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Inmate has high-profile parole backers

Judge orders that Paul Guardado's release bid be revisited. At 17, he joined in the '79 'thrill' killing of Steven Buus.

August 12, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

An Austrian cardinal, a member of the Republican National Committee and a retired appellate judge are advocating parole for an Orange County man convicted in a "thrill" killing nearly 30 years ago.

Paul A. Guardado will go before the California Board of Parole Hearings today in a court-ordered review to determine if he should be freed. Convicted of second-degree murder, he is serving 17 years to life for aiding and abetting the 1979 killing of Steven A. Buus. He has been in prison 19 years.

At issue is not just whether Guardado has adequately paid for a crime that he has acknowledged was gruesome. His level of remorse and admission of guilt are also debated.

Buus' family wants him to stay in prison. In June, Gary Buus wrote to the parole board that Guardado is still violent and has failed to accept responsibility. He described his brother's last moments as "ones of torture, suffering and . . . pleas for mercy."

Guardado's supporters include Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, member of the 2005 papal conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI from among their own; Timothy J. Morgan, Republican National Committee member from Santa Cruz; Judge Chris Cottle, who retired from the state appellate court; and former California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, who wrote a letter on Guardado's behalf in 2005 on his office's letterhead.

Guardado, 46, has been denied parole six times since 2000. In 2007 he petitioned for a new hearing, arguing in federal court in Oakland that the board violated his rights by giving too much consideration to his crime and minimizing his relatively clean prison record when denying him parole.

In a 19-page ruling issued in April, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ordered a new parole hearing. The panel's 2006 finding that Guardado was unsuitable for parole in part because he was "one of the most dangerous people the state could have" should have been weighed against other evidence that he is no longer a threat, Wilken wrote.

She quoted reports by prison counselors who wrote that Guardado's potential for violence "is no more than the average citizen in the community" and that he "has evolved into a rational, responsible and insightful person."

Buus, who was 24 and had a history of mental illness, was gunned down on Feb. 24, 1979, while walking at night through a Westminster park. He was shot twice with at least one handgun and before codefendant Gabriel Ramirez told Buus to plead for mercy. Ramirez then killed Buus with a shotgun blast to the heart.

Ramirez was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving 27 years to life.

Orange County prosecutors say Guardado, who was 17 at the time, helped beat Buus before Ramirez killed him. In a letter to the parole board, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said the incident began when a woman hanging out with the killers spotted Buus and said she wanted his hat.

Rackauckas called the murder an "especially heinous and cruel thrill kill" and argued against parole. He said Guardado was seen pointing a handgun at the victim, but prosecutors were unable to prove that he fired the weapon.

Kent G. Washburn, an Eastern Orthodox priest and Guardado's attorney, said his client had a gun but denies shooting the victim. He said a third suspect who was never charged also had a pistol and fired the two bullets that struck Buus.

The murder remained unsolved until 1984 when Corina Ribota, the woman who wanted Buus' hat, stepped forward and identified Guardado and Ramirez as the killers. News reports at the time said she was motivated by a reward, which Washburn said amounted to $5,000.

When Guardado was tried in 1989, Ribota testified that she did not remember her conversation with Westminster police.

But the jury was allowed to hear her recorded interview and convicted Guardado.

The conviction was overturned on appeal in 1994 on grounds that Ribota's testimony was hearsay. Guardado was tried a second time and convicted again.

Authorities contend that Guardado has never accepted responsibility for his role in the crime and remains unremorseful -- two reasons, they say, that he should remain in prison.

But Wilken ruled that California law does not require "an admission of guilt to any crime for which an inmate was committed" when setting parole dates.

Rackauckas said Guardado has not shown remorse, but Wilken found otherwise.

In a Dec. 15, 2004, letter to the board, Guardado wrote that "I was a culpable part of a gathering that spawned deadly violence, and I am therefore guilty of his death and remorseful for contributing my presence."

Washburn said authorities fault his client for "not admitting the version they think is true -- that he fired the gun."

While in prison, Guardado has earned his high school equivalency degree, an associate of arts degree and a paralegal certificate, which Wilken said give him "marketable skills that can be put to use on release."

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