A Knox County man convicted of murdering his mother in a high-profile cold case is now up for parole after just a few years in prison.
The cold case of the September 1986 stabbing death of Bobbie Lou Hill was finally cracked in 2012 with the arrest of her only son, Billy Ray Hill. A jury convicted Billy Ray Hill in 2014 of second degree murder and he was sentenced to 24 years in prison with a minimum sentence of 20 years.
Cold case coverage focuses heavily on the years of work to make an arrest and then convict the criminal. Sending a convict to prison may seem like a tidy conclusion, but the reality is years of work are still required to keep the criminal behind bars.
That reality came as a surprise to Bobbie Lou Hill's sister, Joyce Long. She was in the courtroom in 2014 when the judge sentenced her nephew to at least a couple of decades in prison. Just three years later, Long made the trip from Fentress County to Knoxville to speak at a parole hearing for Billy Ray Hill.
"We're really surprised when we go in a court room at a trial and we hear the judge. We think that is it, but it's not," said Long. "I wish Tennessee would pass a 'truth in sentencing' bill like other states have where people actually serve the amount of time the judge says. I have healed and then this just makes everything fresh in my mind again. It affects the victims."
Although parole is unlikely at this point after such a short amount of time served, the Tennessee Department of Corrections calculated Billy Ray Hill was technically eligible for an initial parole hearing. TDOC then notifies the Board of Parole, which is a separate state agency from the department of corrections.
Thursday morning's parole hearing was held via video-conference. Hill connected from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary where he is imprisoned. A voting member of the parole board connected from an office in Nashville. Joyce Long was joined by a group of supporters at the conference room in Knoxville. Joan and Mike Berry with the organization HOPE for Victims sat beside Long during the hearing. Long was also joined by the state director of victim services, Tina Fox, and a couple of employees from the Knox County District Attorney's office.
Parole board members consider several factors when deciding if someone should be released, including the seriousness of the crime, the amount of time served, input from victims, and the inmate's record of behavior while in prison.
For nearly 30 minutes, Joyce Long listened to her nephew deny responsibility for his run-ins while in prison. Billy Ray Hill's file shows he is affiliated with the Aryan Nations prison gang and was recently written up for possession of a deadly weapon.
"I have no reason to have a knife. It wasn't mine," said Hill.
Joyce Long then listened to Hill deny the murder committed when he was a 19-year-old that eventually landed him in prison in his 40s.
"Now I'm in prison in West Tennessee for something I didn't do based on statements, lies that were told," said Hill. "I sit in here in front of you an innocent man."
The parole board member repeatedly explained to Hill the hearing was not to retry his case. Hill has already been convicted by a jury, completed the appeals process, and had his conviction upheld.
Joyce Long is then allowed to weigh in on the criminal and crime that weighed so heavily on her for a quarter-century, speaking to the parole board member. Long is unable to address Hill directly, but Hill can see and hear her speak.
"He is still playing the blame game. He never does anything wrong. I was praying today that he would take some blame," said Long to the parole board member. "My sister tried hard to help him. She did. She was a very loving mother. He was a very bad son. He never shed one tear for his mother or showed any remorse. I am here to try to protect somebody else if he is released."
Long concluded her comments by saying she wants Hill to receive treatment and take responsibility for his actions.
"He needs mental help. I pray for him and I will continue to pray for him. And I pray for anybody if you let him out. I'd really have to pray," said Long.
The parole board member only needed a few minutes to make her decision, telling Hill she could not grant parole and would wait the maximum six years before rehearing his case.
Thursday's vote was just the first step to deny Hill parole. Hill's case now proceeds to another member of the seven-member parole board. The case goes to one board member at a time. Voting stops when there are four votes that agree on whether to grant or deny parole as well as the length of time before his next hearing. The voting process usually takes a couple of weeks to finalize a decision.
Joyce Long said it was worth the trip to Knoxville to state her case. She was pleased the first vote was to deny Hill's parole and delay his next parole hearing as long as possible.
"I'm glad I came to hear what she said. If it is six years before the next one, I don't know where I'll be in six years. I guess it will be up to God to make sure someone is here. I'll be here if I can. Releasing him would be terrible and this is not the time. It may never be. I don't know."
HOPE for Victims - July Meeting
Joan and Mike Berry attended Thursday's hearing to provide moral support to Joyce Long. The Berry family became advocates for victims in the years since their daughter, Johnia Berry, was stabbed to death in 2004. The Berrys' efforts include forming the group HOPE for Victims.
On Tuesday, July 25, 2017, HOPE invites anyone to attend a guest speaker event with Tina Fox, the director of state victim services in Tennessee. The event will be held at Grace Presbyterian Church, 1610 Midpark Road, in Knoxville. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. You can find more information on the organization and its events at the HOPE for Victims Facebook page.