In a surprising series of decisions, the state parole board is quietly defying California's law-and-order governor and setting some murderers and kidnappers free.
Gov. Gray Davis' approach to parole has drawn fire from inmate advocates and some judges, who contend that he has a blanket policy against releasing prisoners convicted of homicide.
But since Davis took office in 1999, the Board of Prison Terms--which holds about 2,100 parole hearings a year--has freed six convicted murderers, 11 kidnappers and two inmates doing time for attempted murder, according to the most recent statistics available.
Though the bar remains high for those seeking freedom--the vast majority of inmates are turned down in their requests for parole--advocates for prisoners applaud what they call the board's growing independence from a governor whose rigid stance on parole was recently declared unconstitutional by a Superior Court judge.
The pattern is more remarkable, they say, because all of the commissioners were appointed by Davis and most have backgrounds in police or prison work.
"For the first time in 10 years, we have board members who are reasonable and who have the intestinal fortitude to stand up and find guys suitable [for parole]--despite what the governor thinks," said lawyer Gary Diamond, who has represented inmates at parole hearings for more than a decade.
Board Chairman David Hepburn, a former president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, declined to comment. But Commissioner Tom Bordonaro, a Republican who calls himself tough on crime, confirmed that the proportion of inmates winning parole is growing.
Bordonaro, a former assemblyman who became an advocate for crime victims after his sister was murdered, said board members are "dedicated to public safety" but strive for fairness in deciding the fate of convicts whose sentences carry the possibility of parole.
"If you make a mistake and someone is set free who is not ready, you have a victim," Bordonaro said. "But if you make a mistake and don't free someone who is deserving, you really have another victim. The trick is balancing that. It's not something we take lightly."
Davis spokesman Hilary McLean said the governor has made "emphatically clear" his opposition to parole for those inmates the board went ahead and released.
"But he also understands that the Board of Prison Terms has the last word in some cases," she said. "In other cases, the governor has the last word."
Those include the case of Robert Rosenkrantz, a killer who has been a model prisoner and has fought for years to win parole. A judge last month ordered Rosenkrantz released, but the Davis administration appealed the ruling and the inmate remains behind bars.
23,000 Cases Are Under Board Jurisdiction
The board considers parole for about 23,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for murder, kidnapping and other serious crimes. A much smaller group convicted of more heinous crimes is awaiting execution or serving life sentences without the chance of parole. Those inmates do not come before the board.
Under an initiative approved by voters in 1988, a murder convict's parole grant is reviewed by the governor shortly before his or her scheduled release. The governor may modify the grant, reverse it or permit the inmate to go home. With other crimes, the governor may not block parole but can tell the board to reconsider the case.
Shortly after his election, Davis suggested that no murderers would be getting out under his watch, no matter the circumstances: "If you take someone else's life, forget it," he told The Times.
Since then, he has opposed parole in all 62 cases sent to him by the board for review--except one.
Last month, the judge who ordered Rosenkrantz freed said the governor's record demonstrates unconstitutional "prejudgment," a decision under review by an appellate court.
The one inmate whose parole did win Davis' approval was Rose Ann Parker, freed last year after the governor concluded that she feared for her life when she killed her abusive boyfriend.
In addition to Parker, however, five other murder convicts have managed to leave prison during Davis' tenure. That is because the board granted their parole under a former governor but the actual dates of release occurred after Davis took office. In such cases, Davis' authority is limited, allowing him to merely ask the board to take another look.
Diann Wade, convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a Los Angeles drug dealer, falls into that category.
On May 12, 1980, Wade, a prostitute and drug addict at the time, accompanied two acquaintances to the apartment of a dealer they intended to rob. When the dealer reached into his waistband for what they believed to be a gun, one of the would-be robbers shot and killed him. Wade got 25 years to life.
In 1998, the parole board decided that she had paid her debt to society and set a release date. But Davis saw things differently. Citing her "extensive" criminal history--mostly involving drugs and prostitution--and saying that her disciplinary record exhibited a "lack of respect for authority," the governor told the board that Wade should remain locked up.
In March, a panel of three parole commissioners met to consider the governor's arguments. After a hearing lasting almost six hours, they decided that he was wrong.
They praised Wade's "admirable progress" behind bars and sent the 56-year-old grandmother home to Los Angeles.
"You've earned your way out of prison," Commissioner Leonard Munoz, a Vietnam veteran and former Los Angeles Police Department officer, told Wade. "You didn't get a free pass; you earned it."
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Diane Vezzani, who represents Los Angeles prosecutors at parole hearings, agreed. If ever there was "a really good example of the system working," she said, this was it.
Set free in late May, Wade could not be reached for comment. But records show she planned to work as a dental technician or in the garment industry, and expected to live in Los Angeles with her daughter.
Correctional officials say that of the 18 inmates released by the board over Davis' objections, one has landed back behind bars.
Oscar Mewborn was released in November but rearrested four days later after he admitted to his parole agent that he was using marijuana. Freed four months later, Mewborn was returned to prison again earlier this month for a curfew violation.
Murderer Turns His Life Around
More common, records show, is the experience of Eugene Sylve, 57, a father of five who was paroled in December after serving 18 years for second-degree murder.
Released despite the governor's insistence that he be kept behind bars, Sylve now works at a vocational center that helps disabled adults find jobs. A Long Beach resident, he has also formed a nonprofit organization that helps parolees and tries to steer young people away from crime.
Jane Woods, 38, was the first murderer paroled over Davis' protests. She now works as a designer for a Bay Area computer graphics firm.
Woods served 13 years in prison after her abusive boyfriend was killed by two acquaintances she had asked to beat him up. Davis said Woods masterminded the killing and should remain in prison.
But parole commissioners disagreed, noting that one beating by the boyfriend landed Woods in the hospital and another caused her to miscarry. They concluded that battered woman's syndrome led her to enlist the assailants.
Two months ago, Woods received an award from a state-funded group called Volunteers in Parole, which matches parolees with mentors on the outside. Her mentor, Tustin attorney Rich Pfeiffer, says she recently received a raise at work and is "doing wonderfully."
In a statement provided by Pfeiffer, Woods said she and other parolees "will give 200% serving society, not just for ourselves and our families but for all those still in prison."
Although the governor's opposition to releasing murderers has received the most attention, he also has protested the board's grants of parole to 15 kidnappers. After reviewing those cases at Davis' request, commissioners sided with the governor just twice. Eleven of the inmates were released, and the fate of the final two remains undecided.
Those numbers, Bordonaro said, prove that the commissioners are not influenced by Davis' views: "The governor makes up his mind and we make up our minds. He has never told me how to vote."
Bordonaro added that he is not surprised that nearly all of the inmates paroled by the board have stayed out of trouble.
"If the process is going to err, it's going to err on the side of public safety," he said. "I wouldn't put my name on [a parole grant] if I didn't think the inmate was ready. I wouldn't want that on my conscience."