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California’s New “Progressive” Governor Seeks to Halt Parole for Some Murderers and “Serious” Offenders

Then convicted Newport Beach sex offender Trenton Veches won parole in mid-March 2019, it was granted despite opposition by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has otherwise displayed a progressive criminal justice reform position, including his controversial death penalty moratorium announced in March. But since taking office in January 2019, the governor has attempted to stop at least 33 parole cases wherein a “serious offender” has been granted release, according to documents provided by the governor’s office.

“Parole hearings usually take place in front of a two-person panel,” explained Newsom’s spokesman, Brian Ferguson. “The governor can’t revoke these paroles but can ask the state’s 15-member Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) to review them.”

Newsom has also stopped 46 paroles for murderers using “a different process that allows him to act unilaterally through executive powers,” Ferguson added.

“Each case that comes before the governor is evaluated on its own merits and receives careful review and consideration,” he said.

The 45-year-old Veches was convicted by a jury in a high-profile 2007 case – while working as a supervisor in a municipal youth recreation program, he “liked to suck on the toes of young boys” – and sentenced to two concurrent life-in-prison terms. Veches’ mother, Joyce Ormes, said that Newsom’s challenge of her son’s parole was “heartbreaking,” acknowledging the seriousness of his crimes but noting that the damage caused by violent offenders is greater.

“This thing about grouping all sex offenders into one has haunted me,” Ormes said. “I know the governor is new and I understand his concerns, but my son won’t be back [in prison]. He’s probably one of the best candidates for parole.”

Newsom’s parole interventions reflect a noticeable increase over those of his predecessor as governor, Jerry Brown. In 2018, Brown requested that BPH review seven cases. He also reversed just 28 paroles for murderers, though at his 2014 peak he hit 133 reversals. In Newsom’s first three months in office, however, he made over four times Brown’s number of requests in a comparable period, and at that rate will likely match — or even exceed — Brown’s peak year for murder case reversals.

Each year, California holds between 4,000 and 5,300 parole hearings, according to a recent legislative report. In 2020, that is expected to jump to 7,200 and rise again to 8,300 next year. Changes brought by Proposition 57 alone could add up to 4,000 new hearings, according to Michael Romano, head of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School.

Approved by voters in 2016, Proposition 57 extends the opportunity for parole to felons convicted of nonviolent offenses – including sex offenders engaged in prostitution or possessing child pornography – while also providing credit to sentences for rehabilitation, good behavior, and education.

“We believe Prop. 57 says very clearly that everyone convicted of a nonviolent offense should get early consideration for parole,” said Janice Bellucci, an attorney who serves as executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. “It’s going to keep (parole boards) very busy.”

In addition, there are 34,136 California prisoners serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), a number that dwarfs the nearly 8,500 “lifers” with parole potential in Texas, the state with the second-highest number.

CDCR has been under pressure to reduce its prisoner population since a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court found such severe overcrowding to constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” for inmates, violating a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

That same year Jennifer Shaffer took over as Executive Director of BPH and began a serious effort to bring its procedures in line with another pair of Supreme Court decisions reached in 2008 that required parole decisions to be based on the danger posed by a prisoner rather than the seriousness of their crime.

Over the next four years, paroles for “lifers” more than tripled, from 8 percent of applicants to 30 percent. But the additional burden all of these factors have placed on parole boards has created “an incredible backlog and bottleneck,” Romano said.

Yet as explained by Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, the chance a parolee commits a serious crime is “the thing that keeps governors awake at night.”

 “After the death penalty reprieves, (Newsom) is very sensitive to that risk and does not want to be the next Michael Dukakis,” he added, referring to the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee who, as governor of Massachusetts, had defended a law that allowed convicted murderer Willie Horton to be released from prison for a weekend furlough, during which he raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend. Al Gore used the issue to attack Dukakis during the Democratic primary and then George H.W. Bush used it to attack Dukakis in the general election, which he won.

A March 2020 incident in Chino underscores the risk Newsom faces. That’s when 50-year-old parolee Larry Brennan brandished a knife at a Denny’s restaurant. Police chased him on foot into traffic on the 60 Freeway, where they tasered Brennan after he stabbed himself. The parolee did survive.

Pitney said Newsom’s efforts to prevent the release of criminals poses little downside.

“I think he can make a case that he’s being consistent: We should be careful of releasing prisoners and careful about the punishments we impose,” he said.

