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Federal Court Finds California Murder Paroles Blocked by Illegal No-Parole" Policy

Federal Court Finds California Murder Paroles Blocked by Illegal No-Parole" Policy

by Marvin Mentor

On May 19, 2005, the United States District Court (E.D. Cal.) ruled that the California Board of Prison Terms (BPT), between 1992 and 1998, disregarded regulations ensuring fair hearings and instead operated under a sub rosa policy that all murderers be found unsuitable for parole." Adopting and affirming the December 22, 2004 Findings and Recommendations of U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Nowicki, Chief Judge Lawrence Karlton ordered the BPT to either release petitioner Melvin Coleman or, within 60 days, afford him a new parole hearing conducted by a board free from prejudice stemming from a gubernatorial policy against parole for murderers." (See: PLN, Apr. 2000, p.1, California's No-Parole Policy.)
Melvyn Coleman was convicted in 1974 of first degree murder, attempted second degree murder, robbery and burglary after shooting a couple who surprised him while he was burglarizing their home. He was sentenced to seven years to life. Despite repeated prison recommendations for parole, he has never been found suitable" for parole by the BPT. Coleman challenged the parole process as biased in a federal habeas corpus petition filed in 1996. He alleged that under directions by former governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, the BPT intentionally cut parole grants to a fraction of 1%, in spite of California Penal Code's § 3041(a) which requires the BPT to normally" set a parole date at a prisoner's initial hearing.

Coleman presented sworn testimony from former BPT commissioners Leddy, Tong and O'Connell that the policy was enforced by selecting BPT appointees who were less likely to grant parole and more willing to disregard their statutory duty; by removing BPT members who granted too many dates; by selecting different commissioners to review and disapprove earlier grants of parole; by scheduling impromptu rescission hearings for no new cause; by pre-determining the outcome of hearings; and by wholesale gubernatorial reversal of those few cases approved by the BPT.
The factual record of the no-parole policy was unrefuted by the BPT. Instead, they relied upon a finding of some evidence" in each case to justify the no-parole action. But the court rejected this because there will always be some evidence" to explain a denial or rescission, adding, Federal due process requires more.

Noting prior case law establishing the existence of a state-created liberty interest in parole, the court rejected any process that amounted to arbitrary and capricious behavior. One foundational process is the guarantee of a fair and impartial fact-finder. Citing Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997), the court held that a decision made by a fact-finder who has predetermined the outcome is per se invalid -- even where there is ample evidence to support it." Finding that a blanket no-parole policy prevented Coleman from having a fair hearing, the court granted the writ unless the BPT gave him a new hearing by an unprejudiced panel within 60 days.

The BPT then provided Coleman with a parole hearing in July 2005 before two commissioners; not surprisingly he was not recommended for release, receiving a five-year denial of parole suitability. Coleman petitioned the court for immediate release, claiming that between the Magistrate's Dec. 22, 2004 Findings and Recommendations and the July 2005 parole hearing there was no change in the governor's policies regarding parole for murderers, and that the most recent parole hearing thus suffered from the same legal infirmities as his previous hearings.

On Feb. 2, 2006 the district court rejected this argument and denied the motion, holding that Coleman had presented no evidence that the second parole hearing had the same constitutional defects, or that the policies under Gov. Schwarzenegger were the same as the deficient policies that existed under former Gov. Pete Wilson. See: Coleman v. Board of Prison Terms, No. 2:1996cv00783, E.D. Cal., May 20, 2005 (unpublished ruling). The ruling is posted on PLN's website.

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Related legal case

Coleman v. Board of Prison Terms