Amid COVID-19, California releases some inmates doing time for murder. Advocates push to free more
Terebea Williams was 22 when she shot her boyfriend, drove 750 miles with him bleeding in the trunk of his own car and then dragged him into a Northern California motel, tied him to a chair and left him to die.
Convicted of murder, carjacking and kidnapping, Williams went on to earn a college degree during her 19 years in prison, where she also mentored younger inmates and was lauded by administrators for her “exceptional conduct” while incarcerated.
The contrasting portraits of Williams as stone-cold killer and rehabilitated model prisoner highlight the difficulties in a plan to release thousands of California inmates to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed at least 52 of those incarcerated and sickened more than 8,700 others.
Inmates said they felt helpless as coronavirus swept rapidly through California’s prisons.
This spring, the state expedited the release of 3,500 inmates because of the coronavirus, and in July it freed 2,345 others early. Thousands more are eligible for release, including at least 6,500 deemed to be at high risk because of medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom and corrections officials have focused on freeing nonviolent offenders, they also are letting out people who, like Williams, have committed violent crimes but have serious medical conditions.
Williams, 44, walked out of a women’s prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on July 29, lopping decades off her 84-years-to-life sentence for killing Kevin “John” Ruska Jr., who died of infection from a gunshot wound to the gut.
Some prisoners’ rights advocates say Williams exemplifies the type of inmate who should be released — one who has already served a lengthy sentence, poses a low risk of reoffending and is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Some are also pushing to expand the criteria for early releases to include similar types of inmates now serving life without parole for murder.
But in Williams’ case and others, officials have drawn the ire of prosecutors, victims’ rights advocates and family members amid questions about which and how many inmates are being released — and whether it is being done with enough transparency to protect the public.
“The governor of California, Terebea’s public defender and the politicians of California have used COVID to allow this cold, calculated, lying, unremorseful murderer out of jail 65 years early, without giving the victim, Johnny, a voice,” said Ruska’s cousin, Karri Phillips.
The COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin was predictable because of the prison’s layout and the simple truth that viruses will spread in packed spaces.
Whether violent felons should be paroled has long been debated, but the matter has become more urgent because of the coronavirus and the troubled and chaotic way some nonviolent offenders have been set free. The process for determining who gets out and why is unclear, and some victims’ families say they have been blindsided by decisions.
Some inmates and their lawyers also say they have been kept in the dark about the selection process.
Brian Pomerantz, a defense attorney who represents a San Quentin inmate at high risk medically and within months of parole eligibility, petitioned a federal court on July 10 for an early release. But a month later, Pomerantz said, he still had heard nothing from the court or corrections officials on the fate of Anthony Waldrip, who has served 20 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Waldrip, now 54, did not own the gun and was moving it from a play area where an 8-year-old boy was showing it to his sister when police spotted him with the weapon, Pomerantz said, calling it a victimless crime.
“To the best of my knowledge, no one has even considered him for early release,” he said. “If the state is not releasing the least dangerous, the soonest eligible, the most medically vulnerable, or those without victims, what criteria are being utilized?”
The state’s release numbers are fluid and subject to parole regulations and the decisions of officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some inmates are being freed on parole through regular channels, while others must meet such criteria as being within six or 12 months of the end of their sentences, depending on the prison.
The announcement by top advisors to Gov. Gavin Newsom offered stark evidence of the dire health conditions at several California prisons.
Despite recent releases, many prisons remain at or over capacity, making it difficult to stop coronavirus from spreading. More releases are needed, said medical experts, to control the crisis and alleviate the risk that ill inmates will need hospitalizations in surrounding communities where healthcare systems are already stressed.
In a statement, corrections officials said that the 6,500 inmates identified as medically high-risk for COVID-19 were only “eligible for consideration” for release and would be evaluated “based upon public safety and public health considerations.”
“We take these decisions very seriously and continue to work with our law enforcement, public health, and community-based partners to address their concerns and work through this public health emergency together,” it said.
Advocates for compassionate releases argue that most of those being considered are older and unlikely to commit new violent crimes. They say that only people who have shown they are rehabilitated, often after decades behind bars, are eligible — and the releases ultimately are in line with reforms that have rolled back overly harsh sentences handed out decades ago in a tough-on-crime, three-strikes era.
Officials cite missteps by state prisons officials handling recent releases of inmates.
“The safest person to be let back into our communities is a lifer, a lifer who has worked on himself, who has been to [Alcoholics Anonymous] for 20 years, who has done victim impact classes, who has unpacked childhood trauma,” said Karen McDaniel, founder of Place4Grace, which provides rides home to those recently released and advocates for prison reform.
“I any day would rather have a van full of lifers than a van full of guys who have just done a year,” she said.
