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Early Release of Rapist Sets Off Dispute : Campaign: Wilson blames faulty sentencing and lenient judges. But rival Brown charges that Administration erred.

March 12, 1994|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday decried the imminent release of a Bay Area serial rapist after 12 years in prison and angrily denied an opponent's charge that bumbling by his Department of Corrections will allow the rapist to go free two years early.

Wilson said state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, is trying to "con the public" and is irresponsibly seeking to play on voters' fears of crime.

The dispute stems from the latest Democratic attempts to undercut Wilson's image as a tough-as-nails crime fighter.

With public concern about violent crime dovetailing neatly with Wilson's longtime advocacy of stricter sentencing laws, Wilson capitalized on the issue during his two-day tour earlier this week to officially open his reelection campaign.

His Democratic foes are trying to send a different message: Wilson may talk tough on crime, but he does not deliver.

"After all of Wilson's tough election year rhetoric," Brown said Friday, "we are seeing once again that his actions on crime do not match his words."

In this case, however, Brown's attack may have backfired and allowed Wilson, who is no stranger to using the crime issue for political gain, to turn the tables and accuse his opponent of exploitation. Wilson also seized the opportunity to remind voters that Brown's father and brother were governors known for appointing lenient judges to the bench.

At issue is the scheduled release of Melvin A. Carter, who confessed to raping more than 100 women over an 11-year period in Palo Alto, Berkeley and other Bay Area towns.

Convicted of 12 of the rapes in 1982, Carter was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He is eligible for release after serving just half his term because his sentence was reduced by credits for good behavior and for working while behind bars.

Brown, relying on a newspaper account, alleged that the Department of Corrections could have prevented Carter's release from Soledad prison. She said neither Wilson nor the Department of Corrections knew of a sentencing mistake in Carter's case until contacted by a reporter days before the inmate was scheduled to go free.

"Heads must roll," Brown said in a statement released by her office, urging Wilson to fire department officials responsible for what she said was incompetence.

But Wilson on Friday disclosed correspondence showing that prison officials more than a decade ago discovered what they contended was the sentencing error. Citing technical issues, they said the judge should have set Carter's term at 29 years instead of 25, which would have kept him in prison for at least two more years.

The department tried several times to get judges to acknowledge the error and correct it. The final effort failed earlier this week when an Alameda County judge ruled that Carter's original sentence was correct and said there was nothing the state could do to stop his release.

"The charge is utterly false," Wilson said. "It is an outrageous attempt to deceive the public and to exploit the public's fear of violent crime. She is trying to con the public."

The Department of Corrections' actions, he said, were "commendably diligent."

As Carter's inevitable release date approached, Wilson said, his office took extraordinary measures to obtain the strictest possible supervision of the inmate once he was paroled. The restrictions are to include electronic monitoring of Carter, state approval of his residence and polygraph tests every six months.

Wilson added: "This issue isn't one about the Department of Corrections. The issue is what kind of laws we have to deal with violent crime and what kind of judges we have sitting on the bench to apply those laws."

Since taking office in 1991, Wilson has repeatedly sought to lengthen prison terms for rapists and is now advocating life in prison without parole for first-time sex offenders. He has also tried to curtail the credit system that allows inmates to cut their terms in half, as Carter did.

Wilson's proposals have been blocked by Democrats in the Legislature.

The governor also noted that the late Superior Court Judge Martin Pulich could have sentenced Carter to up to 52 years in prison but was lenient because Carter cooperated with authorities after his arrest. Pulich was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., Kathleen Brown's father.

"Since Ms. Brown has raised the issue, it's time for her to come clean and level with the public," Wilson said. "Kathleen Brown, if you were governor, would you appoint trial judges like Martin Pulich? Or Supreme Court judges like Rose Bird, appointed by your brother, Jerry Brown?"

Brown later released a statement repeating her allegations and attacking Wilson for ducking responsibility for Carter's release.

"This is classic Pete Wilson," she said. "He's blaming my father. He's blaming a judge who is no longer living. He's blaming the system. He's blaming everyone but himself--and his Department of Corrections."

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