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Is this paroled killer still a threat?

Sandra Lawrence was a model prisoner. The governor wants her back behind bars. The high court will decide.

July 13, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

Sandra Davis Lawrence is grateful for the simple things she can do now, like pick up her grandniece from school. And she is anxious to make up for lost time, to find a career and start earning money again.

Lawrence spent 24 years in state prison for murdering her lover's wife with a gun and a potato peeler while in a jealous rage. A model inmate, she received a second chance at freedom last summer when a court ordered her released. Since then, she has reunited with family in Los Angeles and tried to re-integrate into society at age 61.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
California convicts: A chart in Section A of the July 13 edition, with an article about when convicted murderers should be released from prison, said that John E. Dannenberg, a convicted murderer, had been released from state prison. The state Court of Appeal ruled in November that Dannenberg should be let out on parole, but the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has kept him incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison because his case is still under review.

"I want to become a taxpayer," she said in a recent interview. "Everybody is trying to not pay taxes. I want to pay taxes."

But Lawrence may have to return to prison instead, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can convince the California Supreme Court that she remains a threat to public safety. That she has had no problems with the law in a year of freedom is irrelevant, the governor's office said; she should not have been let out.

The court is poised in coming weeks to seal Lawrence's fate, along with that of nine other convicted murderers seeking freedom. The justices are expected to answer some difficult questions: When should a killer be set free? What are the limits, if any, on the governor's power to decide? Are such factors as an inmate's prison record and age ever more significant than a horrendous crime committed decades ago?

The state parole board had approved Lawrence's release four times since 1993, but three governors vetoed those decisions. Schwarzenegger blocked Lawrence's release twice before judges on the state Court of Appeal reversed him.

The slaying showed "an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering," the governor wrote two years ago in denying Lawrence parole. "This was a cold, premeditated murder carried out in an especially cruel manner and committed for an incredibly petty reason."

According to the appellate court decision, Lawrence killed her victim in an explosion of fury when, after months in a love triangle, her lover told her he had changed his mind about leaving his wife. She felt betrayed and humiliated, she has said, because he had vowed to marry her.

While she was in prison, Lawrence earned two degrees, learned trades that included plumbing and data-processing, was president of the inmates' Toastmasters Club, worked as a library porter and tennis coach, co-founded a tutoring program and remained discipline-free. She apologized profusely for her crime.

The state sets up a false promise, Lawrence says. It encourages inmates to improve themselves to earn their release, then refuses to let them go.

"I was pretty successful by their standards, inside, notwithstanding the crime itself," she said. "They were talking rehabilitation. The system was talking rehabilitation. Here's a person who's rehabilitated. Now what?"

Increasingly, inmates fighting a parole process they believe is driven by tough-on-crime politics have filed petitions in court, successfully challenging the state's refusal to release them. Lawrence was one of them.

In at least 28 cases since late 2005, including hers, judges have overturned Schwarzenegger's parole denials for inmates who appeared to have reformed or who seemed too sick or elderly to pose a serious threat anymore. Some remain in prison pending appeals.

"This is an extremely high reversal rate," said Rich Pfeiffer, an Orange County attorney who represents such inmates. "It was so completely unfair, the courts finally had to do something. The governor can basically resentence these inmates to life without possibility of parole."

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, noted that many judges have upheld the governor's decisions to deny parole. She said he weighs all the factors in an inmate's file and acts based on his opinion of whether the prisoner poses a danger.

"While the safety of California's communities is always his top focus, the governor believes in the promise of rehabilitation and that it is a critical part of our prison system," Page said.

Victims' groups closely track the state's actions on releasing murderers. California's Crime Victims Action Alliance has criticized the parole board for creating a "dangerous society" and has called Schwarzenegger too lenient.

Academics and advocates for prisoners say long-term inmates convicted of violent crimes have the lowest rates of re-offending. Most are old when they get out and they committed crimes against people they knew, which are not likely to be repeated.

Parole agent Anthony Maes, who checks in with Lawrence about four times a month, said she's adjusting well and he does not see her as dangerous. "She is on the right path. . . . Her whole outlook on life is very, very good," he said, and returning to prison "would crush her."

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