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Ex-Officer Paroled in 1980 Killing

The action is only the sixth in 229 cases in which Davis has gone along with a board's recommendation of freedom for a murderer.

June 27, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Gray Davis has agreed to parole a former police officer who killed a man during a drunken confrontation in Anaheim in 1980, officials said Thursday, marking the sixth time in 229 cases that Davis has allowed a convicted murderer to go free.

Gale Sawvell, 65, deserves parole because he has expressed remorse for the killing, completed numerous self-help programs and maintained a perfect disciplinary record during his 22 years behind bars, Davis said in a statement.

"This was a senseless, tragic shooting," Davis said, but Sawvell has "profited from his time in prison and demonstrated an undeniable commitment to rehabilitation."

The governor added that two recent evaluations by prison psychiatrists concluded that Sawvell would pose no threat to public safety if released.

Davis' parole record has been under scrutiny since early 1999, when he told The Times that no murderers would be released on his watch, regardless of the circumstances.

Critics said that statement suggested Davis had an illegal blanket policy against parole. But the California Supreme Court last year said the governor has broad latitude to deny parole to inmates, even if they have exemplary prison records and lower courts and the parole board say they should be freed.

Recently, Davis has appeared more willing to uphold paroles recommended by the board, whose members he appoints. After freeing only two convicted murderers in his first four years in office, Davis has approved the release of four more since his reelection last November.

A spokesman for the governor, Gabriel Sanchez, said there has been no change in Davis' thinking: "As he always has, the governor continues to consider each case on its merits," Sanchez said.

Sawvell was convicted of second-degree murder in the November 1980 killing of Kenneth Freleich. The crime unfolded after Sawvell heard a commotion outside his Anaheim home, went outside to investigate and found Freleich waving his arms and yelling, according to a summary from the governor.

Sawvell, retired from a police force in South Dakota, retrieved his nightstick and tried to talk with Freleich, who rushed Sawvell, grabbed the nightstick and hit him on the head with it.

After running inside to fetch a shotgun, Sawvell ordered Freleich to leave and then shot him in the stomach when Freleich rushed him instead.

Sawvell was convicted and sentenced to 17 years to life for the crime. In January, the parole board approved his release over objections from the Orange County district attorney, who said the inmate's account of the crime had changed over the years.

Despite that opposition, the board and Davis noted that the inmate -- who was drunk at the time of the crime and had drunk-driving convictions on his record -- had been actively involved in Alcoholics Anonymous since 1984; had received excellent work appraisals in prison; and had participated in a victim-offender reconciliation group.

A spokesman for the parole board said Sawvell would probably be freed Sunday and planned to live with relatives in South Dakota, where his release had been supported by a county sheriff and a former governor.

Davis also has paroled three battered women imprisoned in the killings of their abusers, and two Stockton men convicted of second-degree murder for crimes committed in the 1980s.

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