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Is this paroled killer still a threat?

Times Staff Writer

Sandra Davis Lawrence is grateful for the simple things she can do now, like pick up her grandniece from school. And she is anxious to make up for lost time, to find a career and start earning money again.

Lawrence spent 24 years in state prison for murdering her lover’s wife with a gun and a potato peeler while in a jealous rage. A model inmate, she received a second chance at freedom last summer when a court ordered her released. Since then, she has reunited with family in Los Angeles and tried to re-integrate into society at age 61.

“I want to become a taxpayer,” she said in a recent interview. “Everybody is trying to not pay taxes. I want to pay taxes.”

But Lawrence may have to return to prison instead, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can convince the California Supreme Court that she remains a threat to public safety. That she has had no problems with the law in a year of freedom is irrelevant, the governor’s office said; she should not have been let out.

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The court is poised in coming weeks to seal Lawrence’s fate, along with that of nine other convicted murderers seeking freedom. The justices are expected to answer some difficult questions: When should a killer be set free? What are the limits, if any, on the governor’s power to decide? Are such factors as an inmate’s prison record and age ever more significant than a horrendous crime committed decades ago?

The state parole board had approved Lawrence’s release four times since 1993, but three governors vetoed those decisions. Schwarzenegger blocked Lawrence’s release twice before judges on the state Court of Appeal reversed him.

The slaying showed “an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering,” the governor wrote two years ago in denying Lawrence parole. “This was a cold, premeditated murder carried out in an especially cruel manner and committed for an incredibly petty reason.”

According to the appellate court decision, Lawrence killed her victim in an explosion of fury when, after months in a love triangle, her lover told her he had changed his mind about leaving his wife. She felt betrayed and humiliated, she has said, because he had vowed to marry her.

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While she was in prison, Lawrence earned two degrees, learned trades that included plumbing and data-processing, was president of the inmates’ Toastmasters Club, worked as a library porter and tennis coach, co-founded a tutoring program and remained discipline-free. She apologized profusely for her crime.

The state sets up a false promise, Lawrence says. It encourages inmates to improve themselves to earn their release, then refuses to let them go.

“I was pretty successful by their standards, inside, notwithstanding the crime itself,” she said. “They were talking rehabilitation. The system was talking rehabilitation. Here’s a person who’s rehabilitated. Now what?”

Increasingly, inmates fighting a parole process they believe is driven by tough-on-crime politics have filed petitions in court, successfully challenging the state’s refusal to release them. Lawrence was one of them.

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In at least 28 cases since late 2005, including hers, judges have overturned Schwarzenegger’s parole denials for inmates who appeared to have reformed or who seemed too sick or elderly to pose a serious threat anymore. Some remain in prison pending appeals.

“This is an extremely high reversal rate,” said Rich Pfeiffer, an Orange County attorney who represents such inmates. “It was so completely unfair, the courts finally had to do something. The governor can basically resentence these inmates to life without possibility of parole.”

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, noted that many judges have upheld the governor’s decisions to deny parole. She said he weighs all the factors in an inmate’s file and acts based on his opinion of whether the prisoner poses a danger.

“While the safety of California’s communities is always his top focus, the governor believes in the promise of rehabilitation and that it is a critical part of our prison system,” Page said.

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Victims’ groups closely track the state’s actions on releasing murderers. California’s Crime Victims Action Alliance has criticized the parole board for creating a “dangerous society” and has called Schwarzenegger too lenient.

Academics and advocates for prisoners say long-term inmates convicted of violent crimes have the lowest rates of re-offending. Most are old when they get out and they committed crimes against people they knew, which are not likely to be repeated.

Parole agent Anthony Maes, who checks in with Lawrence about four times a month, said she’s adjusting well and he does not see her as dangerous. “She is on the right path. . . . Her whole outlook on life is very, very good,” he said, and returning to prison “would crush her.”

