Amid COVID-19, California Releases Prisoners from Violent Crimes – Los Angeles Occasions
Terebea Williams was 22 when she shot her boyfriend, drove him 750 miles bleeding in the trunk of his own car, and then dragged him to a motel in Northern California, tied him to a chair, and left him to die.
Williams was convicted of murder, carjacking, and kidnapping, and graduated from college while in prison for 19 years. There she also looked after younger inmates and was praised by the administrators for her "exceptional behavior" during her detention.
The contrasting portraits of Williams as a freezing cold murderer and a rehabilitated model prisoner highlight the difficulties in a plan to free thousands of California inmates to contain the spread of COVID-19 that killed at least 52 of those detained and made more than 8,700 others sick.
This spring, the state accelerated the release of 3,500 inmates due to the coronavirus and released 2,345 more early in July. Thousands more may be released, including at least 6,500 who are at high risk due to diseases that make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
Although Governor Gavin Newsom and corrections officials have focused on the release of nonviolent offenders, they also leave out people who, like Williams, have committed violent crimes but suffer from serious illnesses.
44-year-old Williams left a Chowchilla, California women's prison on July 29 and lost decades of her 84-year prison sentence for killing Kevin "John" Ruska Jr., who died of infection from a gunshot wound to the stomach.
From left, Terebea Williams, released July 29; Ameenah Rasul seeking grace; and Santiago Cruz, who was sentenced to 125 years in prison but was released in late July.
(California Department of Corrections)
Some prisoners' rights advocates say Williams is an example of the type of inmate who should be released – one who has already served a long sentence, is at low risk of reconsideration, and is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus . Some are also pushing for the early release criteria to be extended to similar types of inmate who are now living unparalleled murder.
But in the case of Williams and others, officials have drawn the wrath of prosecutors, victim rights lawyers, and family members over which and how many inmates will be released – and whether it is done with sufficient transparency to protect the public.
"California governor, Terebea's public defender, and California politicians have used COVID to get this cold, calculated, lying, ruthless killer 65 years early from prison without giving a voice to victim Johnny," said Ruska's cousin . Karri Phillips.
Whether or not violent offenders should be paroled has long been debated, but the matter has become more urgent because of the coronavirus and the restless and chaotic way some nonviolent offenders have been released. The process of determining who is dropping out and why is unclear, and some victims' families say that decisions made them blind.
Some inmates and their lawyers also say they were kept in the dark about the selection process.
Brian Pomerantz, a defense attorney representing a high risk inmate in San Quentin who is medically at high risk within months of qualifying for parole, petitioned a federal court on July 10 for an early release. But a month later, Pomerantz said he still hadn't heard from the court or judicial officers about the fate of Anthony Waldrip, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for 20 years for being a criminal who owned a firearm.
Waldrip, 54, did not own the gun and was moving it from a playground where an 8-year-old boy was showing it to his sister when police spotted him holding the gun, Pomerantz said, calling it a victimless crime.
"To the best of my knowledge, no one has considered him for an early release," he said. "Unless the state releases the least dangerous, the fastest eligible, the most medically vulnerable, or the victimless, what criteria are used?"
State publication numbers are fluid and are subject to probation and decisions by officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some inmates are regularly released on parole, while others must meet criteria within six or twelve months of the end of their sentence, depending on the prison.
Despite the recent releases, many prisons are still full or congested, making it difficult to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Medical experts say more layoffs are needed to control the crisis and reduce the risk of sick inmates being hospitalized in surrounding communities where health systems are already stressed.
In a statement, correction officers said the 6,500 inmates found to be medically at high risk for COVID-19 can only be "considered" for release and will be assessed "on public safety and health grounds."
"We take these decisions very seriously and continue to work with our law enforcement, public health and community partners to address their concerns and jointly address this public health emergency," it said.
Advocates of compassionate releases argue that most of those affected are older and are unlikely to commit new violent crimes. They say that only people who have shown they were rehabilitated, often after decades behind bars, are eligible – and the releases are ultimately in line with reforms that have undone excessively harsh sentences imposed decades ago in a harsh crime were, three -strikes era.
"The safest person to be left behind in our communities is a life, a life that has worked on himself, has been with (Alcoholics Anonymous) for 20 years, has taken victim impact classes, and has unwrapped a childhood trauma" he said to Karen McDaniel, founder of Place4Grace, which offers rides for the recently released and advocates for prison reform.
"I'd rather have a van full of lifters every day than a van full of people who have just worked for a year," she said.
