'He was coming home': Michigan prisoner who served 44 years died from coronavirus days before release

Posted at 7:12 AM, Apr 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-22 07:12:50-04

Yolanda Peterson says she had prepared a room in her Michigan home for her brother, eagerly anticipating his release from prison after serving 44 years for a murder that initially got him a sentence of life without parole when he was barely old enough to drive.

On April 12, she said a parole agent inspected her suburban Detroit residence and deemed it a suitable place for 60-year-old William Garrison to live.

"He was looking forward to getting out," Peterson told ABC News of her older brother. "He wanted to work as an advocate for people in jail. He was a very knowledgable person. He had a lot going on. He helped a lot of prisoners, reviewing their cases. He got people out of jail."

But a day after the parole agent visited Peterson's home, Garrison died at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township, Michigan, and a postmortem test confirmed he had contracted the novel coronavirus, prison officials said.

His death came just 24 days before he likely would have been released.

"I'm grieving right now," Peterson said on Tuesday while adhering to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's statewide coronavirus stay-at-home orders. "I'm the only person who closely stood with my brother for 44 years and walked this road with him. We're heartbroken because he was coming home. Justice should be served because my brother shouldn't have died."

At the age of 16, Garrison was convicted of murder for gunning down a 50-year-old man during a 1976 home-invasion robbery, a mistake his sister said "he repented for over and over again." However, her brother, she said, had felt the courts had done him an injustice by making him a juvenile lifer.

After the U.S. Supreme Court banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2018, Garrison was resentenced in January to a term of 40 to 90 years. By then he had already served more than his minimum sentence.

Garrison rejects offer of early parole

Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the case is even more heartbreaking because the state parole board had granted Garrison early parole back in February before the first cases of coronavirus appeared in Michigan, but he refused to accept it. He decided to wait out the remainder of his sentence, which, at that time, would have ended on Sept. 4, Gautz said, noting that Garrison had been awarded more than 7,000 days of "good time" credits.

"What he told the board was, 'I would rather stay in here until September and walk out a completely free man rather than walk out right now and be on parole and have to report to a parole agent and have to go through all that,'" Gautz told ABC News.

But when the first presumptive cases of COVID-19 were announced in Michigan in early March, corrections officials began scrambling to reduced the state prison population, anticipating that social distancing would be tough to accomplish in packed prison cellblocks.

"We started proactively looking for individuals who were elderly, who might be more prone to contracting the virus. So, he popped up on our list," Gautz said. "We went to him again and said, 'Hey look, we tried to parole you before and you didn't want to go, but now that this virus is here and you're over the age of 60, and the experts say that you're more prone to get it, we'd like to consider you for parole again.'"

This time, Garrison accepted the offer.

But before he could be paroled, corrections officials were obligated to send a letter to prosecutors in the county where Garrison was convicted of murder advising them of his impending release. The letter was sent on April 8, giving the Wayne County prosecutor 28 days to appeal, Gautz said.