Serving God -- and Time

Times Staff Writer

Four times a year, the Rev. James Tramel preaches via collect call to Berkeley’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.

“The way of Jesus is radically inclusive,” he said one morning last summer. “The grace of God as manifest in Jesus Christ is a grand love that embraces sinners, outcasts and strangers.”

Beeps from taping equipment punctuated his oration. Every few minutes, a recorded voice said: “You are on the phone with an inmate at Solano State Prison.”

Good Shepherd has offered him a job as assistant pastor, but there is a good chance that Tramel will not be showing up for work soon. Tramel, believed by many church officials to be the only U.S. inmate ever ordained as an Episcopal priest, is a convicted murderer


The state Board of Prison Terms in 2004 recommended that Tramel, by then an Episcopal deacon, be paroled. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the board, saying that Tramel still posed a risk.

By last October, Tramel had been ordained a priest, and the parole board again recommended his release. The governor must rule by March 24.

For Schwarzenegger, who has stressed the aim of rehabilitation in the prison system, the case poses difficult questions: How can redemption be measured? If becoming a priest in prison isn’t a sign of rehabilitation, then what is?



Tramel, 38, once was the youngest prisoner in San Quentin.

He and a friend were convicted of killing a homeless man in Santa Barbara -- a crime so infamous locally that homeless activists wore lapel pins with the victim’s dying words: “No, my friend, no!”

In 1985, Tramel and David Kurtzman, both 17, were students at Northwestern Preparatory School, a school that sent many graduates on to the military academies. Tramel was the son of a former Green Beret and had been provisionally accepted at the Air Force Academy. Kurtzman was an Eagle Scout who aimed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.

One August night, members of a Latino gang had gotten into a confrontation with some of their classmates. The next night, Tramel and Kurtzman led a group that went out looking for the gang. According to his own account, Tramel egged on his friends, instructing them in martial arts moves. When Kurtzman wanted to bring along the 6-inch folding military knife he would sharpen during idle moments in the dorm, Tramel readily agreed.

After hours on the prowl, the band of avenging angels came down to just Tramel and Kurtzman, clad all in black.

They found no gang members, but returning to school for their 1 a.m. curfew, they cut through Alameda Park, where music wafted from a radio beside a man bunking down in the gazebo.

For a brief time, the pair chatted with him. The homeless man was Michael Stephenson, 29. He was not Latino. Tucked inside his sleeping bag, he was anything but hostile. As Tramel leaned against a railing with his back to Stephenson, they talked about the cold weather.

“Several seconds later, I heard Michael say, ‘No, my friend,’ and then I heard what sounded like coughing,” Tramel wrote in an account for his 2005 parole hearing.


“When I turned around, Michael was on his hands and knees, and Kurtzman was leaning over him. Then Michael suddenly collapsed onto his side, I saw the knife in Kurtzman’s hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael’s throat. My body froze in horror, and I gasped, ‘Dave, stop!’ Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling.”

Kurtzman gave an account at his trial that mirrored Tramel’s. Earlier, he told investigators that killing Stephenson was like slaughtering a pig. Kurtzman stabbed him 17 times.

Back at the dorm, the two swore their pals to secrecy, and Tramel promised a skeptic $50 if their story turned out to be a hoax. Their disbelieving friends visited the park later that morning and called police.

Tramel’s first trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the second. Both he and Kurtzman received sentences of 15 years to life.

“The prosecutor made a good analogy at my trial,” he told the parole board in October. “Kurtzman was a gun that I had loaded and cocked.... That makes me culpable for what Kurtzman did; that makes me responsible for Michael’s death.”


By Tramel’s account, it was another death that changed his life.

In August 1993, he was working in the Solano prison hospital, sitting up with an inmate suffering from stomach cancer. The man talked about how much he wanted to see his kids.


“At around 1 a.m., the nurse told me his lungs were filling with fluid and he was going to die,” Tramel recalled.

The two talked through the night of life and death.

“With really still eyes, he looked at me and said, ‘James, what do you believe?’ ”

“I took a deep breath,” Tramel said, “and told him what I’d been afraid for some time to claim -- that Jesus is the son of God and had died for our sins, and loved us immensely and was ready to forgive us.”

Tramel held the inmate’s hand. He wasn’t a priest then, or even a deacon, but he improvised a baptism. Then the man died.

“In that space,” Tramel said, “there was a very tangible holy presence.”

At his parole hearing the next year, he said that he wanted to enter the Episcopal ministry -- an aim requiring years of study, extensive psychological testing and rigorous interviews. Skeptical, officials told him to try earning a college degree first.

By 1998, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business from Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. By a vote of the faculty, he was admitted to Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, one of 11 Episcopal seminaries in the U.S.

“Any skepticism I may have had dissolved,” said the Rev. Louis Weil, a liturgical-studies scholar who became Tramel’s faculty advisor and now describes him as “like a son to me in many ways.”

Over the next five years, Weil and other faculty members spent hours instructing Tramel by phone. Students taped lectures, paid for Tramel’s books and drove to Vacaville to help him with his studies. Without regular access to a computer, he wrote his 85-page master’s thesis sitting on his prison cot. He dedicated it to Michael Stephenson.

He focused his thesis on the redemption of convicts, and how far U.S. prisons had veered from their religious roots. “I am in the unique position,” he noted dryly in his paper, “to offer an analysis informed by 17-plus years of firsthand, empirical evidence.”

