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Serving God -- and Time

By phone from prison, James Tramel preaches at a Berkeley church. The convicted murderer has been ordained and hopes to be paroled.

March 04, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

VACAVILLE, Calif. — Four times a year, the Rev. James Tramel preaches via collect call to Berkeley's Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.

"The way of Jesus is radically inclusive," he said one morning last summer. "The grace of God as manifest in Jesus Christ is a grand love that embraces sinners, outcasts and strangers."

Beeps from taping equipment punctuated his oration. Every few minutes, a recorded voice said: "You are on the phone with an inmate at Solano State Prison."

Good Shepherd has offered him a job as assistant pastor, but there is a good chance that Tramel will not be showing up for work soon. Tramel, believed by many church officials to be the only U.S. inmate ever ordained as an Episcopal priest, is a convicted murderer

The state Board of Prison Terms in 2004 recommended that Tramel, by then an Episcopal deacon, be paroled. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the board, saying that Tramel still posed a risk.

By last October, Tramel had been ordained a priest, and the parole board again recommended his release. The governor must rule by March 24.

For Schwarzenegger, who has stressed the aim of rehabilitation in the prison system, the case poses difficult questions: How can redemption be measured? If becoming a priest in prison isn't a sign of rehabilitation, then what is?

*

Tramel, 38, once was the youngest prisoner in San Quentin.

He and a friend were convicted of killing a homeless man in Santa Barbara -- a crime so infamous locally that homeless activists wore lapel pins with the victim's dying words: "No, my friend, no!"

In 1985, Tramel and David Kurtzman, both 17, were students at Northwestern Preparatory School, a school that sent many graduates on to the military academies. Tramel was the son of a former Green Beret and had been provisionally accepted at the Air Force Academy. Kurtzman was an Eagle Scout who aimed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.

One August night, members of a Latino gang had gotten into a confrontation with some of their classmates. The next night, Tramel and Kurtzman led a group that went out looking for the gang. According to his own account, Tramel egged on his friends, instructing them in martial arts moves. When Kurtzman wanted to bring along the 6-inch folding military knife he would sharpen during idle moments in the dorm, Tramel readily agreed.

After hours on the prowl, the band of avenging angels came down to just Tramel and Kurtzman, clad all in black.

They found no gang members, but returning to school for their 1 a.m. curfew, they cut through Alameda Park, where music wafted from a radio beside a man bunking down in the gazebo.

For a brief time, the pair chatted with him. The homeless man was Michael Stephenson, 29. He was not Latino. Tucked inside his sleeping bag, he was anything but hostile. As Tramel leaned against a railing with his back to Stephenson, they talked about the cold weather.

"Several seconds later, I heard Michael say, 'No, my friend,' and then I heard what sounded like coughing," Tramel wrote in an account for his 2005 parole hearing.

"When I turned around, Michael was on his hands and knees, and Kurtzman was leaning over him. Then Michael suddenly collapsed onto his side, I saw the knife in Kurtzman's hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael's throat. My body froze in horror, and I gasped, 'Dave, stop!' Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling."

Kurtzman gave an account at his trial that mirrored Tramel's. Earlier, he told investigators that killing Stephenson was like slaughtering a pig. Kurtzman stabbed him 17 times.

Back at the dorm, the two swore their pals to secrecy, and Tramel promised a skeptic $50 if their story turned out to be a hoax. Their disbelieving friends visited the park later that morning and called police.

Tramel's first trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the second. Both he and Kurtzman received sentences of 15 years to life.

"The prosecutor made a good analogy at my trial," he told the parole board in October. "Kurtzman was a gun that I had loaded and cocked.... That makes me culpable for what Kurtzman did; that makes me responsible for Michael's death."

*

By Tramel's account, it was another death that changed his life.

In August 1993, he was working in the Solano prison hospital, sitting up with an inmate suffering from stomach cancer. The man talked about how much he wanted to see his kids.

"At around 1 a.m., the nurse told me his lungs were filling with fluid and he was going to die," Tramel recalled.

The two talked through the night of life and death.

"With really still eyes, he looked at me and said, 'James, what do you believe?' "

"I took a deep breath," Tramel said, "and told him what I'd been afraid for some time to claim -- that Jesus is the son of God and had died for our sins, and loved us immensely and was ready to forgive us."

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