decision falls solely on the shoulders of Gov. Terry Brandstad, a Republican who in two terms and 18 years in office has commuted the sentences of just two prisoners.

"The commutation power is a responsibility Gov. Branstad takes very seriously," his spokesman Tim Albrecht told ABC

Williams' case has been considered by three previous governors, but following the parole board's recent 4-0 vote to change his sentence, his chances are better now than ever before. Prior to today's hearing, no one has raised public objections to the current move to release Williams.

Williams is considered a model inmate, who is repentant for his crimes. But perhaps the most compelling reason for his release were his actions during a 1979 prison riot, in which he helped save the lives of two guards who were nearly set on fire by another inmate.

"It's an extraordinary case, and that's what makes it so compelling," attorney David Dutton, who prosecuted Williams but now supports commuting his sentence told the Associated Press. "He's served 38 years and during that time, he's saved two guards and has comported himself as a model citizen, albeit under very difficult conditions. That, in my view, indicates a person who has truly understood the importance of acting on behalf of others. I think that's a sign of a changed person, and a person that is not going to be a threat to society."

Dutton opposed commuting Williams' sentence in 2005, but said he did not know at the time that the inmate had played an influential role in preventing the death of guards at a prison in Fort Madison.

According to the governor's office, the purpose of today's hearing "is to seek information about how the crime impacted the victims and the community, whether Mr. Williams has changed while incarcerated, any and all safety concerns from victims and members of the community, and any other relevant information."

Such public hearings are rare, said Scott Burns, executive director National District Attorneys Association, but they serve two purposes, allowing the governor to gauge the sentiments of his constituents and provide political cover.

"At the end of the day all politicians are elected and nobody wants to make a mistake. We live in a world of required transparency. If he didn't take public comment, it could come back to haunt him. This way he can say he did what people wanted and what he thought was right," Burns said.

ABC News was unable to locate any family members of Williams's victim Lester Givhan.

Three previous Iowa governors have commuted sentences for a total of 10 inmates, all of whom were accused of first degree murder.

If ever released Williams is expected to live with a sister in Chicago.