Iowa Gov. Branstad commutes life sentence of Rasberry Williams

Waterloo man's sentence third commutation in 18 years

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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad announced Friday he has commuted the life prison sentence of Rasberry Williams, a 67-year-old who has served 38 years in prison after a 1974 shooting outside a Waterloo pool hall.

“Mr. Williams’ record while incarcerated has been extraordinary,” Branstad stated in an April 26 letter to the Iowa Board of Parole. “He has made the most of his life and has had a positive impact on the lives of both inmates and Department of Corrections’ staff.”

The Parole Board recommended commutation for Williams and prison officials called him a model inmate who has prevented two inmate attacks on correctional officers at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison.

Williams was convicted of shooting Lester Givhan, 40, on July 20, 1974, after the men argued over a $30 gambling debt, the Des Moines Register reported. Givhan allegedly offered Williams the money, then pulled it back when Williams reached for it. Williams drew a revolver and fatally shot him, authorities said. Williams claimed self-defense, saying Givhan, who had a criminal history, appeared to be going for a gun.

Commutation is rare in Iowa, with governors reducing the legal penalty for only 30 people in the last 44 years. Most of the commutations cut mandatory life sentences to fixed-length terms with a possibility of parole.

Branstad has commuted the life prison terms of just two other inmates in his 18 years in office. One of those, Rubben Jones, 64, of Des Moines, told The Gazette earlier this month he thought Williams deserved another chance.

“Thirty to 40 years of your life, I know it can’t replace a life that has been taken, but I think he’s suffered enough,” Jones said.

Branstad denied commutations for 10 other inmates earlier this month.

Branstad commuted Williams’s prison sentence from life without parole to life with the possibility of parole. The Parole Board will create a plan that gradually reduces supervision, likely ending with Williams’s parole, said Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections.

“Now that his status has been changed, he can move from maximum to medium security with more privileges and programming,” Scaletta said. The process could take over a year. “It’s going to be a while."

[Graphic by John McGlothlen/The Gazette. Timeline courtesy of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier]

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