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Robbery case leads to Catch-22 prison time for parolee, even if exonerated

Peter C. Roby

When Larry Bland was sentenced to more than 30 years in state prison for a non-violent robbery in 1991, he vowed to transform his life. Behind bars, he studied and got certified to work in wastewater management. Granted parole in 2010, he got a job on Cape Cod, a partner, an apartment and a dog.

“Things were going good for me,” he reminisced from the Barnstable County Correctional Facility in February.

That ended in 2019 when he was accused of a stick-up at an ice cream store in Yarmouth. A bandit had made off with $5,000 in cash, and Bland says he was falsely charged with the crime. A questionable identification made from surveillance footage of a Black suspect and the discovery of a knife in Bland’s possession — key bits of evidence in the original charges — have both been deemed inadmissible in court.

In the meantime, Bland’s parole had been scheduled to terminate in September 2021, freeing him from correctional supervision. But today, at age 60, Bland is awaiting trial in July, having served almost three years in a cell beyond the end-date of his parole because he has been unable to make bail.

Even if he is exonerated, Bland may remain behind bars for another two years, which represents the remaining time on his parole at the time of his arrest. In a classic legal Catch-22, Bland’s inability to make bail left him unable to finish out his parole term. If he had been able to do that, an exoneration on the current charge would secure his liberty.

After his arrest in 2019, the judge, citing Bland’s status as a parolee, set a high bail, which Bland was unable to raise.

A parole “detainer” was filed against Bland, signifying a probable parole violation. The detainer places a 15-day hold on parolees accused of violating terms of their conditional release. A detainer, also known as a “warrant for temporary custody,” is followed by a “warrant for permanent custody” — the final step before full revocation of parole, which can only take place after the resolution of the court case that triggered the process in the first place.

According to state court documents provided by Bland, a hearing was held and a recommendation made for revocation of parole. But no record of the warrant for permanent custody appears in Bland’s case file.

Subsequent bail orders also denied him a bail reduction but dropped any mention of parole. The Commonwealth never argued that Bland was dangerous.

Bland had hoped to make bail and start serving his parole sentence. He felt a twinge of spite at the denial.

“I would have made bail, gone up state,” he said, and “still have to face the music.”

His lawyer, Paul Lonardo-Roy, said, “Bail is not punitive. It’s about showing up to court.”

Parole revocation less rigorous than trial

By design, parole revocation proceedings do not rely on the same standards of evidence as jury trials. Parole revocation is a lower bar. Detainers are the first step, after which, “you have a preliminary hearing to see if there’s prima facie evidence of you violating the term and conditions of parole,” explained Anthony Ellison, a private attorney.

The Parole Board can issue a parole violation warrant after the hearing. A full parole hearing ultimately settles the revocation.

The preliminary revocation hearing allows evidence that might be inadmissible in court, like hearsay, said Ellison. For him, the due process of these hearings is “as minimal as you can get.”

Past problems haunt his defense

Bland’s reentry on parole was largely unproblematic. After the arrest, his parole officer wrote that Bland was “mostly compliant since his release in 2010.”

Bland had maintained the same job since 2014 and had only received four warnings in nine years on parole. Years before the arrest, he’d missed a counseling session and two payments for parole supervision and ordered a beer at a bar in Hyannis before noticing his parole officer sitting nearby. Special conditions on Bland’s parole required sobriety.

But, considering the new accusations, the parole officer said that Bland had “slipped back into his old criminal behavior” and that he “is a serious threat to public safety.”

At his preliminary hearing, Bland argued he had no need to commit a robbery, since he had a job. His income, he said, explained the $295 he carried with him. And, he said, similarities of his clothes and knife to the suspect were a coincidence.

Since the hearing, his legal defense has won a series of small victories, with elements of the prosecution’s case being tossed.

The identification of the knife in Bland’s possession was ruled to be based on a “highly suggestive” presentation by lead detective Colin Kelley. Kelley showed witnesses to the robbery the closed knife’s handle, but they had mostly seen the blade.

The parole officer’s identification was also tossed. Even though he met with Bland monthly, he had been unable to identify the suspect from photos for 20 minutes, only recognizing the resemblance when provided Bland’s name.

Without these IDs, Bland’s link to the robbery was weakened. Moreover, the two Barnstable arresting officers both knew him in childhood and were familiar with his run-ins with the law. One had recently run into Bland and compared the surveillance photos to a Facebook profile picture. The other hadn’t seen Bland in 35 years.

“This is a case of misidentification, essentially, where the people who were robbed do not identify Larry Bland as the person who robbed them,” argued Lonardo-Roy.

Generally, said Bland’s counsel, “there’s always a risk of the court system looking at” prior criminal offenses “and drawing adverse conclusions. Now, that’s where all the protections of a jury trial come into place.”

“We have strong evidence of his innocence and he maintains his innocence,” said the public defender, “and yet he has been held in custody without any finding of guilt since 2019.”

Reaction to surveillance justified arrest

The police followed Larry after work on the night of his arrest. He drove circuitously to a liquor store in Yarmouth. Admittedly, his 2010 parole required sobriety.

Police say his clothing matched that of the robbery suspect two nights earlier. They also said Bland stared at them.

Bland’s behavior, termed “counter-surveillance” by police, piqued their suspicions. The state argued Bland was assessing their surveillance. When he ran a red light, officers moved in.

Bland was compliant when stopped. Driving Bland’s car away, an officer discovered a knife and marijuana. The warrantless search would later be admitted under the doctrine of inevitable discovery.

Bland’s future is undecided

Bland understands his predicament. He said a realization hit him on “day one” of his second prison sentence.

“When you get sentenced to that kind of time, you realize you got to change the way you’re living,” Bland reflected.

He recalls parole fondly.

“I had a lot at stake,” he said of his condo, Camaro, professional title and German shepherd.

His job in wastewater treatment was a source of stability. Bland said he was promoted to chief operator at the plant.

Bland’s sister, Mary, recalled, “He was working. He had a very good job and he rose up in that job.” While incarcerated, she said, her brother “went to college and really turned his life around for the better.”

At work, he earned a pay bump in a leadership program — a stepping-stone to project management, he said. He is proud of his professional license and education: “I worked hard to obtain that.”

Bland is anticipating the opportunity to work in wastewater treatment again someday.

“I want to get back in the field and see how far that can take me,” he said. “There’s unlimited potential.”

He’s keeping an open mind but remains realistic about his hurdles ahead.

“I’m not saying I was an angel or anything,” he confessed.

Mary speaks with him weekly.

“I do feel he’s being judged on his past,” she said, “rather than the person he is today.”

Larry Bland, parole