The McHenry County judge who Thursday granted a conditional release to a man who raped and murdered a 3-year-old girl in 1962 defended the ruling Friday, saying despite her personal reluctance to let the man go it was required under the law.
Judge Sharon Prather said her decision to grant child killer Gary Welsh some freedom was necessary under the same law she has used to keep him locked up since 2004, when state prison authorities wanted to let him go.
"It is exactly what the law says I have to do," she said of Welsh's conditional release. "It's a decision I didn't really want to make, but as a Judge I absolutely have to follow the law and the evidence."
That evidence, presented in hearings late last year before Prather, was that the 70-year-old Welsh is ready to go free after serving almost five decades in state prisons and mental institutions.
Two state experts - as well as a third psychologist called by the Illinois Attorney General's office in opposition to Welsh's release - all agreed that Welsh could live outside prison walls without posing a serious threat to the community.
One even suggested he be let go with no conditions. The others suggested Welsh live under a set of rules that keep him closely monitored while restricting his movements and access to children.
Welsh is no stranger to living in restricted settings.
Before the 1962 slaying, authorities said, Welsh had been institutionalized in the late 1950s after sexual attacks on two young family members.
In 1973, after spending 11 years in state mental institutions, he was convicted of murdering 3-year-old Marlene Casteel while baby-sitting the girl in her parents' Harvard home. Authorities said he suffocated the girl with a pillow while trying to quiet her cries as he raped her.
The Illinois Department of Corrections paroled Welsh in 2004, but before he went free the Illinois Attorney General's office asked Prather to declare him a sexually violent person. The judge granted the request, allowing the state to keep him in custody beyond the expiration of his prison sentence until doctors believed he was not likely to commit sex crimes.
Welsh sought his release again last year and this time two state doctors testified before Prather that he was no longer a threat. Despite that testimony, Prather waited four more months and lined up 37 conditions under which Welsh must live before granting his release.
With Prather's order Thursday, Welsh moved to a Rockford apartment where he will spend the next 30 days under home confinement, leaving with supervision only for sex offender treatment and other approved activities.
After that, the state-contracted company in charge of his supervision can place him under electronic monitoring. Prather's order also bars him from driving a vehicle, visiting schools, parks, theaters or bars, owning a computer, going online, viewing pornography or using alcohol or drugs.
If he violates any of those conditions, he could be sent back to a state facility.
Prather said she understands why Welsh's release would generate outrage, given his "heinous, heinous crime." But, she said, some of that outrage may be borne out of a misunderstanding of why and how he's remained locked up since his 2004 parole.
All proceedings since then, she noted, have been civil, not criminal, and targeted toward treating Welsh, not punishing him.
"One of the things everyone should understand is that Gary Welsh served his criminal sentence," Prather said. "Had they wanted him to serve life, they should have done that with the original sentence."