Killer walks early
Malcom Wright was sentenced to 100-plus years in prison for the brutal slaying of Marjorie Peterson in 1976. He was released Oct. 13.
By CHRIS GREEN, Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD — A 100- to 150-year prison sentence seemingly is a lifetime banishment behind bars.
That clearly was the intention of Winnebago County Judge John Ghent when he levied the sentence on Malcom Wright in 1976 for the Aug. 14, 1975, slaying of Marjorie Peterson. Wright battered and then stabbed the 31-year-old woman multiple times with a pair of scissors and left her for dead in her apartment.
Before pronouncing sentence, Ghent called Peterson’s death “one of the most vicious, atrocious crimes I have ever been involved with in all my years on the bench.”
On Oct. 6, Wright’s case came up for periodic review by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Wright, now 52, was freed from the Dixon Correctional Center on Oct. 13 after serving 29 years of his 150-year sentence. The Register Star was unable to determine Wright’s whereabouts.
“Thirty years is pretty much on the high end of sentences,” board Chairman Jorge Montes said of the host factors the board considers before deciding to free an inmate.
Ghent, who died in 2001, spoke prophetically immediately after the trial to the Rockford Morning Star, a predecessor of the Register Star, as if he knew one day Wright’s release would surely come.
“I was trying to tell the Department of Corrections they should carefully consider this man before they make any considerations as to parole,” Ghent said in 1976.
There are no known immediate relatives of Peterson still living in Rockford.
Montes said no one appeared at the parole hearing to argue against Wright’s release. Wright’s stepbrother, Jim Schmig, said from his Missouri home that he’s concerned, and others who come in contact with Wright should be, too.
“I haven’t talked to Malcom in nearly 30 years, but I’ve known him since he was 2,” he said.
“My concern basically is you have this guy who has come out of prison who did a heinous crime. What makes people think he’s going to change that drastically? He did some unusual things before he even went to prison.”
A heinous act
The events leading up to Peterson’s death involved Wright, then 22, and two accomplices, Thomas Lee Ring, 22, and Michael Bonacquisti, 20. All three men spent most of Aug. 13, 1975, drinking beer and driving around Rockford before deciding to go to Peterson’s apartment. Ring was acquainted with the single woman, having at one time lived in the apartment below hers.
During Wright’s trial, Bonacquisti testified: “Ring said he wanted to rape Marjorie Peterson. We went to the apartment, and Ring kicked in the door. She was talking on the telephone, and Ring grabbed the phone and forced her into the bedroom and threw her on the floor. Then Wright started tearing her blouse off.
“I kept yelling at them to stop, but it was like they didn’t even hear me. Then I ran out of the apartment and went home. I told my wife what happened, and she wanted me to call the police. But I was too scared, so I laid down for a while.
“Then about 9:30 p.m., Wright came over to the house and asked me to go out in the backyard. He said, ‘What did you leave for?’ I said I didn’t like what they were doing. Then he said, ‘I stabbed her.’ ”
Peterson was found nude and lying in a pool of her own blood about noon on Aug. 14. A neighbor became alarmed when she saw Peterson’s cats outside and her apartment door open and called police. Peterson died later that day at SwedishAmerican Hospital.
Wright and Ring were charged with murder. Bonacquisti was charged with burglary and sentenced to two to six years in prison.
“At that point in time, it was the worst thing that ever happened to Rockford,” Schmig said.
Two different Wrights
Wright, inmate number C61006, is classified as a “C-number” inmate. Such inmates were sentenced to an indeterminate term in prison, meaning a range of years, before implementation of determinate sentencing in 1978. C-numbered inmates periodically appear before members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to plead their case for parole. Other inmates serve a specific amount of time and are released after serving a percentage of their sentence.
Montes said the board took in an assortment of information before deciding to free Wright:
“We look at the gravity of the offense, institutional adjustment, the support structure he or she would have on the outside, the degree of remorse on display. Did he or she work hard? Time served. Any protests from the family and community, and multiply that by 15 minds (the number of board members). When enough of these factors coincide, you have a release.”
Montes stopped short of calling Wright a model inmate. He said Wright earned special privileges such as mowing the grass outside the walls of the Dixon Correctional Center. Inside the prison, Wright headed Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and earned his food sanitation license.
Montes said, “He appeared to be very productive in the institution.”
Schmig speaks differently of Wright.
“He once broke a dog’s legs and stabbed it,” he said of his step-brother’s unprovoked and violent disposition. “He had an old Chevy Nova. He took the gear shift knob, sharpened it, and fashioned a knife out of it and stabbed the dog with it.”
Schmig also recalled Wright telling him that he wanted to perch himself on the roof of the Faust Landmark Hotel and shoot passers-by.
“That’s when I sought to have him committed,” he said.
“I actually had to have his mother sign him in. They could only hold him for five days. They had to either admit him or let him go, and they let him go. Two months later, that’s when he killed that girl.”
Wright’s release ‘too soon’
Former Rockford police Detective Dan Gray still remembers the gruesome details surrounding Peterson’s death, and he remembers officers recovering at the woman’s apartment a partially torn check that belonged to Ring. That single piece of evidence led to the eventual arrest of all three men.
Told of Wright’s release, Gray said Peterson never got a second chance at life and questions why Wright is being given a second chance to make something of his.
“I think he got released way too soon. No doubt about it. He should have spent the rest of his life in prison.”
Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said his office routinely objected to Wright’s release every time he was eligible for parole. “We cited brutality of the murder and a very painful death of the victim, but we have to live with the decision of the parole board. We’re just like anybody else. We hope that he is no longer capable or prone to that type of violence.”
Montes said Wright revealed plans to seek employment as an alcohol abuse counselor and said arrangements were made for Wright to live at Saint Leonard’s House, a Chicago halfway house. Two staff personnel who answered the phone said Wright is not a registered resident. Calls to Wright’s Chicago Heights-based parole officer, Greg Walker, were not returned.
About state sentencing laws
The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation in 1977 that changed the state’s sentencing laws. It established a Class X category for the most violent crimes and adopted the death sentence and natural life sentence. Legislators replaced the Illinois Parole and Pardon Board with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
This eliminated the subjective determination by members of the Parole and Pardon Board of whether an inmate could be released and when.
Determinate sentencing became effective in February 1978.
Inmates convicted of crimes committed in 1978 or later were given specific amounts of time based on the seriousness of the crime.
Previously, an inmate received an indeterminate sentence — or range of time — and appeared before the Parole and Pardon Board, which determined when a person might be paroled. Until passage of truth in sentencing laws in the 1990s, all inmates were to spend half their sentences incarcerated in jail or prison (less awards of good time as explained above). This allowed all involved — the victim, the criminal, the courts, law enforcement agencies, Corrections and the public — to know when the inmate would be released.
About the Prisoner Review Board
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board is an independent, quasijudicial entity that makes decisions on a range of adult and juvenile prison inmate matters. Included among the roles of the Prisoner Review Board is to make confidential recommendations to the governor on clemency petitions. All members of the Prisoner Review Board are appointed by the governor, with approval from the state Senate. The salary for board members is $72,951 and $81,432 for the chairperson.
Source: www.illinois.gov/PressReleases/PressRel ... ecNum=2966
http://www.rrstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/art ... /1004/NEWS