Friday, August 22, 2008
S.C. Upholds Release of Prisoner Who Killed Lover’s Wife
Justices Say Evidence Requires Freeing Woman Found Unsuitable for Parole by Three Governors
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal freeing a convicted murderer who served more than 23 years in prison for killing her lover’s wife.
In a 4-3 decision, the high court said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lacked evidence to support his conclusion that Sandra Davis Lawrence, 60, should remain incarcerated because “her release from prison would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society.”
In doing so, the court resolved an issue that has divided lower courts in reviewing denials of parole. The justices ruled that while the egregiousness of the conviction offense may be used to predict future dangerousness, the parole board, or the governor in exercising his power to veto releases, must cite “some evidence” that the prisoner is dangerous, not merely some evidence that the underlying offense was particularly egregious or that some other unsuitability factor applies.
Parole Board Regulation
According to parole board regulations, 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.
On the other hand, the regulations say, the inmate 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.
Applying those factors to Lawrence, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court:
“In some cases, such as this one, in which evidence of the inmate’s rehabilitation and suitability for parole under the governing statutes and regulations is overwhelming, the only evidence related to unsuitability is the gravity of the commitment offense, and that offense is both temporally remote and mitigated by circumstances indicating the conduct is unlikely to recur, the immutable circumstance that the commitment offense involved aggravated conduct does not provide ‘some evidence’ inevitably supporting the ultimate decision that the inmate remains a threat to public safety.”
Lawrence left the California Institution for Women in July after the Court of Appeal’s order, by a 2-1 decision of Div. Seven, became final and the state Supreme Court declined to grant a stay.
Only Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin voted to prevent Lawrence from leaving prison while the high court mulled her fate. Justice Carol Corrigan joined them in dissenting from yesterday’s ruling.
Lawrence was convicted of the 1971 murder of Rubye Williams, the wife of a Los Angeles dentist in whose office Lawrence worked and with whom she had been having an affair.
Involvement Originally Denied
Lawrence, who originally denied involvement in the murder, later said she had broken off the relationship, but had agreed to resume it after Robert Williams suddenly told her he was going to leave his wife. She became enraged, she explained, after Williams declared just as suddenly that he had changed his mind and would remain with his wife rather than jeopardize his relationship with their children.
After killing Rubye Williams at the dental office, shooting her several times and stabbing her with a potato peeler, Lawrence fled the country and hid in the Caribbean until surrendering 11 years later.
“Thirty-six years ago I committed a horrific crime,” Lawrence told the Associated Press after her release.
“I was involved in a love triangle. I was young and emotionally disturbed.
“I will be forever regretful and remorseful,” Lawrence said. “I took her away from her family, friends and the community at large. But I’m not the person today that I was at 23.”
In prison, she had a perfect discipline record, earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and co-founded a tutoring program for other inmates. The Board of Prison Terms, now called the Board of Parole Hearings, recommended her release several times, beginning in 1993.
Govs. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger reversed those decisions under the authority granted by Proposition 89, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1988.
Proposition 89 empowers the governor to substitute his own ruling on parole suitability for that of the parole board, provided that he cites evidence before the board as the sole basis of the decision. Under In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616, the board and the governor have “great [and] … almost unlimited, discretion” in assessing the importance attached to the circumstances of an inmate’s crime in attempting to predict the potential danger posed by the inmate to society, and judicial review is limited to determining whether some evidence supports the decision.
But George wrote yesterday:
“This standard is unquestionably deferential, but certainly is not toothless, and ‘due consideration’ of the specified factors requires more than rote recitation of the relevant factors with no reasoning establishing a rational nexus between those factors and the necessary basis for the ultimate decision — the determination of current dangerousness.”
While Lawrence is “fully culpable” for the murder of Williams, George wrote, the governor failed to take into consideration the level of stress that she was operating under, her “exemplary” prison record, her years of effort at rehabilitation, the long period of time that has passed since the murder occurred, and Lawrence’s repeated expressions of remorse, all of which support the board’s conclusion that she is not a danger to the public.
George was joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn M. Werdegar, and Carlos Moreno.
Chin, writing for the dissenters, argued that “the awesome responsibility of deciding whether to release a convicted murderer on parole ... lies with the executive branch, not the judicial branch.” Schwarzenegger’s written decision, Chin said, was “reasoned” and supported by evidence.
Andrea Hoch, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, told the Associated Press that the ruling is inconsistent with the voters’ intent in enacting Proposition 89.
“Governor Schwarzenegger will continue to consider each of these lifer cases individually and based on the entirety of their record, including original crime and time in prison, will decide whether or not a lifer inmate poses an unreasonable safety risk to our communities if released,” Hoch said.
In a companion case, the court unanimously upheld the governor’s denial of parole to Richard Shaputis, convicted of second-degree murder in 1987 after shooting his wife and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. While Shaputis is 71 years of age and in poor health, George wrote, his history of domestic violence prior to the murder and his failure to take responsibility afterward support the governor’s conclusion that he remains a danger to society.
Kennard, Werdegar, and Moreno joined the chief justice’s opinion. Chin, in a concurrence joined by Baxter and Corrigan, said there was no meaningful difference between Shaputis’ case and that of Lawrence.
The cases are in re Lawrence, 08 S.O.S. 5100, and In re Shaputis, 08 S.O.S. 5116.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company