Killer’s early release in pastor’s 1993 slaying sparks outrage

| September 7, 2009

Sixteen years ago this month, Dean Kernodle watched in horror as Elizabeth Mayberry gunned down the pastor at his Hendricks County church.

Today, Kernodle is outraged that Mayberry will be released in a few weeks after serving 16 years of the 60-year sentence a judge gave her for the murder of the Rev. Roland "Ron" Phillips Jr.

"She was sentenced to 60 years, and they’ve trimmed it down to something that amounts to petty theft," said Kernodle, 84, North Salem. "She was the instrument of the devil. She could be anybody she wanted to be, but she was a woman from hell."

Mayberry was convicted in June 1994 for killing Phillips, 36, in front of his congregation at North Salem United Methodist Church after he had spurned a romantic relationship with her. The case drew national attention and put a spotlight on Indiana’s handling of people who claim to be mentally ill while committing murder.

Now, the case is putting renewed focus on sentencing policies that allow some people to be released early from prison for good behavior and for getting an education while behind bars.

Mayberry, 52, who is scheduled to be released from the Indiana Women’s Prison on Sept. 17, declined to speak to The Star about her case. Her family and lawyer at the time could not be reached for comment.

Mayberry’s release comes as no comfort to Phillips’ family members.

"I think everybody should know, because she had no remorse 15 years ago and she doesn’t have any now," said Stephanie Hale, Phillips’ sister.

Mayberry, of Bloomington, had met Phillips at a church-sponsored singles’ retreat in 1992. Church members said Phillips and Mayberry had dated the previous year, but Phillips, then a candidate for the ministry, ended the relationship. She later filed a complaint with the United Methodist Church, alleging that Phillips had engaged in sexual misconduct. In May 1993, the United Methodist Church Committee on Ordained Ministry ruled that Phillips could continue in his role as student pastor.

Mayberry testified during her trial that Phillips’ rejection left her devastated, causing her to lose her faith in God. She bought a gun, learned how to fire it and on Sept. 19, 1993, drove to the North Salem church.

"I wanted somebody to see me die," she testified at her trial. "I had been part of a lie, a part of his lie."

In church, Phillips had announced the last song when Mayberry entered, reached into her purse, drew a .38-caliber revolver and shot Phillips three times. His daughter Rachel screamed, "Don’t let my daddy die!" as church members swarmed Mayberry and disarmed her.

Psychiatrists who testified at Mayberry’s weeklong trial disagreed about whether she was insane when she killed Phillips. A Hendricks County jury found Mayberry guilty but mentally ill, and the presiding judge, Mary Lee Comer, gave her the maximum 60-year sentence.

Later, the Indiana Supreme Court reduced the sentence to 40 years. The court ruled on an appeal in 1996 that Mayberry was mentally ill at the time she shot Phillips, which should have been considered a mitigating factor in her sentence.

Like all Indiana prison inmates, Mayberry also benefited from standard Department of Correction procedures that allow a day off a sentence for every day of good behavior. Inmates with a clean record behind bars typically serve only half the sentence a judge gives them.

Inmates can earn further reductions in their sentences by obtaining college degrees while they’re in prison. Mayberry completed studies in vocation printing and drafting, and received an associate’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in general education.

Those educational accomplishments earned her the maximum four years of credit time that the DOC allows.

The idea of education credit for Indiana inmates goes back to the 1980s. Leslie Duvall, a former member of the Indiana Senate, advanced the idea during the years he served on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Lightening a sentence to improve themselves behind bars, I still favor that," said Duvall, now 85. "My fingerprints are all over that legislation. It’s an option the DOC has for self-improvement."

In the 2008-09 school year, the Department of Correction had 3,301 inmates taking college classes; 940 received degrees and credit time on their sentences.

Getting a college degree in prison improves the chances for prisoners to succeed once their sentence has expired, according to an inmate advocate.

"The best guarantee of reducing recidivism is education," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. "Education is in effect a way to empower yourself. You see that you have a choice and an option other than the depressing cycle of crime."

Prosecutors across Indiana have complained that some inmates have taken college courses more to have time subtracted from their sentences than to prepare themselves for life beyond prison, said Stephen Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Although there’s no hint of a problem with Mayberry’s accomplishments, prosecutors have worried about inmates misusing the education credits to get more time off their sentences than they deserve.

The whole system of good time and credit time, along with the possibility of sentence reduction through appeals, makes it hard for prosecutors to tell victims’ families how long a defendant will stay in prison, Johnson said.

This means little to those who were in the sanctuary, saw the shooting and think Mayberry’s sentence should not be ending.

"She was very much sane, if anyone is when they kill another person except in self-defense," Kernodle said. "She should have been there much longer."

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