By a 4-to-3 vote, the California Supreme Court made it easier yesterday for prison inmates to win parole despite a governor’s objections, the Los Angeles Times reports. The opinion written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George could affect nearly 1,000 parole cases now on appeal. Lawyers on both sides said it was the first time in recent history that the state high court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case. The decision upheld the release of Sandra Davis Lawrence, who spent nearly 24 years in prison for shooting and stabbing her lover’s wife in a jealous rage. The parole board had approved her release four times since 1993, but three governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, overturned the decisions. Schwarzenegger cited the “shockingly vicious” attack and Lawrence’s use of aliases to avoid arrest for 11 years after the murder.
Justice George said there was “overwhelming” evidence of Lawrence’s rehabilitation while in prison and her suitability for parole. The court said decisions on whether to grant parole to prisoners who received life sentences should be based on whether the inmate would pose a danger to the public if released. The court’s action marks a departure from a 2002 ruling, which held that the crime itself could justify denial. George said state law requires the parole board and the governor “to normally grant parole to life prisoners who have committed murder.”