John Paul Madrona, right, takes care of fellow inmate Gary Smith in the prison… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
VACAVILLE, Calif. — Convicted murderer John Paul Madrona, profiled in a Times' series chronicling life inside a state prison hospice here, took a significant step toward freedom Wednesday when a two-person panel from the parole board pronounced him ready to leave life behind bars.
Madrona, a former Carson-area gang member who brazenly murdered a bystander in 1993, no longer poses "a danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison," said Board of Parole Hearings Commissioner Jack Garner. The decision to grant parole, Garner said as he looked at Madrona, "is one we feel you deserved. You've changed."
As he'd done for much of the three-hour hearing, the 36-year-old convict remained calm, though his eyes filled with tears.
Wednesday's decision, made in a wood-paneled conference room at the California Medical Facility prison, was the most important hurdle for Madrona to pass in his bid for freedom — but it is not his final one.
The panel's decision now faces review by the state's full parole board to determine if any mistakes were made during the hearing. Gov. Jerry Brown can also weigh in. This year, through July 31, the governor has reviewed 236 parole grants for inmates serving life sentences for murder, according to his press office. He reversed 43 and sent back one for reconsideration.
Moreover, if the decision makes it past Brown's desk, Madrona will most likely have to wait about six more years before he leaves prison, the added time partly caused by infractions, such as failing to show up for a prison job one day early in his sentence.
"There's still a long road ahead," said Madrona's attorney, Rich Pfeiffer. "But the question is, can this man be more good to society on the outside than on the inside? The man we see today is clearly someone who will do more good on the outside."
That could not be said when Madrona was in his gang heyday. In November 1993, at age 18, he and a fellow gang member went to the apartment of a rival gang member, intending to kill the man. They knocked on the door, and when it opened they fired their handguns. They didn't know at the time, however, that they'd knocked on the wrong door and had shot an innocent person, an outgoing and well-loved environmental chemist named Tracy Takahashi.
Caught shortly after the killing, Madrona and his accomplice were both convicted of murder in 1994 and sentenced to 30 years to life with the possibility of parole. After a few years in prison, Madrona began to change, leaving the gang, reflecting on his crime, and eventually becoming a model prisoner.
He ended up at the Vacaville prison, where he took a job working in the 17-bed hospice wing, one of the nation's first such facilities. There, Madrona trained to provide end-of-life care to fellow inmates and became a valued leader within the hospice, earning praise even from hardened guards. The Times' series, published last year, chronicled his efforts to help a 24-year-old prisoner come to terms with impending death.
Takahashi's family did not attend Wednesday's hearing. Reached by telephone for comment once it was done, Takahashi's brother, Dean, said he believes Madrona "is on the right path."
"My only hope is that he stays on it," Dean Takahashi said.
Wednesday's hearing was Madrona's first. He somberly answered the panel's questions about the murder, whether he has really changed, his plans to relocate to his native Philippines, and the depth of his remorse.
"I can't imagine his mom's pain when she heard the call that her son was killed," he said, speaking of Takahashi's mother, his head bowed. "I know I was wrong. I am sorry for that."