Monday, November 19, 2007
C.A. Orders Parole of Inmate Convicted of Killing Wife
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal yesterday ordered the release of a man convicted of killing his wife in Los Altos Hills in 1985, saying Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger violated due process by denying parole based solely on the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner” in which the crime was committed.
“No evidence in the record that was before the Board [of Parole Hearings] supports a conclusion that, due solely to the nature of his commitment offense, [John] Dannenberg currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released,” Justice Nathan Mihara wrote for the court.
Dannenberg, now 67, has been incarcerated since October 1986 for the murder of his wife. According to testimony, the couple had quarreled over a minor matter involving a bathroom plumbing repair before she attacked him repeatedly with a screwdriver.
He then struck her several times with a pipe wrench he had been using for the repair as she continued to hit him. He testified that he passed out and awoke to find her unconscious, with a pool of blood where she had fallen, and that she lying on the side of the bathtub with her head under water.
The coroner found that she had died from drowning, and although Dannenberg has consistently denied it, prosecutors argued that he either forcibly held her under water or saw her head under the water and deliberately allowed her to drown.
He was found guilty of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He became eligible for parole in 1996, but was found unsuitable for parole by the board three times before a Marin Superior Court judge ruled in 2001 that there was insufficient evidence to support further denial of release.
Dannenberg, however, remained incarcerated while the state appealed the case, which eventually reached the state Supreme Court. In the interim, the board found him unsuitable for a fourth time.
In a 4-3 decision in 2005, the state high court reversed the lower courts and ruled that the callousness and brutality of the murder and the triviality of Dannenberg’s reason for killing his wife were enough to justify denying him parole.
Following the decision, however, the board conducted another hearing and found that Dannenberg could safely be released. The governor, however, found that the circumstances of the crime remained a sufficient reason for denying parole.
In that decision, the governor acknowledged that Dannenberg had no other criminal record and no disciplinary record in prison; had taken college-level courses; held skilled jobs in the prison, including law librarian; led services on the Jewish Sabbath; written for Prison Legal News; participated in therapy and self-help groups; received favorable reports from mental health professionals; maintained relationships with his family; and had realistic plans to live on the outside and return to the engineering field, in which he had previously worked.
A Santa Clara Superior Court judge denied his petition for habeas corpus relief, but Mihara said he had satisfied the legal requirement of showing that the governor lacked “some evidence” in support of his decision.
Under state regulations, the justice explained, a life prisoner who has served enough time to be eligible for parole is considered unfit for release if that would result in “an unreasonable risk of danger to society.”
A finding of unreasonable risk must be based on one or more of six factors—the manner in which the underlying crime was committed, a previous record of violence, an unstable social history, the prior commission of a “sadistic” sexual assault, a lengthy history of severe mental problems, or serious misconduct while in prison.
The inmate, the regulations say, is entitled to have certain factors weighed in his or her favor in assessing the risk that he or she would pose if released. Those factors are the lack of a record of juvenile violence; the existence of a stable social history; remorse for the crime; the existence of significant stress, or of battered woman syndrome, that can account for the commission of the crime; the lack of a significant prior criminal record; advanced age; realistic plans for release; and participation in institutional activities.
Addressing an issue that has divided appellate courts around the state, Mihara reasoned that it is insufficient for the state to show that there is a “modicum” of evidence supporting the governor’s finding that the heinous nature of the crime, or any other factor or factors, apply.
While the court must defer to the governor’s finding that Dannenberg’s crime was heinous, atrocious or cruel, Mihara said, it was not required to defer to the conclusion that that factor alone makes him so dangerous that he must remain incarcerated.
“The record before the Board, upon which the Governor’s decision was required to be based, lacks any support for the Governor’s conclusion that, due to the nature of his commitment offense, Dannenberg poses a current, unreasonable risk of danger to society if released,” the justice wrote. “Consequently, while there is some evidence that Dannenberg’s commitment offense was ‘especially heinous,’ when measured against the minimum elements of second degree murder, the Governor’s decision violates due process because there is no longer any evidence that, solely due to the nature of Dannenberg’s offense, he currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society.”
The case is In re Dannenberg, H030031.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company