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Old state sentencing system reopens wounds between families in cop-killer case

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Updated: August 2, 2013 7:25AM

Since he was a boy, Chicago Police Officer Kurt Kaner had dreamed of avenging his father’s murder.

In 2008, he got his chance.

Bruce Sharp — who killed Kaner’s father, Chicago Police Officer Kenneth Kaner in 1970 — was brought into a waiting room at the Dixon Correctional Center.

A few feet away sat Kurt Kaner.

It was a mistake.

The guards were supposed to separate Sharp from anyone coming to the prison to protest his parole request — people like Kaner.

The men did not speak. But as they studied each other, Kaner, trained in jujitsu, considered strangling Sharp, right there.

“He looked like a skinny guy,” Kaner said. “I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity to kill him.’ I knew once I got on top of this guy and got him in a choke, I’m not letting go and I can probably kill him right here if I want to.”

But he couldn’t do it.

“I thought of what it would do to my family and my career in law enforcement and what my father stood for — and I wasn’t about to put my family through that,” he said.

It was yet another traumatic episode in a drama played out across decades between two cop families.

Kaner’s family and Sharp’s brother — retired Chicago Police Officer Tyrone Sharp — have been locked in battle before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The Kaners argue Bruce Sharp should stay behind bars. And Tyrone Sharp, who retired to Florida, says his brother deserves parole after spending 43 years in prison.

Their struggle is a product of Illinois’ former “indeterminate” sentencing system.

Under the system, judges sentenced convicts to a range of years in prison. The inmates eventually qualified for regular parole hearings, which are reoccurring nightmares for the families of the victims and the convicts alike.

“Sometimes [board members] want to retry these cases and that does an injustice to everyone involved, whether it’s the offender’s family or the victim’s family, because it’s already gone through the court system,” Kaner said.

Indeterminate sentencing was scrapped in 1978 in favor of fixed sentences and parole dates.

But Sharp and 236 other “C class” inmates like notorious killer Patty Columbo, who murdered her parents and brother, continue to serve indeterminate sentences.

And the Illinois Prisoner Review Board will continue to hear their parole requests until they reach their mandatory parole date.

Bruce Sharp is serving a sentence of 30 to 125 years in prison. He has argued for his freedom at annual parole hearings from 1979 to 2009. Then they were staggered for three-year periods at Kaner’s request.

His next parole hearing is in 2015 — and his projected discharge date is 2023.

Cop killers like Sharp are perhaps the most controversial of inmates seeking parole.

Before every hearing for Sharp, the prisoner review board receives dozens of letters from officers, prosecutors and regular citizens across the nation opposing parole for him. Even former DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett, whose office wasn’t involved in the case, wrote letters.

During his first decade of hearings, Sharp didn’t win many votes from the board because he had a poor disciplinary record.

Also, not enough time had passed since he walked up to Kenneth Kaner’s squad car, said “Hi, officer,” and fired a sawed-off shotgun at his head. Sharp confessed at the urging of his police officer brother, saying the plan was to “embarrass” Kaner and steal his gun and badge — not kill him.

In a recent interview at Dixon Correctional Center, Bruce Sharp told the Chicago Sun-Times that he was angry during his initial years in prison as he battled to survive.

Unlike many prisoners, though, Sharp has a loving family that never stopped supporting him, with older brother Tyrone visiting him regularly in prison early on and later talking to him by phone after he retired to Florida.

“He was older than me and he was always my hero,” Bruce Sharp said. “I saw how this hurt the person I most respected and loved.”

Bruce Sharp said he grew up in prison.

He had graduated from college months before the killing and started taking classes in prison, learning carpentry, plumbing, masonry and television repair.

A former college basketball player, he coached teams in prison and also volunteered as a drug counselor and health-care instructor.

In 2005, the board commented on his “excellent institutional adjustment.” That year, he came the closest to winning parole, receiving five votes — just three shy of the eight he needed for a majority of the 15-member board.

That’s when police Supt. Phil Cline stepped in.

Cline, who ran the department from 2003 to 2007, organized buses of officers to attend parole hearings for cop killers in Springfield. After he retired, Cline became director of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, dedicated to fallen officers.

“Our feeling is that cop killers should never be released from prison,” Cline said, calling Kenneth Kaner’s death a “brutal murder.”

Cline’s action was the turning point against Bruce Sharp in his parole hearings, Kurt Kaner said.

Sharp started losing votes. And the board was reconstituted to include more former officers and prosecutors, who were less likely to grant parole to a cop killer like Sharp.

“Momentum was in his favor, and I snatched it right out of his hands with Phil Cline’s help,” Kaner said.

The battle between the cop families — the Kaners and the Sharps — came to a head in 2009 at a hearing in Springfield.

Kaner argued that he should not have another parole hearing until three years later, a move allowed by law.

Up to that time, Sharp was granted annual hearings.

“My family has been going through this ordeal since the early 1980s,” Kaner said. “The one thing that comes to mind is cruel and unis usual punishment. Unfortunately that only applies to offenders. It doesn’t apply to victims.”

The board approved Kaner’s request for parole hearings every three years for Sharp.

But that wasn’t Bruce Sharp’s only setback.

Sharp had told the board he helped the Kaners when he testified in a lawsuit that Kenneth Kaner’s widow, Pauline, brought against the federal government seeking death benefits.

“I started my efforts towards redemption by doing what very little I could to help the Kaner family after causing them so much pain,” Sharp told the board. “I was contacted by the Kaners to try to help them in their efforts to obtain the financial assistance they so rightly deserved. I instantly agreed. I testified about my crime and acknowledged the wrong I’ve committed.”

Kaner’s mother was awarded $50,000, her daughter $19,000 and Kurt Kaner, $16,000.

But at the 2009 parole hearing, Kurt Kaner rejected the notion that Sharp had helped his family by simply telling the truth about his crime.

“Bruce Sharp can do something if he’d like to help my family out. He can stop asking for parole,” Kaner told the parole board.

After the hearing, Tyrone Sharp confronted Kaner.

“He said Bruce had nothing to do with his mother getting the money. . . . I said, ‘All I ask is that we tell the truth,’ ” Sharp said in an interview from his Florida home.

Kaner responded that he did tell the truth.

Tyrone Sharp “was very frustrated because at that point the tide was changing,” Kaner said.

Tyrone Sharp said he’s now resigned to seeing his brother serve out his entire term — even though more than a dozen other cop killers have been paroled after spending less time in prison.

Jorge Montes, the former chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, said he regularly voted for Bruce Sharp’s parole, but he doesn’t think Sharp will get out before his mandatory parole date despite his good prison record.

“If you are a cop killer, you have to perform miracles,” he said of the current board’s view. “There is nothing a cop killer can do to get out.”

Montes acknowledged that some board members “changed their votes because there was incredible pressure by the police lobby to ensure these people never get out.”

Kaner said he’s sorry Sharp couldn’t have been sentenced to life in prison under the old system.

“When he’s released, I don’t know how I’m going to react,” Kaner said.

“It’s a horrible situation to think about justice and whether it was served. Not really, not if he walks out. He still has his family. He still has his brother. He still has his life.”

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