Mechanicville man seeks parole for 9th time25 May 2019
Request comes as state debates parole for elderly prisoners
By Steve Hughes
Kenyon “Billy” Pruyn will make his case to the state parole board for the ninth time next month.
Pruyn, the man responsible for the 1976 shooting spree in Mechanicville that killed two, including a young police officer, and wounded nine, is now 75.
There’s likely little new information on Pruyn’s part that might sway the board to release him.
But his latest request comes during a push by criminal justice reformers and Democrats in the state Legislature to decrease the number of elderly prisoners like Pruyn in state prisons. That desire to reduce the elderly prison population, highlighted by the recent release of 1970s radical Judith Clark, faces stiff resistance from state Republicans and law enforcement agencies.
Opponents of elderly parole criticized the decision to release Clark and called new proposals on encouraging release for elderly prisoners “pro-criminal” legislation that disrespects crime victims.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, is co-sponsoring a bill that would automatically grant parole hearings to any prisoner over the age of 55 who has served at least 15 years of their sentence. Hoylman said the bill, if passed, is not an automatic release for aging prisoners. The bill supporters estimate there are nearly 1,000 prisoners in the state that would qualify under Hoylman’s bill.
“Long prison sentences don't keep us safer, deter crime, or give the majority of victims and survivors of crime what they actually want and need — healing, accountability and safety,” he said in a recent Times Union opinion piece.
Hoylman and other reformers argue that older prisoners who have served a significant amount of time in prison pose a minimal threat to public safety while costing the state millions in health care costs.
In response, Republicans proposed a series of bills called the Victim’s Justice Agenda, with bills focusing on changes to the state’s parole system, longer sentences for certain violent crimes and a larger voice in the parole process for crime victims.
Pruyn does not completely fit the description in Hoylman’s bill. He’s been eligible for release since 2001. According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, he does not have a disciplinary record while in prison. Pruyn has also taken paralegal classes, courses on drug and alcohol abuse and expressed remorse for his crimes, according to past parole hearings.
But the board has consistently ruled that if released, he would still be a danger to society.
“By your brutal, unprovoked and merciless actions, you laid siege to a small, peaceful community and terrorized it. … This board has no doubt of the danger you pose to society and that your release would severely undermine respect for the law,” the board said in a 2007 decision, according to the Troy Record.
Pruyn, 32 at the time, was part of a family that had lived in Mechanicville for generations. Two of the city’s streets bear their last name. At the time of the shooting he lived with his wife and children in a third-floor apartment at Kennedy Garden on Main Street. The former Marine had developed a reputation as a heavy drinker according to Times Union coverage of the shooting,
It’s unclear exactly what drove Pruyn to open fire around 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 30. In the aftermath of the shooting, police said he had recently lost his job and that earlier that day, Mechanicville police Officer Paul Luther, 21, had given him a traffic ticket.
He began shooting at Joyce’s Log Cabin bar from his apartment across the street. Luther was the first officer to respond to the scene and Pruyn shot him once in the neck. He was dead by the time other officers reached him. Earlier in the day, Luther had taken the civil service exam to become a full-time officer.
The barrage continued, striking several people inside the bar, including James Marsh, 51, who died at the hospital. Several people were shot walking in to Joyce’s, unaware of where the gunfire was coming from. Another Mechanicville police officer, John Gonnelly, was hit in the face by a shotgun blast and lost an eye.
In an era before police developed deployment strategies to handle mass shootings and other major events, the response was overwhelming. At least 50 state troopers, Mechanicville officers and police from surrounding areas responded as a standoff built through the night. The police chief, Joe Ryan, was communicating with his officers via walkie-talkies. Neither Mechanicville nor the nearest State Police station had a SWAT team at the time.
As Pruyn poured gunfire out his window, shooting at buildings along the street seemingly at random, police returned fire. Law enforcement sources at the time estimated that a total of 300 shots, most of them by Pruyn, may have been fired.
Eventually bullets struck a stove in Pruyn’s apartment, starting a fire that forced him to surrender around 11 p.m. When police got inside they found a stockpile of rifles, shotguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
The “siege” as the parole board called it, shocked the Capital Region. The Times Union led its Sunday paper the next day with a front-page photo of Luther’s body draped with a sheet in front of a bullet-ridden front door.
Pruyn initially opted for a trial but eventually pleaded guilty in June 1977 to murder, attempted murder and assault and was sentenced to 25 years to life in September 1977, 11 months after the shooting. He is currently in Great Meadows Correctional Facility in Washington County.
The memory of the shooting hasn’t faded in Mechanicville. The Police Department retired Luther’s badge number and it is printed on the department’s vehicles. The high school renamed its auditorium in his memory. A park near his mother’s old home bears his name.
In a small city like Mechanicville, the murder of a police officer is especially heinous, Acting Police Chief William Rabbitt said, who wrote a letter to the parole board urging them not to release Pruyn.
“There are some acts of violence that are so reprehensible that you give up the chance of freedom when you commit them,” he said in a recent interview. “People to this day talk about it.”
The Saratoga County District Attorney’s office has also sent a letter urging the board to deny Pruyn parole.
But activists say keeping older prisoners like Pruyn in prison costs the state millions while not significantly affecting public safety.
Older prisoners are among the least likely to re-offend but that population is skyrocketing in the state’s prisons, said David George, associate director for the nonprofit Releasing Aging People in Prison.
Statistics from the state support that idea. According to a 2014 state Department of Corrections study, 6.4 percent of prisoners over the age of 50 who are released from prison return to prison for a new crime within three years, compared to 15 percent of prisoners as a whole. Over the last 20 years, the number of incarcerated older New Yorkers has more than doubled, from 4,706 to greater than 10,000.
George said keeping older prisoners locked up doesn’t serve to enhance public safety.
“We know it’s just for the purpose of retribution and revenge,” he said.
Older inmates also tend to have more health problems than the general population due to poor diet, stress and other factors, said Elizabeth Gaynes, CEO of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that works to reduce the size and impact of the state’s criminal justice system.
Gaynes said that if Pruyn had served his minimum sentence, shown remorse and personal improvement while in prison then the parole board was essentially violating the law by not releasing him.
“You cannot hold someone solely on the seriousness of their crime 40 years ago. This is just a re-sentencing,” she said. “It’s our punishment paradigm. We just love to punish people endlessly.”
In a place like Mechanicville the debate over whether to release elderly prisoners who have committed violent crimes becomes much less about criminal justice reform, health care spending and more about the ties that bind a community.
Just about everyone knew Pruyn and Luther. One of the officers who arrested Pruyn was married to his sister. Another one had been Pruyn’s high school classmate.
Luther was president of the Fire Department and a member of the rescue squad as well as a part-time officer. Standing roughly 6-foot-6, he was easy to pick out on the city’s streets, said Mechanicville Supervisor Tom Richardson, who married one of Luther’s sisters.
“(Pruyn) knew exactly who Paul was,” Richardson said. “If that happened today he’d be in jail for life, no questions asked.”
The Luther family lives with their loss and grief to this day, he said.
“You don’t know until you lived it what this family has gone through,” he said. “It’s something that just never goes away.”