GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A man who killed a Grand Rapids police officer in 1969 is asking a federal judge to let him out of prison, claiming his time behind bars “goes beyond cruel and unusual punishment.''

Denver M. Goree Jr., now 75, says he should have been set free years ago. A change in the Michigan Parole Board, he says, has kept him unfairly locked up.

Goree killed Grand Rapids officer Wayne Vonk, who was responding to an armed robbery on the city’s Northwest Side when Goree shot him in the chest. Vonk was 21 years old and engaged to be married.

A Kent County jury found Goree guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to mandatory life in prison. 

Goree’s lawsuit against the Michigan Parole Board asks for commutation of his sentence or outright discharge. He also wants 1.5 million, presumably dollars, although it is not specified.

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said he has not seen a copy of the lawsuit. He declined comment, saying the state does not comment on pending litigation.

In the federal lawsuit, Goree contends the Michigan Parole Board said he could leave prison after serving 22 years of his life sentence. The decision was made on or about January of 1983, he says.

But that all changed when the Michigan Parole Board went through a “transitional period’’ and was replaced by new members in 1992, Goree contends.

“They implemented a new policy that ‘life means life,’’’ the lawsuit contends. Goree says he has “suffered a great deal of hardship after expecting a different outcome.’’

Remaining locked up after 50 years “goes beyond cruel and un-usual (sic) punishment,’’ Goree wrote in the lawsuit, which he filed on his own. Goree is serving his life term at a state prison in Muskegon Heights.

A co-defendant, Marvin Leonard Holden, was also sentenced to mandatory life. Holden died in prison in August of 2017 at the age of 75.

Goree's lawsuit was originally filed in Detroit, but was transferred last week to federal court in Grand Rapids.

The shooting happened Jan. 19, 1969. Goree and a co-defendant robbed a grocery store on Stocking Avenue at Fourth Street NW and fled east. Vonk, alerted to the robbery, stopped the suspected getaway car about four blocks away. He was working alone at the time.

After Vonk pulled them over, a struggle ensued. Vonk was shot in the chest. Vonk made it back to his car and radioed for help. He provided the license plate number of the fleeing vehicle, which helped bring about Goree's capture a short time later. Vonk died about three hours after he was shot.

Vonk, the son of a Grand Rapids police officer, was eight days shy of his 22nd birthday.

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