Tragedy's Effect On Families

Emotions Run Deep As Killer Gets Parole

By Barbara Carmen
March 15, 2005

Two families sat on opposite sides of an aisle, not glancing one another's way, as the Ohio Parole Board considered the case of murderer Shawn Keffer.

One was hoping a son could finally come home after 25 years. The other was there to remind the board that another son never would.

Yesterday, after nearly an hour of testimony, at times gruesome, tearful and dryly legal, the parole board retired to discuss the case.

Its members returned after about 20 minutes. Left unsaid was whether the nine had, as urged, opened manila envelopes that a victims' advocate had given them and looked for a full minute at the autopsy photos of Brian Dennis.

Keffer, high on PCP, had argued with Dennis during a party on the Hilltop on the night of April 11, 1980. He followed the 19-year-old down an alley, shot off the right side of his face, stabbed him 72 times, bludgeoned him with a concrete block and covered his body with trash bags.

"My brother's life counted for something," Brenda Pennewitt, Dennis' sister told the parole board. "Brian was a sweet and loving soul."

She took a deep breath as the chairman announced the board's decision: Keffer will go free May 11.

Then she crumbled. Her wail of pain could be heard across the room. Keffer's mother also began to cry. She, too, has carried a burden all these years.

"They did offer Shawn a deal, a plea bargain. I'm the one who told him not to take it," Toni Keffer, of Tampa, Fla., said. "I told him not to plead guilty to something he didn't remember doing. He'd have been out in seven years. It's my fault."

One murder. Two families. Many tears.

"My family was destroyed by this," Pennewitt told the board. "My mother never slept through the entire night for 23 years until she died of cancer last year.

Every morning, at 3 a.m., the time she found out that Brian was killed, she woke up. Every night. On her deathbed, she asked me to keep fighting."

Four times, Pennewitt and her family had blocked Keffer's parole. This time, Keffer won.

Now 45, he has been an obedient prisoner, has accepted responsibility for his crime and has shown remorse, the board said.

Keffer's father, Robert, said his son will move into his West Side home and put to use construction and welding skills he learned in prison. "He wants to be with his daughter, grandchild and stepson. He told me, 'Dad, I need to start earning money,'" Mr. Keffer said. "He wants to build a life."

The elder Keffer described a son who was fun but troubled. He had put the boy in drug treatment.

Stephen W. Daulton, who prosecuted Shawn Keffer, told the board yesterday that he thinks PCP played a huge role in the brutality of the crime. The former assistant Franklin County prosecutor supported his release. He said Keffer has served a fair sentence.

The average time served by an Ohio prisoner convicted of aggravated murder is 25.9 years. Someone convicted of the crime under today's sentencing requirements would seve a minimum of 20 years before being able to request parole.

Pennewitt said she had only a few weeks' notice to try to block Keffer's release this time. She learned in late November that the state had planned to release him in December, and she immediately launched a fight to block the parole, with the help of victims' advocate Bret Vinocur of stopviolentcrime.com.

In testimony yesterday,, Vinocur emphasized the brutality of the murder and reminded the parole board of its past mistakes. He brought as audience members several relatives of several crime victims, including Dave Swaer, whose mother was killed in suburban Cincinnati by a convicted murderer who had been paroled just three months earlier.

Vinocur said he will ask Gov. Bob Taft to investigate whether the parole board is letting out too many violent criminals.

Shawn Keffer, who is in London Correctionsl Institution, was not at the hearing. His attorney, Madry Ellis, said Keffer was happy with the decision but not surprised. He has changed, Ellis said. And Keffer "chose not to retaliate after being stabbed in prison."

Keffer also brought a program to Ohio prisons that allows prisoners to meet crime victims, to realize the pain they have caused.


In Memory of Raymond Henry Montavon
October 25, 1920 - July 7, 2001