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In commuting 20 murder convicts’ sentences, California governor draws praise, condemnation

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has issued more commutations since he returned to office than any California governor since the 1940s. Among the individuals to benefit last month: 20 men and women convicted of murder. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

LOS ANGELES — Thomas Yackley fatally stabbed two men at a party. Kimberly LaBore took part in a home invasion that ended with one person dead. Virgil Holt killed his boss at a fast-food restaurant shortly after he’d been fired.

All are among the 20 killers serving life sentences that were recently commuted by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D). With barely four months left in office, California’s longest-serving governor is granting forgiveness to record numbers of criminals.

Brown has handed out more than 1,100 pardons benefiting a wide array of individuals, including those convicted of dealing drugs, driving while intoxicated and forgery. The tally is staggeringly greater than the totals of his immediate predecessors. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger granted 15 pardons, and Democrat Gray Davis ended with zero.

Perhaps more remarkable are the commutations, which grant parole hearings to — and often spell early release for — criminals who previously may have had no chance of ever being paroled. Brown has issued 82 in the past seven years, far more than any California governor since at least the 1940s. Criminal justice reformers nationwide applaud him. Victims rights advocates are livid.

“2018 is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Patricia Wenskunas, founder and chief executive of the Crime Survivors Resource Center. “The sad reality is, California is not a victim-friendly state. It’s an offender-friendly state.”

California was once a leader in tough-on-crime policies, which turned its prisons into inmate warehouses. Then in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in the state’s prison system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The decision accelerated a wave of legal reforms that have reduced the prison population by 25 percent. About 115,000 inmates remain locked up in the state’s 33 facilities. The vast majority of those released to date have been nonviolent offenders.

Brown’s commutations for the 20 murder convicts were tucked into a larger batch of pardons and commutations that he handed out last month. The designation isn’t synonymous with freedom but amounts to a reduction of an original sentence. For these 20 men and women, most of whom had been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, it means they’ll be granted a hearing.

The governor sees his action not as a sign of lenience so much as a societal course correction. “There has been an overshoot in the time many people expect [criminals] to be locked up in a cage or cell,” he said in an interview.

In the 1970s, those convicted of first-degree murder tended to serve about a decade for their crimes, he noted; now it isn’t unusual for such sentences to span a half-century. Some 5,000 prisoners today are serving life sentences without parole in California.

Longtime prisoners who are making a good-faith effort to turn their lives around should have a shot at getting out, said Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian. “I think there’s wisdom in having the possibility of hope.”

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group based in Washington, said she has never seen so bold a move to spur early release for people convicted of violent crimes.

“It really stands out,” she said — in a good way, she added. Prisoners serving time for such offenses tend to age out of crime. “As a country, we need to move away from life without parole as a sentence altogether.”

Many California lawmakers and public safety officials have a different, harshly critical view of the governor’s move. Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, said the latest commutations “are motivated by [Brown’s] personal philosophy of deincarceration.” And Republican Assemblyman Matthew Harper of Orange County called the commutations “deeply concerning. It is another action by Gov. Brown in a long line of policy that makes California less safe.”

To victims rights advocates, the commutations feel like an injustice.

“Governor Brown, can you commute my daughter and bring her back?” said Jennifer Lundy, whose 3-year-old was killed in 1993 by a man living with her family. “What have you done to restore my life?”

Whether California’s prison purge and Brown’s decisions have made the state less safe are unclear. In addition to his pardons and commutations, the governor has approved parole for more than 2,300 “lifers” sentenced for murder. (California is one of just three states where the governor has the last word on parole-board decisions.)

Yet while the violent-crime rate rose by nearly 4 percent in 2016 — the most recent year for which data is available — it was still half of the peak levels seen during the early 1990s, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Brown has also rejected parole for people whose sentences he commuted. In 1994, Susan Lee Russo of Fresno County paid a man $100 to kill her husband so she could collect insurance money. Russo claimed in her application for clemency that her husband, who was fatally shot in the head, had physically abused her.

“I was protecting myself and my children,” she wrote, according to the Associated Press.

The parole panel recommended her release, triggering an outcry from a group of Republican lawmakers and law-enforcement officials. Russo’s own daughters called her a “master manipulator.” Brown concluded that she “has more work to do.”

These days, the lone survivor of Yackley’s long-ago stabbing rampage is thinking about second chances and his attacker’s potential future.

On that late February night in 1992, Glenn McCarty had approached the 22-year-old Yackley and his friends at a party to tell them they weren’t welcome. When McCarty turned to walk away, Yackley knifed him in the back and then, in the ensuing melee, stabbed two other men.

The blade collapsed both of McCarty’s lungs. His friends died at the scene.

McCarty, now 54, said he harbors no anger toward Yackley, who from behind bars has earned his high school equivalency diploma, completed vocational courses, volunteered with an organization that rescues shelter dogs and worked with a youth intervention program.

“It is probably arguable that he’s made a more positive influence on society than I have,” said McCarty, a trucking company supervisor in the southwestern United States. “If he was eligible for parole when he was doing that, I would think that maybe he had an ulterior motive and I’d want to consider that. But I don’t think that he did.”

He wavers, however, on whether Yackley deserves parole.

“Whether he or I did more for society in a positive manner,” McCarty said Tuesday, “the fact of the matter is, Dave and Mike didn’t have that chance.”

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