Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 30, 2010


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Supreme Court Sets Guidelines for Parole Decision Reversals


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Courts that determine that a parole decision was not supported by “some evidence” should send the matter back to the board for a new hearing, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The justices unanimously held that one appellate court improperly restricted the board’s exercise of discretion when it directed that only new evidence be considered at a suitability hearing, and that another erred by ordering release without further proceedings.

The Supreme Court granted review to prisoners Michael Prather and Miguel Molina to determine the proper scope of an order directed to the board when a reviewing court determines that a parole-denial decision is not supported by “some evidence” that the prisoner remains a current threat to public safety.

The high court elucidated that standard for judicial review of parole decisions by the board or the governor in two 2008 cases: In re Lawrence 44 Cal.4th 1181 and In re Shaputis 44 Cal.4th 1241. However, the two cases each concerned the governor’s reversal of a parole board decision, and did not address the appropriate remedy when the board abuses its discretion.

Appellate Split

They also led to conflict among California’s appellate courts as to what exactly a reviewing court can direct the board to do after granting a prisoner’s habeas corpus petition. While some ordered the board to hold a new suitability hearing “in accordance with due process,” others directed it to find a prisoner suitable for parole unless new evidence from after the hearing under review supported a determination that the prisoner remained currently dangerous.

Prather was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the 1982 death of Elroy Ruiz, who died of gunshot wounds after Prather and others dragged him from his car to steal his wallet, began beating him and then shot him. Although Prather maintained that he was not the shooter, he accepted his role in the crime and the board found him suitable for release in 2005 and 2006.

The governor, however, reversed both decisions, and the board in 2007 denied parole.

Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 that there was no evidence to support the board’s finding of unsuitability. But instead of directing the board to conduct a hearing, the court ordered it to find Prather suitable unless a new hearing based on new evidence showing that he posed an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released was held within 30 days.

Molina was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the 1984 shooting of Ruben Morales at a farm in Arroyo Grande where both men worked. Molina, who had been involved in a number of altercations with Morales, reportedly shot him 15 to 18 times while Morales was watching television in a room at a bunkhouse, and claimed self-defense.

Prior Parole Grant

The board found Molina suitable for parole in 2002, but the governor reversed and the board denied parole in 2006.

This district’s Div. Six affirmed a trial court’s grant of habeas corpus relief in a split decision, concluding that there was no evidence in the record to support a finding that Molina presented such a danger in light of his consistently positive mental health evaluations and his extensive rehabilitation. The court then remanded with instructions to release Molina.

Chief Justice Ronald George, however, wrote on review that the two courts had erred. Instead, he said, a decision granting relief under similar circumstances “generally should direct the Board to conduct a new parole-suitability hearing in accordance with due process of law and consistent with the decision of the court, and should not place improper limitations on the type of evidence the Board is statutorily obligated to consider.”

He said that both appellate courts “improperly restricted the Board’s exercise of its discretion” and “erroneously failed to recognize the Board’s statutory obligation to consider the full record in making a parole-suitability determination.”

Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin R. Baxter, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Ming W. Chin and Carol A. Corrigan joined George in his opinion.

Justice Carlos R. Moreno concurred, but wrote separately to note that the board’s discretion on remand after a judicial reversal of a parole decision could be limited.

The case is In re Prather, 10 S.O.S. 4301.


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