California’s Parole Board goes by the book, even when it comes to the most heinous murderers. It pretty much has to, or its decisions will be overturned by the courts, which must rule on the letter of the law.
But not all cases fit into the letter of the law. Some crimes are so vicious that even if the perpetrators have reformed in prison, earned Ph.D. degrees while incarcerated, led prayer groups for years and otherwise been exemplary convicts, they should never be freed.
So the decisions of most California governors to keep denying freedom to many murderers can be more than just politics, even when they’re designed to spare those governors political embarrassment.
A classic example is Gov. Jerry Brown’s refusal in early March to go along with a decision of the Board of Parole Hearings to free two-time murderer Bruce Davis, a longtime loyal follower of mass murderer Charles Manson who did earn a Ph.D. while in prison.
The Parole Board, constrained by laws and regulations, ruled a month earlier — as it also did three years ago – that Davis should be released because he has served long enough, is allegedly no longer a threat to the public and has been well-behaved.
Davis, a prisoner since 1970 now held in the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, was convicted in the murders of aspiring musician Gary Hinson and movie stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea, both of whom were literally carved up by Manson and/or his associates.
It’s difficult for those not involved in investigating or covering the Manson Family murders to appreciate their gruesome quality. Trial testimony by a former Manson follower revealed that Davis held a gun on Hinman while Manson slashed his face with a sword as Manson tried to extort money from him.
Shea, meanwhile, was murdered, dismembered and buried on the former movie ranch of longtime farmer George Spahn in the Santa Susana Pass area between Los Angeles and Simi Valley, site of many episodes of TV shows like Bonanza and The Lone Ranger. Shea died because Manson and others in his entourage, squatters on the ranch in 1968 and 1969 while Spahn was too frail to evict them, believed he was a police informant.
Davis insisted for more than 40 years that he had little to do with Shea’s death, inflicting “only” a “token” stab wound on Shea’s shoulder. But last year, he finally admitted he in fact sliced Shea from armpit to collarbone.
Brown’s six-page ruling reversing the Parole Board decision made this salient point: “In rare circumstances, a murder is so heinous that it provides evidence of current dangerousness by itself. This is such a case.”
Brown has taken heat for not making similar findings in very many other cases. In the second year of his return to the governor’s office, he signed off on 81 percent of the Parole Board’s recommendations for release of killers who, like Davis, were serving life sentences.
That’s considerably more than the 27 percent rate of Parole Board decisions upheld by predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger and exponentially more the 2 percent release rate under Brown’s former chief of staff, Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger granted 94 life sentence releases in his first five years in office, Gray Davis just five in his five years.
But Brown’s release rate is only a few points higher than the 73 percent under Republican Pete Wilson during the 1990s. And the actual rate of release of killers under Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis approximated the rate under Brown and Wilson. In 2011, for example, California courts set free 106 of 144 prisoners whose releases Schwarzenegger had denied.
Which means governors who reverse their Parole Boards are often merely grandstanding.
One thing could change Brown’s current practice, as it did with Wilson. That would be a murder or rape by a recently paroled lifer.
Brown knows judges often overturn refusals to go along with Parole Board decisions and cannot afford to have his prison realignment policies, which have reduced state prison populations by more than 20,000, discredited by murderous parolees. Nor can he afford to be seen as soft on crime, as he would if he let any Manson followers loose.
So friends say he reviews every case in about as much detail as he did with Bruce Davis. Brown releases extensive explanations for any parole board reversals.
But those friends say he tries to keep the most vicious killers – like Bruce Davis – in prison where they belong. For, as a onetime Roman Catholic seminarian, he surely knows that besides any political considerations, some crimes are simply too horrible ever to be forgiven.