A fellow student, Stephanie Green, started visiting him in her second semester. Their explorations of Augustinian metaphysics soon evolved into something else entirely. On Christmas Day in 2000, they were engaged, and they plan to marry if Tramel is released.

“I told myself this was crazy,” said Green, 38, who was ordained a priest last year and is pursuing a doctorate in medieval studies. “I’m from Iowa and I went to Bryn Mawr, and a relationship with an inmate was just not part of the picture.”

From early on, she said, Tramel wanted her to know as much as she could about his crime, sending her transcripts of parole hearings, psychological reports, documents on his prison behavior.

“This was a terrible, terrible thing he was working through,” she said, “something he needed to fix and incorporate into the fabric of his being, and be responsible to it.”

Tramel looked for redemption where others have long sought it. He said he pored over the parable of the prodigal son. He pondered the life of the Apostle Paul, who, he pointed out, instigated a murder when he was still “among sinners, the foremost.”

Last June, Episcopal Bishop William Swing, whose diocese spans the Bay Area, conducted the ordination of Inmate D-55752.

No sacramental wine was allowed inside the penitentiary, so a delegation of high-ranking clerics made do with grape soda from a vending machine. The celebrants of Tramel’s rise from predator to priest included his fiancee, his parents, his friends from the seminary, a number of inmates and a few of their wives.

At one point, the bishop asked the ritual question about whether any “impediment or crime” should disqualify the candidate. He was answered with the customary silence.

“It was a powerful silence,” Swing recalled. “It was quite a poignant silence.”


Tramel has told parole officials that he has led his life to honor Stephenson’s memory. He has sent letters of contrition to Stephenson’s relatives, who refuse to read them.

“A change of heart on their part would be an act of grace,” he said in a recent interview. “But I have absolutely no entitlement to their forgiveness.”

The prosecutors who put him away are convinced that Tramel should go free. A prosecutor in Santa Barbara County for 35 years, Assistant Dist. Atty. Patrick McKinley has seen his share of phony jailhouse conversions but feels confident about Tramel’s. “I admit the possibility, theoretically, that it’s all a sham, but I would bet everything except my life that it isn’t,” McKinley said. “I don’t think you can fake that for close to 20 years.”

The victim’s family is unimpressed.

His father, Edward Stephenson of Newport Beach, has attended numerous hearings to oppose Tramel’s parole. The man he sardonically calls “this Christian missionary prisoner” should preach all he wants -- but only behind bars, he has told officials.

Bernice Bosheff, Michael Stephenson’s aunt, has also opposed Tramel’s release.

“Tramel is prison-smart,” she said from her Riverside County home. “He knows just what to say, when to say it, and who to say it to. He’s taken in the Episcopal diocese -- and the D.A. is in the same corner.”

Whether Tramel has found God is irrelevant, Bosheff said: “It’s not for me to know. But I wouldn’t go to his church. This man is going to offer me Communion and tell me that my sins are forgiven? I don’t think so.”


At Solano, Tramel assists at services for several dozen Episcopalians. To keep inmates from amassing too much authority, prison rules forbid them to act as full-fledged clergymen.

One cold morning in January, Tramel helped a visiting deacon celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. The service in the cinder-block chapel of Complex A, Facility 3 was delayed three hours so guards could make sure none of the more than 6,000 inmates had slipped away in the fog.

In interviews, a number of inmates spoke of Tramel praying with them in hard times.

“He’s very much one of us,” said Michael Ward, a legally blind 63-year-old lifer who plays piano at Sunday services.

Last December, Tramel renewed the marriage vows of an inmate and his desperately ill wife. After conferring with his bishop, Tramel performed the ceremony in a prison visiting area for Steve Orthel, 46, and his wife, Sherry, 56.

“Having him do it made it more personal,” Orthel said. “It brought the church closer to us.”

The governor’s rejection of Tramel’s parole in 2004 prompted an angry sermon the next day from Bishop Swing. It was Easter Sunday.

“Governors of California are good at executions,” Swing said from the pulpit at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. “Governors of California are 90-pound moral weaklings when it comes to the restoration of human beings.”

Since taking office in 2003, Schwarzenegger has freed about one-third of the inmates up for parole, including more than 100 convicted of murder. His predecessor, Gray Davis, allowed parole for just eight of 294 prisoners.

In his rejection letter, Schwarzenegger pointed to the crime’s random brutality.

The governor also cited what he thought was Tramel’s spotty record in prison, alluding to alleged escape attempts from the California Youth Authority, two minor infractions at Solano, and fights in 1990 and 1999.

However, corrections officials long before had concluded that Tramel had nothing to do with any alleged escape attempts. Tramel and other inmates say he was defending himself in the fights, although that still violates prison rules. The other violations were for being 15 minutes late to work.

The governor bases his parole decisions largely on reports from a team of staff attorneys headed by his legal affairs secretary. Andrea Hoch has held that job since October.

A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment on what Hoch’s panel might recommend.

Tramel’s plans for a post-parole life -- marriage, studying, serving a congregation -- are detailed in a document with more than 190 glowing blurbs from guards and counselors, members of Good Shepherd and seminary instructors.

“I know that we Christians can sometimes be dreamy idealists, but as a Calvinist I think I am quite realistic about human sinfulness,” wrote Don Compier, a former professor at Tramel’s seminary. “I’m not easily fooled. James has passed my test.”