Fifteen of the cases Newsom has flagged for reconsideration involve prisoners with current or past sex offenses, according to CDCR. Sonya Shah, executive director of a Bay Area nonprofit that works with sex offenders, said that “sex crimes are left out of criminal justice reform and often lumped together in public perception despite encompassing a ‘spectrum of harms’ to victims.”

“We are not willing to have the nuance with sexual crime,” Shah said. “The way [sex offenders] are painted, they are monsters.”

Newsom also reversed a decision to parole Jesus Cecena, who was 17 years old in 1979 when he shot and killed a San Diego Police Officer, Archie Buggs. Convicted of first-degree murder, Cecena was initially sentenced to life without parole, but his sentence was modified to life with the possibility of parole following an appellate ruling that juveniles could not be sentenced to no-parole terms.

Between 1986 and 2012 Cecena was denied parole 14 times. In 2014, after he disavowed the gang life to become a Christian and a “model prisoner,” a board finally cleared him for release. Newsom’s decision marks the fourth time in the last five years that the governor’s office has reversed a parole board’s decision to free the now 57-year-old Cecena.

Additionally, Newsom reversed a parole recommendation for Leslie Van Houten, the youngest of Charles Manson’s murderous “family.” Van Houten was 19 at the time the group slaughtered four people in Hollywood, including Valley of The Dolls actress Sharon Tate. Now 69, Van Houten is serving a life sentence at the California Institute for Women in Corona.

“When considering as a whole, I find the evidence shows that she currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time,” Newsom wrote.

The January 2019 decision marked the third time that a California governor has overruled a parole board on Van Houten’s case; his predecessor, Brown, turned her down twice. Prior to that she made 18 unsuccessful attempts before securing a recommendation for release.

In contrast, Newsom could have reversed parole for Michael Lynn Thompson, 67, but instead the governor allowed the high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood to be paroled on August 12, 2019, after serving nearly 45 years in prison for two murder convictions. Back in April 2019, when he was tentatively granted parole, he explained to commissioners how he refrained from fighting back when a Mexican Mafia hitman attacked him in 2015 with a knife.

“There was a window of opportunity. I saw it. I played it through in my head. I knew what I could do to him,” Thompson said. “I took the weapon, and put it underneath me, and I laid down until staff got there. And that was in keeping with my vow of nonviolence.”

Thompson’s status as an informant and dropout from the Brotherhood makes him a target for murder by the group or its allies, and therefore no information has been released regarding where he is. He cooperated with the police in the 1980s, leading to a number of prosecutions, in some of which he testified in as a prosecution witness. That included one instance worthy of a scene in a courtroom movie drama, when he was snuck into a courthouse through a hollowed-out vending machine.

On August 7, 2019 Gov. Newsom issued seven pardons. Among those pardoned was 37-year-old Quoc Nguyen, who came to the United States as a child refugee. He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in 2004, a charge that included an enhancement because he was in a street gang. The Trump administration had sought to eliminate deportation protections for illegal immigrants with criminal records.

Newsom wrote in his pardon order that Nguyen’s possible “impending deportation” and the possibility that he could be separated from his family “further justifies” clemency. Nguyen was incarcerated for a year and a half and then was on parole for almost three years. Since then, he “has demonstrated that he is living an upright life,” the governor’s office wrote.

“He has a stable job to support his elderly mother and his girlfriend, who is completing nursing school,” a spokeswoman from Newsom’s office said.

On October 18, 2019, the governor pardoned four more people, including three whom he hoped to spare from deportation: Victor Ayala, Arnou Aghamalian and Thear Sam.

Ayala, a 38-year-old brought illegally from El Salvador at age 2 by his parents, had been sentenced to probation in 2001 at age 21 for an electronics store robbery. He now runs his own carpet cleaning business, the governor’s office said.

Aghamalian, an Iranian refugee who entered the U.S. illegally at age 15, was pardoned for a 1999 conviction for his part in setting an empty car ablaze when he was 22. He is now the proprietor of a solar energy company.

 Sam, 41, also entered the U.S. illegally as a 4-year-old, brought by refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He had been convicted twice between ages 18 and 19, once for taking a man’s backpack and wallet and the second time for abetting a carjacker’s attempt to escape police.

The fourth pardon went to Curtis Reynolds, 59. Convicted of six drug felonies between 1998 and 2003, he had since dedicated himself to volunteering to help to others battling addiction.