Lawrence is slender and striking, with fine features and sharp eyes that conjure the younger woman who entered the California Institution for Women in Chino as inmate W-19366 in 1983 after 11 years on the lam and a trial lasting more than a year. Outspoken and exuberant, it is only in brief, rare moments that she expresses her fear of losing freedom again or her anger at those who would take it. Then her humor and bravado kick in -- even about the governor.

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“I love Arnold,” she said. “He was one of my heroes, and I really still like him. He’s just involved in his politics.”

California incarcerates more than 30,000 inmates who have been given potential life sentences but are eligible to earn parole. Most “lifers” are murderers.

The parole board grants release dates to a relative few. Schwarzenegger vetoes most releases approved by the parole board, as did his predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis. Since taking office, Schwarzenegger has allowed 191 lifers to leave prison -- about 1% of more than 16,000 who had parole hearings.

Lawrence has seemed to be in a state of constant activity since her release July 11 of last year. She moved into a halfway house in Claremont for six months. She found a church to attend. She befriended a local couple, who invited her to house-sit at their condo while they were in Australia for the winter.

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“I’ve always been a people person, and it seems like people just migrate to me,” Lawrence said.

And she has reconnected with long-lost family, forging bonds with relatives she barely knew. Her niece Yolanda Mitchell, 40, a nurse in Los Angeles, was a teenager when Lawrence went to prison.

Today, their relationship is “so natural that it’s almost like her being my mom,” said Mitchell, whose mother, Lawrence’s sister, died 10 years ago.

At an age when others retire, Lawrence started to network. She has worked part-time cleaning apartments in Redondo Beach and selling shoes. Recently, she began taking classes toward certification as a drug counselor. She addressed law students at USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, whose professors are representing her in court free.

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The murder Lawrence committed Monday, Feb. 15, 1971, was the culmination of an affair she had with Robert Williams, a dentist. They began dating soon after she moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, where her husband had left her with two young sons.

During the affair, Williams repeatedly broke promises to divorce his wife, Rubye, with whom he had two children, and marry Lawrence. The final rejection came in a phone call after they had spent a weekend planning a future together.

Lawrence snapped. She found Rubye Williams alone at her husband’s new office, taking a delivery. According to Lawrence’s statements to the state parole board, the two argued, then scuffled. Anticipating a confrontation, Lawrence said, she had taken a gun from her sister’s house for self-protection. When the scuffle took place, she pulled the pistol from her pocket.

Firing wildly, she shot her lover’s wife four times. Then she stabbed Williams with a potato peeler that she had grabbed before leaving home in what she has described as a crazed and desperate moment.

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“Before I went to the office, as I’m thinking all of these bad, negative, raw emotional thoughts, I decided that I should take something to protect myself, just in case things got out of hand,” Lawrence told the state parole board. “I went into my kitchen and went into the -- the kitchen drawer, and I chose a potato peeler. Don’t ask me why I chose a potato peeler.”

After the killing, she fled, threw the peeler into a river, replaced the gun at her sister’s house, then went to another sister’s home and fell asleep.

“I just wanted to close my eyes and hope that this was a bad dream,” she said.

During her years on the run, Lawrence lived under assumed names in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania and New York while her sons stayed with her parents in Alabama. Eventually, she said, she could no longer live with what she had done. She returned to Los Angeles and turned herself in at the office of attorney Johnny Cochran to face the charges against her.

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“When I became physically well and mentally well,” she said, “there was nothing else to do but come back and take responsibility for what I did.”

She pleaded not guilty and suggested during the trial that Robert Williams was to blame for the killing of his wife. Her family fired Cochran as her defense lawyer in a dispute over money, and Lawrence was convicted of first-degree murder in 1983. The sentence was seven years to life with the possibility of parole.

In prison, Lawrence underwent extensive therapy, eventually realizing she had been angry at Robert Williams and frustrated with her life and had wrongly directed her rage at Rubye Williams. She told that to the parole board repeatedly.

