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Inmate Who Became a Priest Is Paroled by Gov.

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided to parole James Tramel, a convicted murderer who was ordained an Episcopal priest in prison, a spokeswoman for the governor said Thursday.

In declining to review Tramel’s case, the governor is letting stand an October 2005 decision by the state parole board to free the 38-year-old inmate, said Julie Soderlund, a Schwarzenegger aide.

The action is a turnabout for the governor, who last year rejected the board’s 2004 decision to release Tramel.

Tramel, who has spent about 20 years behind bars, is scheduled to be released Sunday, said the Rev. Richard Helmer, a San Francisco clergyman who has coordinated a campaign for Tramel’s parole.

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In a telephone interview Thursday from Solano State Prison in Vacaville, Tramel said he was “extraordinarily grateful.”

“I feel humbled,” he said. “I feel the weight of my responsibility to justify the faith that people have put in me.”

In 1985, Tramel was one of two 17-year-old private school students in Santa Barbara arrested in the unprovoked stabbing death of a 29-year-old transient as he lay in his sleeping bag in a city park. Tramel and David Kurtzman, who still is incarcerated, were convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.

Tramel has drawn the support of hundreds of Episcopal Church members throughout the state, who see his ordination as a powerful example of personal redemption. Church officials believe he is the only U.S. inmate ever to become an Episcopal priest, an accomplishment requiring years of study, psychological evaluations, and approval by committees at various levels of the church’s hierarchy.

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His victim’s family members, however, see him as a killer who doesn’t deserve a life outside prison.

Edward Stephenson, whose son Michael died after being stabbed 17 times by Kurtzman, said Thursday that he was upset and disappointed by the governor’s decision. “We certainly don’t want him out,” said Stephenson, of Newport Beach, “but there’s not a thing we can do.”

Barbara Yates, who is engaged to Edward Stephenson, was more pointed. “Once you’ve murdered, you’ve got no right to be in society again,” the eighth-grade teacher said. “He should look at it as a privilege just to be in prison.”

Tramel’s release was supported by the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office, which had prosecuted him, and by top-ranking members of the Episcopal clergy.

In an angry Easter sermon last year, Bishop William Swing of San Francisco derided Schwarzenegger as “a 90-pound moral weakling’ for turning down Tramel’s parole. This Easter, the bishop plans to introduce Tramel to his congregation at Grace Cathedral.

“You don’t have to believe in resurrection,” Swing said Thursday. “You can just look up and see it.”

The frequently outspoken bishop expressed his gratitude to Schwarzenegger but acknowledged that any inmate’s parole is a leap of faith.

“I realize that the test is what’s going to happen when he’s out,” Swing said. “That’s where folks have to trust somebody, and I thank them for trusting James and me and the Episcopal Church.”

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Tramel has a job as an assistant pastor lined up at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley.

He is engaged to the Rev. Stephanie Green, a fellow Episcopal priest.

The two developed a relationship during her trips to the prison, where she helped Tramel pursue his master’s degree in theology.

The governor’s office had no comment on what changed Schwarzenegger’s mind about Tramel, who has been the subject of news articles, including a front-page story Saturday in the Los Angeles Times.

William Taylor, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which handled Tramel’s parole request, said his ordination might have played a role.

When parole officials first recommended parole, in 2004, Tramel was an Episcopal deacon. He was ordained a priest in a ceremony at the prison in 2005.

In his application for parole, Tramel said he accepted responsibility for Stephenson’s death, even though his friend Kurtzman wielded the knife. But Tramel said that he had egged on his classmates at Northwestern Preparatory School to even the score with members of a gang called the City Rockers, who had threatened them earlier.

The two boys encountered Stephenson, who had nothing to do with any gangs, after an evening spent fruitlessly searching for City Rockers.

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Yates said Michael Stephenson, who supported himself with odd jobs, was setting out to backpack across the country when he stopped in Santa Barbara to see a friend and bedded down for the night in Alameda Park.


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