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Robb case may bring about change in Pa. parole hearings

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 05 2013 06:00:00 PM CST
Updated On: Mar 07 2013 05:54:43 AM CST

Crime victims may get a bigger say over when their attackers get out of prison, thanks to one of our area's most violent killings.

Crime victims may get a bigger say over when their attackers get out of prison, thanks to one of our area's most violent killings.

The crime shocked hardened cops and intrigued the nation -- an Ivy League professor accused of beating his wife to death with an exercise bar.  It happened in their posh Montgomery County home just days before Christmas 2006.

"There was police tape everywhere and I immediately knew that something horrific had occurred," remembered Ellen's brother, Gary Gregory.  "I was actually driving up to the house as they were putting her body into the ambulance."

University of Pennsylvania professor Rafael Robb eventually pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for the crime.  After just five years in prison, Robb was granted parole -- a decision her family had little say in.

"This criminal was going to be set free in spite of all that feedback," he said.

The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole heard from Ellen's killer in person, but not her family.  State law didn't require them to.

"Victims across Pennsylvania were not being given their rights," said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman.  "Their voices were not being heard."

Wednesday, a coalition of cops, prosecutors, and lawmakers proposed a new law to change that.  House Bill 492 would require the parole board to hear direct testimony from any crime victim, either in person or by video.

Right now, it's up to the board whether to hear testimony.

"The same right that the criminal has had all along is now going to be given to our victims," said Pa. Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery Co., a former cop sponsoring the bill.

The plan even has support from the Pennsylvania parole board's chairman, as well as new state attorney general Kathleen Kane.

"What this bill does is show that the weight of a victim's testimony is heavy, and it doesn't stop at any certain point in time in our judicial system," Kane said.

Vereb said the bill has bipartisan support.  He expects it to pass the House Judiciary Committee next Tuesday, and hit the full state House for a vote the following week.

"This bill is on the fast track," he said.  "Our entire leadership team, from the Speaker all the way down to yours truly, is on board with this bill."

Parole board chairman Michael Potteiger said his agency is still working out exactly how the new system would work.

"The commonwealth is big, and one thing that we've been exploring is, how we have to implement that process," he said.

Potteiger only expects 10 to 20 victims to request in-person testimony each month, but Gregory believes it will make a difference in high profile cases like Robb's.

"It allows people to come forward and directly state their feelings in a visible, tangible manner, and I believe that's going to have a tremendous impact."

In Rafael Robb's case, the parole board reversed its decision after a public outcry.

"And that outcry grew," said Gregory.  "How could this individual be set free?"

Robb is up for parole again in September 2014.