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California and the West

Candidates for Parole Find Hope

Justice: Gov. Davis has opposed every case to come before him. But in recent instances, a judge and the parole board have ordered releases.


SAN QUENTIN — The state parole commissioners agreed that the convicted kidnapper across the table had earned release from prison, and they wished him good luck. Then they added a chilling caveat.

"We don't know what the governor is going to do, of course," Commissioner Manuel Ortega told Tommy Davis, who has been locked up for the last 12 of his 34 years for his role in a violent kidnapping and robbery.

Translation: Even though convict Davis had been cleared for parole, he should not get his hopes too high, because Gov. Gray Davis has opposed the release of every murderer or kidnapper whose case has come before him.

Last week, however, a wave of optimism surged through the state's 28 prisons, set off by the cases of Jane Woods and Robert Rosenkrantz. The parole board will release Woods, 37, later this month over Davis' objections--possibly making her the only convicted murderer freed since he took office.

Rosenkrantz, a Calabasas man who killed an acquaintance but who has been a model inmate during 14 years in prison, could get out as early as today. He was ordered released by a Superior Court judge on Thursday, but Davis wants to keep him locked up. An appellate court Friday blocked the release but gave no indication what might happen next.

Inmates frustrated by the administration's reluctance to grant parole see the Woods case, in particular, as a beacon of hope. She is returning home to Oakland despite the objections of Davis, who wants her to serve more time.

In her case, Davis' authority is restricted because she was given a parole date before he took office and is just now approaching her scheduled release day.

Davis had two choices: let the release occur or advise the parole board to block it. He kicked it back to the board, and members took the surprise step of reaffirming their original decision to send her home.

But inmates who are given parole dates now, like Rosenkrantz and Tommy Davis, face a tougher test. The governor reviews their cases 60 days after the board grants a date, and has the power to invalidate it--a power this governor has not hesitated to use.

The Woods case is "an encouraging sign in terms of the parole board," said Donald Specter of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which helps inmates with legal matters. "But it doesn't represent any change for the governor. It's consistent with his refusal to let anyone out."

Davis' parole policies have drawn criticism in the Legislature, especially from Senate Leader John L. Burton of San Francisco and state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). Burton last spring single-handedly sank the governor's appointment of former Senate GOP Leader James Nielsen as chairman of the parole board.

He also has warned that unless the board complies with the law by freeing qualified parole candidates, he may abolish the agency by writing it out of the state budget.

Davis administration officials counter that the governor's first priority is protecting public safety. And they say he has no blanket policy against paroling kidnappers and murderers.

"He truly considers each case on its own merits," said spokeswoman Hilary McLean. "The governor's role is to review the facts and issues in the case. He uses the same criteria that the board uses."

Each year, the parole board holds about 2,000 hearings for indeterminately sentenced inmates--mostly murderers and kidnappers whose term includes the possibility of parole. The law says the board "shall set a release date" unless it concludes that the gravity of the offense requires more time behind bars.

As a result of the Davis policy, warnings about the governor's power to block releases have become routine for the life-sentence convicts who manage to win a parole date.

"The commissioners don't want prisoners to think, 'OK, I'm home free,' " said a spokeswoman for the nine-member state Board of Prison Terms.

Tommy Davis had been rejected for parole twice before, in 1995 and 1996. In 1998, another board panel of three members agreed to parole him this year, two days before Christmas.

But the full board, for reasons that are not clear, subsequently intervened and ordered another hearing to consider canceling the parole date of Davis, a college senior and football player in Oregon at the time of his arrest in 1988. That hearing was held at San Quentin last month.

At issue was whether the commissioners who originally approved Davis for release had fully weighed the gravity of his crimes, their impact on his victims and whether he had accepted responsibility for his illegal acts.

As three commissioners pondered his future behind the prison's heavily padlocked steel doors, Davis sat taut, speaking occasionally and making unwavering eye contact with the panelists.

His attorney, Keith Wattley of the Prison Law Office, said Davis had a clean record before he was convicted with four crime partners for his role in the armed robbery, rape and kidnapping of the ex-girlfriend of a Sacramento cocaine dealer.

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