The South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted parole for Jennis Hofer, one of three inmates in the state to ever be considered for a compassionate parole hearing.
Hofer, 81, is serving life in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter in 1984 for shooting and killing Andrew Wipf Sr. and Andrew Wipf Jr. His parole was granted in a 5-4 vote from the board during a Zoom conference Thursday. He is expected to return home to family in Tea once he is released, his attorney Raleigh Hansman said.
“Jennis is grateful to the Board of pardons and Parole for granting him the opportunity to die at home,” Hansman said on behalf of the Hofer family. “The board’s decision, however, is not without recognition of the immeasurable pain that the victims continue to experience. It is Jennis and the Hofer family’s sincere hope that everyone impacted by his actions in 1984 can find peace.”
Hofer was unanimously denied by the board in November 2019. State law allowed him to be considered again in a year’s time, but increased concern of COVID-19 led Hofer’s attorney to request a sooner hearing.
That request, too, was denied in April.
But more than 1,800 incarcerated people and an unknown number of prison staff have tested positive for the virus since September.
The board granted his parole this time because he does not bare a risk to the public, and the cost to keep him incarcerated with multiple, increasing medical conditions did not equal the interest in keeping him behind bars for public safety, board members said.
Hofer recovered from COVID-19 within the last 10 days after contracting it in prison, and though he’s been declared clear from being able to spread the virus, he still has what’s known as the :COVID cough” and difficulty breathing, which has exacerbated his other medical conditions, Hansman argued.
A cursory review of Hofer’s medical records also show he’s gone from weighing 160 to roughly 140 pounds in recent weeks, and is considered weak and shaky, she said. He has atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure and diabetes, taking more than 30 pills daily, she said. He also made three separate visits to the Avera Heart Hospital and has had ongoing issues with his lungs, she said.
His heart is working at about 40%, she said.
“This is somebody who is slowly dying,” she argued. “There’s no chance that he’s going to get better. There’s no chance that any medication, treatment or surgery that’s going to make those conditions any better.”
It isn’t that he doesn’t have significant quantity of life left, but that his quality of life is also “incredibly” thin, she said, adding he will likely need even further medical intervention, assistance and continuation of care.
The intent for compassionate parole is to “provide a means of early release for seriously ill or infirm inmates and aged inmates prior to their original parole eligibility date,” according to the South Dakota Department of Corrections website.
To be considered for compassionate parole, a medical provider or warden may refer an inmate to the secretary of corrections for consideration. The inmate must be seriously ill and not likely to recover, require extensive medical care, be at least 65 years old and have served at least 10 consecutive years of their sentence. Or, the inmate must be at least 70 years old, served at least 30 years of their sentence and isn’t serving a capital punishment sentence.
In Hofer’s case, he was referred for parole by South Dakota State Penitentiary Warden Darin Young, Argus Leader archives show.
Board member Gregg Gass called the case tough, and told Hofer he was a “broken, old man.” He voted his conscience after using his best judgement, he said.
“My judgement in this case tells me that Mr. Hofer committed evil acts, that he was prideful, that he kept a list of his enemies,” Gass said. “That his goal in life was to get even for alleged offenses and that he blamed those he perceived as enemies for his problems.”
Hofer deserves everything he gets, Gass said. But Gass also said Hofer had changed over the more than 30 years he had been in prison, with absolutely no-write-ups, adding he thinks Hofer is remorseful for his actions.
“While my head tells me he should get everything he deserves, my heart tells me that this is the time for compassion,” Gass said as he made the first motion for Hofer’s parole to pass.
Before the vote though, Deputy Attorney General Robert Mayer spoke on the behalf of the victims’ widow and daughter-in-law Laura Pankratz, urging the board for that compassion to swing a different direction.
“If she were here, she would tell you that she opposes this as hard and as compassionate as she can,” Mayer said, adding she’s experienced a lifelong burden of sadness and sorrow. “My response to her would be that we stand behind her 1,000% wholeheartedly and compassionately.”
More than 30 years in prison might be enough for time for someone who took one life, but Hofer took two, Mayer said. Pankratz struggled to speak through her tears when she joined the hearing later, and said she trusted the board to “decide justly.”
Other board members argued in Hofer’s favor, stating he was a minimum risk and the fact that Hofer had no other criminal history and was not a repeat offender with his actions benefited his case, while at least one board member Ed Ligtenberg said outloud that his compassion remained with the victims.
Hansman said Hofer’s daughter Michelle Thranmun already has a basement level apartment ready for him and that the family has agreed to be responsible for anything that needs to be compensated for. The family also has an open-door policy for court services, law enforcement and those who would want to check in on Hofer during the week, the attorney said.
Hofer will also have zero access to firearms, Hansman said.
Board members also asked Hofer to offer one sentence describing who he is today.
“Today, I’m a mellow, compassionate, tired old person who wants to live in peace with everybody and anybody i come in contact with,” Hofer stated. “I want no problems in my life, and I regret what happened. I wish I could change it. They were relatives of mine. I didn’t want them gone. I didn’t want this to happen, and if I could change it, I definitely would.”