“I come to you today, apologizing as I do on a daily basis when it comes up in my mind, apologize to Rubye Williams, knowing that I took her life,” Lawrence told the board at her 2005 hearing. “And I have stood strong . . . for 21 years letting everyone know that I was willing to make a change.”

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In rejecting her parole, as governors Davis and Pete Wilson had done before him, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that Lawrence had made “creditable gains” while locked up.

In his most recent denial letter, on Jan. 11, 2006, however, he indicated that he believed she had not taken real responsibility for her crime.

After Lawrence petitioned for release, the California Court of Appeal concluded in a May 2007 decision that the governor had presented no real evidence that she was still dangerous.

When she left prison, her niece traveled to see her at Crossroads, the halfway house.

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“I thought she would look like a hard-core biker chick,” Mitchell said. “And when I saw her I was just blown away, because I’m like, wow, she is so pretty, she is so bubbly. Her personality, her character, everything does not match what you would think a person would be like after those 24 years.”

In the last few months, Lawrence has spent most of her time living at Mitchell’s house in Los Angeles, sometimes fetching Mitchell’s 10-year-old daughter from school. From time to time, she reunites with old friends from Chino, other women like herself who have made the move to life on the outside.

On June 4, Lawrence, accompanied by two friends from prison, attended a hearing on her case in Los Angeles before the seven justices of the state Supreme Court, who sat high above the packed gallery. Some seemed sympathetic.

“For many, many years, the prisoner has expressed deep remorse for the crime,” said Associate Justice Joyce Kennard.

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But Associate Justice Marvin Baxter asserted that she had led “a full life of deception,” referring to the affair and her time on the lam.

He said the murder was especially brutal: “After firing the weapon, the defendant finished the victim off with a potato peeler!”

In the lobby later, Lawrence regrouped with her lawyers.

“I’m not feeling the best,” she admitted, though she switched gears quickly. “But I’m optimistic. I’m the ultimate optimist.”

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Governors’ records

The state parole board under Gov. Arnold Schwarzen-

egger has been granting releases to about 5% of eligible inmates serving life sentences.

Governors narrow the pool further in deciding who can leave prison. Here is the record of the last three governors:

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Arnold Schwarzenegger

(Republican)

Parole grants reviewed: 830

Releases allowed: 191

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Gray Davis (Democrat)

Parole grants reviewed: 371

Releases allowed: 9

Pete Wilson (Republican)

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Parole grants reviewed: 174

Releases allowed: 137

Source: Times reporting

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Nine other state Supreme Court cases

The California Supreme Court is reviewing the cases of 10 inmates, including Sandra Davis Lawrence and the nine named below, who have challenged their denials of parole by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or the state parole board. Some were released by lower courts; others remain incarcerated.

John E. Dannenberg

Killed his wife by drowning and blows to her head. May 15, 1985.

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Status: Freed

Peter George Cooper

Killed his wife with a sledgehammer. Nov. 16, 1986.

Status: Freed

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Arnold Jacobson

Shot his ex-girlfriend and killed her friend. March 13, 1985.

Status: Incarcerated

Michael Montgomery

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Driver in a drug-related murder-for-hire. Nov. 6, 1985.

Status: Freed

Richard Shaputis

Shot his wife in the neck, killing her. Jan. 24, 1987.

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Status: Incarcerated Justo Avalos

Outside a bar he managed, he shot and killed an unarmed customer. May 10, 1981.

Status: Incarcerated

Lee Staben

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Killed a pregnant woman, firing a shotgun into her boyfriend’s home. July 15, 1990.

Status: Incarcerated Lennie Parker

Helped a friend murder another friend with a shotgun. Jan. 1, 1987.

Status: Incarcerated

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Joseph Rozzo

Participated in a racially motivated killing by beating the victim, puncturing his windpipe with his fingers. July 29, 1980.

Status: Incarcerated


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