Newsom, like Gov. Jerry Brown before him, has committed to reforming the criminal justice system with an eye toward lowering incarceration rates and prioritizing rehabilitation.
But the specter of a violent offender committing another heinous crime after release is every politician’s nightmare. Many recall the case of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner who committed a rape while out on an inmate furlough program, a much-publicized crime that helped doom then-Gov. Michael Dukakis’ presidential hopes in 1988.
“We still have an issue of should we only release violent or nonviolent offenders, and that is a political issue we shouldn’t be talking about when it comes to human lives,” said Michael Mendoza, who was sentenced to adult prison at age 15 for participating in a gang murder.
Mendoza, now executive director of the advocacy group #cut50, served 17 years before overhauls targeting youthful offenders made him eligible for parole in 2014.
He and others say studies have shown that those who have served long sentences already, whether their crimes were violent or not, are the least likely to reoffend — at a rate less than 5%, and for some demographics as low as 1%. And when they do reoffend, it often is for nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession or theft.
Some advocates contend that the pool of vulnerable inmates prioritized for early release should be expanded to include those with mental illness. Psychiatric services have been sharply cut back in many prisons dealing with outbreaks, they say, and suicides are a continuing problem.
Michael Bien, a lawyer involved in a long-running federal lawsuit over prison medical care, says many inmates with mental health needs face a mix of physical and psychological danger that should be taken into account.
“It’s like people locked in a closet in the middle of a fire,” Bien said. “We have to get them out of there.”
The move comes amid criticism over the transfer of hundreds of inmates to prisons from a Chino facility reeling from coronavirus infections.
Condemned inmates are not eligible for COVID-19 emergency release, while those serving life sentences without possibility of parole can be freed only if the governor grants clemency. California has more than 5,000 people who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, including about 200 women — the largest such population in the country, according to advocates.
Others are also seeking clemency during the pandemic.
At 71, Ameenah Rasul has been in the California Institution for Women since 1979, when she was convicted of first-degree murder and second-degree murder in two separate cases that occurred five years apart, both involving men who were shot in the head, according to media reports. Rasul’s advocates said her crimes stemmed from being in an abusive relationship.
Rasul said she dreamed about simple things like scrambling her own eggs or crossing the street. She is seeking clemency for medical reasons, including requiring a walker for mobility.
“I have tried my best to better myself during the past 41 years by obtaining three associates degrees, completing countless self-help groups and have obtained great insight into my life as well as my crime,” she said in an email.
“The opportunity to regain my freedom would mean that I would not be doomed to die in prison, but instead spend the last years of my life breathing the sweet air of freedom,” she added. “I would have a chance to regain my dignity.”
While Rasul awaits word on her clemency bid, prosecutors in Yolo County denounced the state’s decision to release Williams and another inmate convicted of unrelated violent crimes, with little advance notice and almost no explanation.
At her trial in 2001, Williams told jurors that her boyfriend had threatened and stalked her, and that she killed him in self-defense.
A psychotherapist testifying on her behalf said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple past rapes and abuse beginning when she was 11, but the court ruled the evidence of past trauma was not relevant and did not allow the jury to hear it, according to court records.
The jury took little time to find her guilty.
“Everyone assumed she would never see freedom again,” Yolo County Assistant Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Melinda Aiello told The Times a week after Williams walked out of prison.
“While Corrections told us they were releasing her just a few days before, there is no transparency, and we have no other explanation for her release,” Aiello said. “There is no reason for failing to listen to the family of a victim who suffered truly horrifically.”
Corrections officials said Williams was released for medical reasons but would not provide details about her condition. Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson confirmed Williams had a serious medical condition and said her office had been working since 2018 to have Williams set free.
Olson said Williams was “the exact type of person that should be released early” and that she believed Williams would have been freed under reforms for youthful offenders or a commutation presented to Newsom if the medical release had not happened.
“She did all the work you would want anyone to do,” said Olson.
In late July, the state also freed Santiago Cruz, 65, who was serving a 125-year sentence on his conviction for criminal threats in 1997 under California’s three-strikes law.
Cruz repeatedly harassed his ex-wife, stalked her boyfriend and tossed a Molotov cocktail at their home as they slept, Aiello said. He also phoned the 18-year-old daughter of the new boyfriend and “threatened to rape her while her father watched, kill her and then kill her father,” Aiello said.
Olson said Cruz was disabled and would have been eligible for parole in 2021.
Aiello said Yolo prosecutors had to scramble to find Cruz’s victims and warn them about his release. As in Williams’ case, Aiello said, the state provided no explanation.
Cruz’s ex-wife says she feels she “is now the one in prison,” according to a statement provided to the Yolo County District Attorney.
“A dangerous person is being released into society again,” Aiello said, “and it’s not fair to her.”
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