Limiting California’s ‘compassionate release’ program

Gregory Powell, better known to L.A. history buffs and fans of novelist Joseph Wambaugh as the “Onion Field” killer, is going to die in prison. That’s fine with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the family of Powell’s victim and even Powell himself. But it does raise questions about the state’s “compassionate release” program and whether killers should be set free when their time is nearly up.

In 1963, Powell and an accomplice abducted Los Angeles Police Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger at gunpoint, drove them to an onion field near Bakersfield and executed Campbell. Powell was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to death row, but when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. That life is nearing its end; according to Powell’s doctor, he has terminal prostate cancer and has less than six months to live. The finding triggered a hearing this week by the parole board to determine whether Powell qualifies to be set free under the state’s compassionate release law, even though he reportedly told authorities that he’d prefer to remain in prison.

In Powell’s case, the decision not to release him probably wasn’t a tough one. His crime was so heinous that any other choice would have represented a miscarriage of justice. When recommending to the court whether to reconsider a terminally ill inmate’s sentence, the parole board must consider not just whether the inmate is dying and whether his release would pose a threat to the public, but other factors such as his behavior behind bars, his criminal history and the effect of his release on his victims’ families. Powell’s brutal slaying of Campbell shocked L.A. and permanently shattered the LAPD’s aura of invulnerability, possibly encouraging other criminals to target cops. He showed no compassion for his victim and should receive none from the state.


Yet California’s compassionate release law, despite the name, has very little to do with compassion. The 1997 bill that created it, sponsored by Antonio Villaraigosa when he was a state assemblyman, was mainly intended to save the state money because end-of-life medical care for inmates is extremely expensive. Letting them die outside prison walls doesn’t let the state completely off the hook, because freed inmates often still require government-sponsored medical care, but the state saves the cost of guarding and housing them. That’s also the rationale behind California’s medical parole law, a more recent variation under which non-terminal inmates may be let out of prison as long as they’re too incapacitated to present a public threat. Such policies make good financial sense without unduly risking public safety. But does that mean everybody should be eligible?

We don’t think so. Powell isn’t the first inmate whose potential early release has shocked public sensibilities. In 2008, “Manson family” killer Susan Atkins requested compassionate release after being diagnosed with brain cancer; it was denied, and she died in prison the following year. What Atkins and Powell have in common is that neither should have been considered for the program. In 1972, when their death sentences were overturned, the sentences should have been converted to life without the possibility of parole, which would have made them ineligible for compassionate release today. That didn’t happen because no such sentence existed in 1972; it wasn’t until 1977 that California reimposed the death penalty and instituted the alternative sentence of life without parole.

There were 107 death row inmates whose sentences were commuted in 1972, of whom 32 remain in California prisons. They include such infamous killers as Charles Manson and other members of his “family,” as well as Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. All of them are eligible for parole and, if doctors determine they have less than six months to live, compassionate release. In fact, many of the original 107 already have been released, and five are back in prison after committing additional crimes or violating the terms of their parole. A member of this Class of ’72 produced one of the most notorious failures in the history of California’s parole system: Robert Lee Massie was sentenced to death in 1965, became a lifer in 1972, was paroled for good behavior in 1978 and committed another murder the following year. He was once again sent to death row and was executed in 2001.

It’s safe to say that Massie never should have been let out, and we can’t think of a reason why any of these former death row inmates should get any kind of parole — medical, compassionate or otherwise — unless evidence arises to overturn their original convictions. No amount of good behavior can compensate for first-degree murder with special circumstances.