The California Supreme Court made it easier Thursday for prison inmates to win parole despite a governor's objections, ruling that a woman who fatally shot and stabbed another woman with a potato peeler should remain free.
The 4-3 ruling, written by Chief Justice Roald M. George, could affect nearly 1,000 parole cases now on appeal. Lawyers on both sides said it was the first time in recent history that the state high court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case.
The decision upheld the release of Sandra Davis Lawrence, who spent nearly 24 years in prison for shooting and stabbing her lover's wife in a jealous rage. The state parole board had approved her release four times since 1993, but three governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, overturned the board's decisions.
In denying her parole, Schwarzenegger cited the "shockingly vicious" attack and Lawrence's use of various aliases to avoid arrest for 11 years after the murder.
An appeals court said Schwarzenegger's denial was not supported by evidence that she remained dangerous.
In Thursday's ruling, George said there was "overwhelming" evidence of Lawrence's rehabilitation while in prison and her suitability for parole. She earned two degrees in prison, learned trades that included plumbing and data processing, was president of the inmates' Toastmasters Club, worked as a library porter and tennis coach, cofounded a tutoring program and remained discipline free. She apologized repeatedly for her crime.
The court said decisions on whether to grant parole to prisoners who received life sentences should be based on whether the inmate would pose a danger to the public if released. The court's action marks a departure from a 2002 ruling, which held that the crime itself could justify a denial.
In reviewing parole denials, courts should not merely consider "whether an inmate's crime was especially callous, or shockingly vicious or lethal," George wrote in Thursday's decision. Courts should also examine whether the nature of the crime and other evidence support "the ultimate conclusion that an inmate continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety," he said.
The majority said that other evidence, such as the inmate's prison record or his or her mental state or demeanor, should be considered in deciding whether the felon posed a safety threat.
George said state law requires the parole board and the governor "to normally grant parole to life prisoners who have committed murder."
Once a prisoner has completed his or her base sentence, he wrote, the circumstances of the crime "alone rarely will provide a valid basis for denying parole when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation and no other evidence of current dangerousness."
Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn M. Werdegar and Carlos R. Moreno joined the holding.
Thursday's ruling means that Lawrence, who now lives in Los Angeles, will not have to return to prison.
"I am a free woman!" said Lawrence, 61, who has been working sporadically cleaning houses and selling shoes since her release in July 2007. "I'm ready to start living my life. I couldn't do that before because it was so up in the air."
Andrea Hoch, the governor's legal affairs secretary, said the ruling changed the legal standard for denying parole and would limit the governor's discretion in such cases.
Justice Ming W. Chin, joined by two other court conservatives, dissented and accused the majority of distorting earlier rulings in parole cases.
"The awesome responsibility of deciding whether to release a convicted murderer on parole -- an act that inherently runs the risk . . . that the inmate will again kill an innocent person -- lies with the executive branch, not the judicial branch," Chin wrote. He was joined by Justices Marvin R. Baxter and Carol A. Corrigan.
Lawrence shot Rubye Williams several times, then repeatedly stabbed her with the peeler, Chin wrote.
"She did this as a 'birthday present' to herself because she was disappointed that her lover would not leave the victim for her," Chin added.
In a companion case Thursday, the court made it clear that some inmates would not meet the new test.
The court unanimously overturned a lower court's decision to release Richard Shaputis, an El Cajon man convicted of shooting and killing his wife, Erma. In that case, the court said there was some evidence that Shaputis remained a danger.
Shaputis, 71, had an even better prison record than Lawrence. But unlike Lawrence, Shaputis had "a long and sometimes violent criminal history" that included a conviction for lewd conduct after he was charged with raping his teenage daughter twice when he was drunk.
The parole board in Shaputis' case also had first decided Shaputis should not be released because he remained dangerous. Only after an appeals court overturned that decision did the parole board "reluctantly" decide to approve parole, the court said.