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Murderer Dying of Cancer Gains Release From Prison

September 20, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Twenty-one years ago, Vadilla Spragin killed her sleeping husband by dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire in their San Bernardino home.

On Friday, a San Bernardino County judge agreed to release Spragin, now a 71-year-old great-grandmother suffering from liver cancer that doctors said leaves her with just months to live.

Hours after the hearing, Spragin walked out of the California Institute for Women in Corona.

"I have a smile on my face," Spragin said, speaking on a cellular phone for the first time. "Everything worked out and I am on my way home. I feel great. I am looking forward to being with my family and a really comfortable bed with a real comfortable mattress."

Although it had denied Spragin parole 10 times since her 1984 murder conviction, the California Board of Prison Terms unanimously agreed last week to free her under the state's "compassionate release" law.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith issued the release order after hearing evidence that Spragin is dying and no longer poses a threat. Smith placed Spragin on probation for a year, although she is not expected to live that long.

Prosecutors did not oppose the release.

"The crime the defendant committed was unspeakable," Deputy Dist. Atty. Dwight Moore said during the hearing. But "it is abundantly clear she is not a danger to society."

Spragin, who grew up in Louisiana, had two children before divorcing her husband of 14 years, Lloyd Woods, who attended Friday's hearing. She then married Harry Spragin in 1976. According to her attorney, it was a violent relationship.

"He became a heavy drinker, as did Vadilla," said Ventura attorney Kay Duffy, who took on Spragin's case through a pro bono project that assists women who were convicted of killing their abusers before evidence of domestic violence was recognized as a defense in California courts.

In Spragin's case, Duffy said, police reports indicate that Harry Spragin threatened to kill his wife with a knife, punched and choked her. "His abuse was so bad he took a running drill, put it up to her breast and basically drilled a hole in her," she said.

The couple fought for the last time on Nov. 5, 1982, when an intoxicated Vadilla Spragin woke up, found her husband asleep on a couch in the garage, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire. He was hospitalized for a month before he died.

Evidence of the alleged abuse was presented to the Board of Prison Terms but it didn't substantiate Spragin's claims of being brutalized, said board spokesman Bill Sessa.

A law passed last year allows prisoners convicted prior to 1992 to file habeas corpus petitions to overturn their convictions on the grounds that evidence of battered women's syndrome was not used in their defense.

Duffy was working on Spragin's petition, but the cancer diagnosis opened a new avenue. She shifted her focus to securing a compassion release order so her client could "die in the hands of loved ones and not prison guards."

On Friday, Shirley Woods, Spragin's daughter, wept in the courtroom as the judge approved the release. As she drove her mother home hours later, she said: "What a wonderful ending to a day."

In California, which has the nation's largest inmate population, state law permits the release of terminally ill prisoners who are within six months of death and whose release would not pose a threat to public safety.

Last year, 39 prisoners were considered for compassionate release and 12 were freed. Three requests have been considered this year and two granted, including Spragin's, Sessa said.

Moore, a San Bernardino County prosecutor for the last 22 years and supervisor of the felony unit, said Spragin's request was the first he had heard of. But with an aging prison population, he said, such requests could become more common.

How to care for severely ill, disabled and elderly convicts has become a mounting issue for lawmakers, particularly as inmate medical costs soar while the state's finances sag. The California Department of Corrections estimated that it would spend $886 million on prisoners' medical needs this year.

To reduce those costs, Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) offered Senate Bill 278 to allow medical parole of incapacitated prisoners. The bill sets criteria for the parole of severely disabled prisoners to medical facilities where federal dollars would cover some of their costs.

The bill was approved last week in the final days of the legislative session and is now sitting on the desk of Gov. Gray Davis. Said Ducheny: "It is really about the state putting people in appropriate placements."

Spragin will spend her final days in the care of a younger sister in San Bernardino. She plans to meet with a doctor next week to receive a second opinion on her medical condition.

"I haven't really come to terms with it," she said.

According to a medical report, Spragin was diagnosed with liver cancer in July after being hospitalized at the Riverside County Regional Medical Center with complaints of nausea, pain and jaundice. At the time, she was given two months to live. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation were not considered viable options.

"I am in great pain. The pills they gave me there don't work too well," Spragin said. "My hope is there may have been a misdiagnosis."

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