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Davis Relents, Allows Parole

Woman wins freedom after 14 years in prison following a judge's ruling that there was no reason for the governor to block her release.

September 05, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A 55-year-old woman imprisoned for 14 years in the death of her boyfriend was cleared for release by Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday, seven weeks after a Superior Court judge said the governor had no justification for denying her parole.

The decision makes Solia Gracia the seventh eligible murder convict -- out of 251 cases -- that Davis has allowed to go free since taking office, with five of those earning parole since the governor's reelection last year.

Gracia, from the small Fresno County town of Parlier, was convicted in the 1985 murder of Albert Sandoval, her boyfriend of 10 years. There are conflicting versions of the crime, but evidence shows that Gracia fired two shots from a gun, and that one of them ricocheted off the floor, striking Sandoval in the leg.

Gracia took Sandoval to the hospital, but gangrene set in and the leg had to be amputated. During a follow-up surgery four days later, Sandoval died of cardiac arrest.

Offered a deal in which she would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, Gracia instead went to trial, insisting that the shooting was an accident that occurred as she and Sandoval -- who enjoyed target shooting together -- were cleaning the gun.

At trial, she was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

Gracia has been a model inmate, with no disciplinary citations and a record replete with volunteer work and laudatory reports from supervisors and state Department of Corrections psychiatrists.

Based on that record, she has twice been approved for release by the state Board of Prison Terms, which is appointed by the governor, reviews the records of eligible inmates and forwards parole recommendations to Davis for approval.

The first time, in 2002, Davis rejected Gracia for parole, saying she needed additional incarceration and remained a danger to the public.

Gracia challenged that decision in court, and in July a Fresno County Superior Court judge sided with her, saying the governor had used "boilerplate rationalizations" for her continued imprisonment that did not fit the facts of her case.

"The governor's conclusion that [Gracia] is a threat to society and would benefit from continued confinement ... is contrary to the existing objective evidence," Judge Rosendo Pena ruled, ordering Davis to reconsider the case.

But as her legal case was pending, Gracia again appeared before the parole board and again had been found suitable for release. On Thursday, Davis concurred with the board's newest finding, making the court order moot.

In a statement, Davis cited Gracia's accomplishments in prison, noted that there was no opposition to her release from prosecutors and said the prison staff believes she poses no risk to the public.

The shooting, he said, "appears to have been a one-time aberration out of character for Ms. Gracia." Davis added that while awaiting trial and then again while appealing her conviction, she was out on bail for about three years, remaining law-abiding and holding a job.

Gracia's lawyer, William Schmidt of Pismo Beach, said his client is long overdue for release. "She's like your grandmother," Schmidt said. "This case clearly was an accident. Her boyfriend died while on the operating table of a heart attack."

Schmidt said he was gratified that a judge had sided with Gracia, arguing that the ruling had influenced the governor's decision to grant parole. "Clearly the court order is what motivated him," he said.

A spokesman for the parole board said Gracia was expected to be released Monday from the women's prison in Chowchilla.

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