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California and the West

Board Defies Davis, OKs Killer's Parole

Policy: He opposed freeing woman who arranged slaying of abusive boyfriend. Criticism grows for his zero-tolerance policy.

September 14, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Rejecting the advice of Gov. Gray Davis, the state parole board this month will set free an Oakland woman imprisoned in the killing of her abusive boyfriend, making her the first convicted murderer released since Davis took office.

Jane Woods, 37, will be sent home despite the governor's conclusion that she has not sufficiently paid for her crime. In a June memo, Davis said Woods should remain locked up because she masterminded the 1987 killing, committed by her friends, and "incited others to participate."

Woods' pending release from the California Institution for Women in Corona comes as Davis faces mounting criticism from lawmakers and others who call his administration's stingy parole policies unwise and unfair.

Since taking office, Davis has reviewed 26 parole grants--mostly for kidnappers and murderers--forwarded to him by the state Board of Prison Terms, a conservative panel dominated by former police officers. The governor has opposed parole in each case.

A coalition of 17 inmates recently sued Davis, contending that he automatically rejects parole no matter the circumstances, and attorneys for other inmates plan similar actions.

Legislators, meanwhile, have argued that if Davis is going to block all paroles, the state should abolish the Board of Prison Terms and use its $26.6-million annual budget for something else.

Shortly after his election, Davis said that when it comes to murderers, he does not believe in redemption: "If you take someone else's life, forget it," he told The Times in April 1999, adding that extenuating circumstances--an abusive husband shot by a battered wife, for example--would not affect his view.

More recently, Davis' representatives have sought to recast his statement, perhaps because he might be legally vulnerable if attorneys could prove that he had a blanket policy against parole.

The governor's 1999 statement about murderers "was just an expression of his philosophy," spokeswoman Hilary McLean said Wednesday. "There is no blanket policy. He considers each case individually and on its merits."

McLean said Davis had no reaction to the pending release of Woods. But others expressed hope that it signals a willingness by the parole board to defy the governor.

"I don't think they're going to open the floodgates or anything, but at least this is a start," said Gary Diamond, a lawyer who represents inmates before the board. "It validates what we've been saying--that there are certain people out there who deserve to be let out."

Woods was a 24-year-old telephone operator when she was arrested in the stabbing death of her boyfriend, Richard Davis, at their Oakland apartment. Prison records show that she admits having enlisted two co-workers to beat him after he threw her against a wall while she was pregnant. She told authorities she wanted to send him a message but did not want him killed.

The night before the murder, one of the co-workers hit Davis on the head with a baseball bat. Concluding that the beating was not severe enough, the assailants returned the next day and stabbed him. Woods, screaming hysterically, called 911.

Woods was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. In 1997, she was deemed suitable for release and awarded a parole date in 2000 by a three-member panel of the board. Under the law, the governor--Pete Wilson at that time--could let the date stand or invalidate it. Wilson let it stand.

But governors are given a second review within 90 days of an inmate's release, and that is how Woods' case landed on Davis' desk. He concluded that she was directly responsible for her boyfriend's death and deserved more punishment.

While the law prevented Davis from blocking Woods' parole so close to her release date, he did refer it back to the board for a fresh look by all of its members. On Aug. 28, the commissioners upheld the parole grant without comment.

The Woods case marks the sixth time that parole board members have overruled Davis and approved the release of an inmate they no longer deem a threat to society. Four kidnappers have been set free and one man serving time for attempted murder was let out--despite Davis' recommendation that each remain in prison.

Analysts said Davis' actions are those of a savvy political player with a firm grasp on history. Like many elected officials, Davis no doubt remembers Willie Horton, the Massachusetts inmate who committed a rape while out on a furlough granted by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton's image was used by former President George Bush to hammer Dukakis during their 1988 presidential race, and few politicians failed to learn a lesson.

"The politics of law and order assumes that anything that is bad for criminal offenders is good for the state," said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall. "So Davis knows that you don't get punished for excessive zeal in the war on crime."

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