Woman sentenced to life as juvenile paroled to hospice

DES MOINES (DES MOINES REGISTER) -- An Iowa inmate dying from cancer will be released from prison to spend her final days in a hospice facility, the Iowa parole board decided Tuesday.

Kristina Joy Fetters, 33, was 15 when she entered prison after a jury convicted her in the death of her great aunt Arlene Klehm, 73. Fetters' health has been poor since September, when doctors in Iowa City diagnosed her with Stage 4 inoperable breast cancer.

The board's decision to parole Fetters marks the first release of an Iowa inmate sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as a juvenile. In a ruling last year, the United States Supreme Court made such sentences illegal, putting 38 Iowa inmates on a path to a resentencing with a chance at parole.

The cancer has taken Fetters' ability to walk, and she is helped each day by trained inmates in the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women's hospice unit. Her mother, Denise Fetters, hopes to move her daughter to a hospice care facility once she is released.

Releasing Fetters from prison was the hoped-for outcome of family and friends after Polk County District Court Judge Douglas Staskal resentenced Fetters last month to make parole an option. The judge recommended the parole board release Fetters immediately because of her health.

Fetters' counselor told the board over the phone Tuesday morning that she has been accepted by Hospice Care of Central Iowa and will be put on Social Security to pay for her care.

In their decision after an hour-long review, board members had to look closely at the care she would receive if released.

"Not only are we worried about public safety, we're also concerned about her safety," said board member Doris Kelley.

Board chair Jason Carlstrom initially told board members that he didn't support releasing Fetters.

Des Moines oncologist Dr. Robert Shreck reviewed Fetters' medical records ahead of the review and told the board that, though still experiencing pain, Fetters has responded to hormone therapy treatment that began in October.

A tumor in Fetters' breast has reduced in size, and doctors can assume that cancer cells in her bones also will have shrunk, Shreck said. Despite her improvement, Fetters' condition probably remains incurable, and it's impossible to make an estimate of how long she could live, Shreck said.

Shreck told the board that in his 34 years in practice he's had patients who have responded well to therapy and lived for several years after a cancer diagnosis. Carlstrom said he'd like to see how Fetters continues to respond to treatment instead of granting a parole.

"I would recommend or throw out to the board that perhaps we should wait a little while to see what happens with the treatment for Ms. Fetters," he said. "Her response to treatment may change the kind of re-entry plans that need to be made for her."

Board members Kelley and W. Thomas Phillips, however, disagreed with Carlstrom and argued for a "compassionate release." Though Fetters was not a "model inmate" -- she's had eight disciplinary write-ups since 2007 -- there are signs she's taken responsibility for her great-aunt's death, Phillips said.

The state's doctor at the Mitchellville women's prison also agreed that the care would be better in a hospice facility, Kelley said.

"She could get better care, although the care is good at Mitchellville, she could get better care at hospice," she said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said the board's decision means Fetters will probably be paroled within the next two weeks. She'll be assigned a parole officer by the district court, and will not be permitted to leave the hospice facility.

If Fetters' condition ever improved to the point where she could leave hospice, the board would be able to revisit the case to make a decision on her release, Carlstrom said.

Fetters was in an Iowa City hospital on Monday because of severe pain she experienced over the weekend.

The board's review of Fetters' file attracted more attention than a typical inmate's file review and the room was filled with Fetters' supporters. Darcy Olson, Fetters' aunt, told board members that the family was hopeful they'd release Fetters.

"It's now time for my family to have closure," Olson said. "Kris's impending death cannot be denied, and while there has been negative comments, we believe, as the victims, that this family has suffered enough."


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