Thursday, March 27, 2008
C.A. Reverses Course, Orders Man Who Killed Wife Released
Justices Say Standard of Review of Parole Denial Not as Deferential as Earlier Thought
BY SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal, in a reversal of its prior position, ruled yesterday that a Placer County man who killed his wife after an argument is not a danger to society and must be released on parole.
The court had previously denied Ronald Singler’s habeas corpus petition, Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland explained, because of the highly deferential standard of review of parole board decisions required by In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616.
But the state Supreme Court’s order that the panel reconsider its denial of Singler’s petition, Scotland said, suggests that the standard of review is not nearly as deferential as his court believed at the time.
A writ of habeas corpus is appropriate, Scotland said, where the denial of parole was based solely on the nature of the commitment offense, and if a significant amount of time has passed since the crime, the evidence of the inmate’s rehabilitation is uncontroverted, and the crime was not committed in such a heinous manner as to undermine the evidence that the inmate no longer poses a danger to society.
In 1982, Singler ended a heated argument with his wife by getting a shotgun, loading it, and shooting her in the head while they were in the living room of their home, while their two young children slept nearby. Singler dumped the body by the side of a rural road. He was convicted of second degree murder and was sentenced to a term of 15 years to life imprisonment.
Over 22 years later, the Board of Parole hearings found Singler unsuitable for parole.. The board noted that he had participated in a “plethora of positive activities,” and had been an exemplary prisoner, but expressed concern that he lacked “insight” into what triggered the murder of his wife; specifically “why he ‘snapped’ and decided to kill [her] rather than simply scare her.”
The board concluded that Singler’s inability to explain why he killed his wife, compounded with the circumstances of the murder and the manner in which he disposed of the body rendered him a threat to the public if he were released on parole. His habeas petition was denied by the Court of Appeal in an order citing Rosenkrantz.
In Rosenkrantz, the high court wrote that the board has “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 that judicial review of a board’s denial of parole is “extremely deferential” to the board’s decision.
But six of the California Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Ronald M. George, author of the Rosenkrant opinion, signed the order granting Singler’s petition for review and returning his case to the Court of Appeal; only Justice Marvin R. Baxter did not. The high court’s order also contained specific citations to appellate cases interpreting Rosenkrantz in a manner that appears to give courts greater leeway in reviewing the board’s finding that an inmate remains a danger to public safety.
Scotland reasoned that the high court’s action indicated that “ the California Supreme Court believes we construed the standard of review articulated in Rosenkrantz too narrowly and were too deferential to the Board’s finding.”
The California Supreme Court cited In re Scott (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 573, In re Elkins, supra, 144 Cal.App.4th 475, and In re Lee (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1400 with approval, which Scotland concluded, “indicated the Supreme Court’s view that those decisions do not conflict with Rosenkrantz.”
The board is charged with establishing criteria for setting parole release dates, and a panel of the board determined whether a prisoner is suitable for release. Under the California Code of Regulations, a prisoner “shall be found unsuitable for and denied parole if in the judgment of the panel the prisoner will pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison.”
The regulations set forth several factors tending to show an inmate’s suitability for release on parole, including: the absence of a juvenile record; an inmate’s history of stable social relationships; an inmate’s remorse; the fact that the crime resulted from significant stress, especially if the stress had built over a prolonged time; the absence of a history of violent crime; an inmate’s increased age, which reduces the probability of recidivism; an inmate’s marketable skills and plans for the future; and an inmate’s institutional behavior. The importance of these factors is left to the discretion of the board, but the board’s decision cannot be arbitrary or capricious.
Pursuant to Rosenkrantz, judicial review of the board’s parole decisions is very limited because parole release decisions “entail the Board’s attempt to predict by subjective analysis whether the inmate will be able to live in society without committing additional antisocial acts” based on the board’s analysis of individualized factors on a case-by-case basis.
Rosenkrantz held that as long as the board’s decision “reflects due consideration of the specified factors as applied to the individual prisoner in accordance with applicable legal standards,” judicial review is limited to ascertaining whether “some evidence in the record before the Board supports the decision to deny parole, based upon the factors specified by statute and regulation.”
But, Scotland explained, because the “‘overarching consideration’” is whether the inmate poses a threat to the public, and the relevant test is not whether some evidence supports the board’s reasons for denying parole, but whether some evidence indicates that the inmate’s release will unreasonably endanger the public.
Citing the uncontested evidence establishing that Singler met the suitability factors, Singler’s favorable psychological evaluations and Life Prisoner evaluation Report, the fact that Singler’s children desired his release and that Singler’s crime had occurred over 20 years ago, the court then found that Singler, “has understood the reasons why he killed his wife, has recognized that he significantly overreacted to his angry impulses in doing so, and has learned to harness in socially acceptable ways the anger arising from life’s inevitable frustrations.”
The court also concluded that neither the fact that Singler’s children were present in the house when the murder occurred nor that Singler had dumped the body were factors did not demonstrate that “the crime was so especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel that, despite Singler’s rehabilitative efforts, he remains a danger to the public nearly a quarter of a century later.”
“No longer giving the Board the deference to which we thought it was entitled,” Scotland continued, “the evidence presented at the 2006 parole hearing does not support the Board’s finding that Singler was unsuitable for parole at that time.”
Justices George Nicholson and Vance W. Raye joined Scotland on his opinion. The case is In Re Singler 08 S.O.S. 1734.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company