Wednesday, April 7, 2010
C.A. Overturns Order for Release of Paralyzed Rapist
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state parole board exceeded its authority by denying a paralyzed inmate’s compassionate release request based on criteria not listed in the governing statute, but a judge erred in finding that a sufficient reason to order the man’s release, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The court overturned Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly’s order for the release of Steven C. Martinez, incarcerated since 1998 for an attack on a woman whom he struck with his car, then drove to a secluded location where he sexually assaulted her as she remained incapacitated.
Martinez was stabbed by a fellow inmate in February 2001 at Centinela State Prison. The knife lacerated his spinal cord, instantly rendering him a quadriplegic, with little ability to move and no control over bowel or bladder movements.
In February 2008, Martinez, through his attorney, asked for recall of his sentence and compassionate release under Penal Code Sec. 1170(e). The statute authorizes the release of an inmate who is terminally ill or who is permanently incapacitated and requires 24-hour care, unless the inmate is under sentence of death or life imprisonment without parole, or unless the inmate’s release would endanger public safety.
If the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or the Board of Parole Hearings, find that the inmate meets the criteria, the statute provides for the submission of a recommendation for release to the sentencing court, which makes the final decision.
In asking for Martinez’s release, his attorney noted that the state had spent more than $500,000 on his care and another $750,000 as a result of a lawsuit charging the prison system with failing to properly treat an infection. The inmate’s family and personal physician, the lawyer said, were prepared to assume responsibility for his care.
The chief medical officer and warden of Corcoran State Prison found that Martinez was qualified for compassionate release, but the secretary objected on the basis of the inmate’s “inappropriate, disrespectful, and verbally threatening behavior,” the seriousness of his crimes, and the fact that he had served only a small portion of his sentence of 157 years to life.
The board sided with the secretary and voted not to recommend Martinez’s release, after hearing evidence of several incidents in which he had verbally abused prison employees, including use of profanity and racist terms. On one occasion he threatened a nurse that while he couldn’t walk, “someone will get you,” and on another, after a nursing supervisor told him to stop screaming at the nurses and to stop using profanity, he told her, “You better watch it.”
The board’s written decision was terse:
“Decline to refer to court for consideration of sentence recall.”
In granting a writ of habeas corpus, Connelly rejecting the attorney general’s arguments that the decision to recommend or not recommend compassionate release is “purely discretionary” on the part of the board, and that the board may, in exercising that discretion, consider relevant evidence outside the statutory criteria.
By failing to make statutorily required findings, by considering non-statutory criteria, and by denying a recommendation for release despite undisputed evidence that Martinez meets the statutory criteria, the judge found, the board had violated the statute.
Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge that the board must make findings and cannot consider matters outside the statutory criteria. But Connelly was wrong in his assessment of the record and his understanding of the scope of review, the presiding justice said.
As when it reviews the board’s finding that an inmate is unsuitable for parole, Scotland explained, a court must defer to the board if there is at least “some evidence” to support its decision.
While the board did not explain its reasons, as the law requires, “we conclude there is some evidence to support an implied finding that, despite his quadriplegia, Martinez could be a threat to public safety if released because he is an evil, angry, and violent person who may seek the aid of others to harm those who irritate him,” Scotland wrote.
The jurist elaborated:
“Surely, even those most sympathetic to Martinez because of his current condition, and those who feel it would be better for the state to save money by releasing him, should be troubled by his criminal history and threatening conduct in prison. [The board] obviously was, and we cannot say that it acted arbitrary or capriciously in impliedly finding that defendant remains an evil, angry, and violent person who could seek the aid of others to threaten public safety.”
While the board thus could have found Martinez ineligible for compassionate release on the basis of evidence that he did not meet the lack-of-dangerousness criterion of the Penal Code, its failure to do so requires that the matter go back to the board for reconsideration, Scotland added.
Justice Harry Hull concurred, but Justice Richard Sims III argued in dissent that Connelly’s ruling should be affirmed in its entirety because Martinez was not a danger to society within the meaning of the statute.
Agreeing with the majority that the purpose of the 1997 compassionate release legislation “was not just compassion, it was to save the state money,” Sims wrote:
“If this was true in 1997, it must be one thousand times more true today, when the state finds itself in an unprecedented budget crisis. We are closing schools and clinics. Fees at our State universities have been raised more than 30 percent in a single year. As this opinion is written, the State faces a $19.9 billion budget deficit.”
The majority, he argued, was saying in effect that the board must deny release “if it finds any possibility, no matter how remote, that Martinez would be a threat to public safety.” Under that test, he said, “nobody will ever get out of prison,” defeating the Legislature’s purpose.
Sims argued that there must be something more than “utter speculation” that the inmate remains dangerous. There was no evidence, he said, that Martinez belonged to a gang or otherwise had the capacity to commit crimes through others, or that he might—as one quadriplegic did, according to a newspaper story—“fire a pistol with a string in his mouth.”
The case is Martinez v. Board of Parole Hearings, 10 S.O.S. 1812.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company