Newsom, like Governor Jerry Brown before him, has pledged to reform the criminal justice system to lower incarceration rates and make rehabilitation a priority.
But the specter of a violent criminal who will commit another heinous crime after his release is every politician's nightmare. Many remember the case of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner who committed rape while on an inmate vacation program, a well-known crime that helped bring down the then government. The hopes of the President of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
"We still have a problem with whether we should only release violent or nonviolent offenders and that is a political issue that we shouldn't talk about when it comes to human lives," said Michael Mendoza, who is 15 years old was sentenced to adulthood for participating in a gang murder.
Mendoza, now advocacy executive director # cut50, served 17 years before overhauls against juvenile offenders questioned him for parole in 2014.
He and others say studies have shown that those who have served long sentences, whether their crimes were violent or not, are the least likely to be re-insulted – at a rate of less than 5% and for some populations of only 1%. And if they are insulted again, it is often a non-violent crime like drug possession or theft.
Some proponents believe that the pool of vulnerable inmates prioritized for early release should be expanded to include the mentally ill. Psychiatric services have been severely curtailed in many prisons dealing with outbreaks, and suicides are an ongoing problem.
Michael Bien, an attorney implicated in a longstanding federal medical complaint in prison, said many inmates with mental health needs face a mix of physical and psychological hazards that should be considered.
"It's like people are locked in a closet in the middle of a fire," said Bien. "We have to get her out of there."
Convicted inmates are not eligible for COVID-19 release, while those serving life sentences without parole can only be released if the governor grants mercy. California has more than 5,000 people serving life sentences without parole, including around 200 women – the largest such population in the country, according to proponents.
Others also seek mercy during the pandemic.
At 71, Ameenah Rasul has been with the California Institution for Women since 1979 when she was convicted of first- and second-degree murder on two separate cases five years apart. Both cases involved men who were shot in the head. According to media reports. Rasul's supporters said their crimes were due to an abusive relationship.
Rasul said she dreams of simple things like scrambling eggs or crossing the street. She seeks mercy on medical grounds, including asking for a walker for mobility.
"I've done my best over the past 41 years to improve myself by earning three associates degrees, completing countless support groups, and getting great insights into my life and crime," she said in an email.
"The opportunity to regain my freedom would mean that I would not be doomed to die in prison, but rather spend the last few years of my life breathing the sweet air of freedom," she added. "I would have a chance to regain my dignity."
While Rasul awaits news of her pardon, Yolo County attorneys condemned the state's decision to release Williams and another inmate convicted of unrelated violent crimes, with no notice and almost no explanation.
At her trial in 2001, Williams told jury that her boyfriend threatened and persecuted her and that she killed him in self-defense.
A psychotherapist, who testified on her behalf, said she had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple rape and abuse in the past from the age of 11. However, the court ruled that the evidence of past trauma was not relevant and did not allow the jury to hear about court records.
The jury took little time to find her guilty.
"Everyone assumed she would never see freedom again," said Yolo County's Assistant Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Melinda Aiello told The Times a week after Williams left prison.
"While Corrections told us that they had only released her a few days earlier, there is no transparency and we have no other explanation for her release," Aiello said. "There is no reason not to listen to the family of a victim who has really suffered terribly."
Corrections officials said Williams was released on medical grounds but would not provide details about her condition. Yolo County's defense attorney Tracie Olson confirmed Williams has a serious illness and said her office had been working on getting Williams released since 2018.
Olson said Williams was "the exact type of person who should be released early," and she believes Williams would have been released under juvenile offender reforms or a commutation presented to Newsom had the medical discharge not been granted would have taken place.
"She did all the work you would expect anybody to do," said Olson.
At the end of July, the state also released 65-year-old Santiago Cruz, who was sentenced to 125 years in prison in 1997 for convicting criminal threats under California's three-strike law.
Cruz repeatedly molested his ex-wife, chasing her boyfriend and tossing them a Molotov cocktail while they slept, Aiello said. He also called the new boyfriend's 18-year-old daughter and "threatened to rape her while her father watched, killed her and then killed her father," Aiello said.
Olson said Cruz was disabled and would have been given parole in 2021.
Aiello said Yolo prosecutors must work to find Cruz's victim and warn them of his release. As in Williams' case, Aiello said, the state did not provide an explanation.
Cruz's ex-wife said she felt "now in jail," according to a testimony to the Yolo District Attorney.
"A dangerous person is being released back into society and that is not fair to them," said Aiello.