Fred Nesbit comes home

A former SN&R cover subject is Schwarzenegger’s first parole

Photo By Larry Dalton

The suburbs take some getting used to. To Fred Nesbit, his new home is like a mansion, sprawling and mysterious. “Sometimes I get lost. I’m used to being in, you know, a confined space,” he said.

Nesbit, a gray-haired, 63-year-old heating and plumbing engineer in a plaid shirt and blue jeans was resting in a leather recliner in the living room of the big Carmichael house he now shares with his partner, nurse Nancy McGill. McGill was in the kitchen, wearing a colorful apron and preparing what looked like some sort of Jell-O dessert. The two appeared to be a regular older suburban couple, familiar and comfortable as they approached their retirement years.

But just days ago, Nesbit had a very different life and a very different set of neighbors.

He recalled saying goodbye to them. “When I was leaving, it was like I was a celebrity. I was the first guy in five years to walk out of Folsom prison with a murder charge.”

Nesbit shot a man to death almost 20 years ago. To this day, he claims it was in self-defense. But in 1985, a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 15 years to life for the crime.

Last year, his parole was denied a fourth time, despite the fact that Nesbit had a spotless record inside prison, had no prior criminal record and was deemed by a psychiatrist to present a “low to nil” threat to society if he were to be released.

He could have been paroled years ago, but, like hundreds of other lifers, Nesbit was caught in what many observers called a de facto no-parole policy followed by then-Governor Gray Davis and the state Board of Prison Terms. For a while, Nesbit wondered if he would ever leave prison.

Yet leave he did, just a few days before Thanksgiving. As he and McGill shopped for new clothes, and all the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner, he knew he owed a lot to McGill’s support and her tireless efforts to set him free. But he’s also convinced he would be in Folsom prison today if it weren’t for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In March 1985, Fred Nesbit and his estranged wife, Becky, got into an argument over property from a horse-tack business the two owned together. When Nesbit returned home from work one day, he found that his house had been broken into, and the disputed property—including two horses and their saddles—had been removed. Incensed, he went to confront Becky, who was staying with a friend, Donny Hallock. Nesbit knew that Hallock carried a gun, and he pocketed his own .38 as he headed out the door.

Becky and Hallock refused to open the door when Nesbit showed up. Growing angrier, Nesbit finally decided to break the door down.

As soon as he did, Nesbit said, Hallock opened fire on him, striking him in the arm and chest. It was only then that Nesbit returned fire, he said, fatally wounding Hallock, who died the next morning from a gunshot through his liver.

The jury found that the crime was not premeditated but did not believe Nesbit’s self-defense story. And the district attorney brought in a tape recording of Becky’s 911 call that seemed to prove Nesbit had fired the first shot. The jury convicted him of second-degree murder.

For the next decade, Nesbit made himself a model inmate, never got into trouble and worked for 95 cents an hour as an engineer while inside prison.

“He completely wired Vacaville,” McGill said with pride. He first became eligible for parole in 1995 but was rejected by the Board of Prison Terms, which only approves parole in about 1 percent of the cases it considers every year. Nesbit would go on to be denied parole every two years, a total of four times. (See “No parole for you!” by R.V Scheide; SN&R Cover; August 8, 2002, for a more detailed account of Nesbit’s conviction and time in prison.)

During that time, Nesbit fell in love with McGill, an operating-room nurse at the Kaiser hospital where he once worked as an engineer, who had begun visiting him in Folsom.

McGill fought for years to try to get Nesbit paroled. She helped him to keep his spirits up and kept him focused on following all the parole board’s recommendations. She also became frustrated by what appeared to her to be an unjust policy at work in the state parole board. She knocked on every door at the state Legislature and said she even got kicked out of the office of her local state representative, Republican Assemblyman Dave Cox.

Those few lifers who were awarded parole by the Board of Prison Terms were rarely released. That’s because Davis routinely vetoed the board’s decision to grant parole. California is one of only three states—the others are Maryland and Oklahoma—that give the governor power to reverse decisions by the state parole board in the case of murder and other crimes that carry a life sentence. And Davis made the most of that power. Of 294 paroles granted by the board, Davis rejected all but eight. (His predecessor, Republican Pete Wilson, approved about 50 paroles.)

Davis once, famously, said of his parole policy, “If you take someone’s life, forget it.”

So, last spring, when the board recommended a November 24 parole date, Nesbit figured he had little chance of going free.

But Nesbit had an unlikely stroke of luck. Gray “no-parole-for-you” Davis got fired, in an unprecedented recall election, before he had a chance to review Nesbit’s case. Nesbit was the first of three inmates to be released by Schwarzenegger, just four days into the new governor’s term.

Others with parole dates right before Nesbit’s were not so lucky; the outgoing governor continued to reverse the Board of Prison Terms decisions right up until his last days in office.

Nesbit said he had one friend in Folsom who had been given a parole date of November 17 by the Board of Prison Terms. “And Davis took his date,” Nesbit explained, meaning that Davis rejected the man’s parole. Nesbit didn’t know much about the man’s crime, other than that it was a murder and the fact that the board had considered him sufficiently rehabilitated to be released. But Nesbit is convinced that timing is everything. “If my date had been November 17th instead of November 24th, I’d still be sitting up there in Folsom prison,” he said.

Dan Macallair, with the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), agreed. “This was not a case that would have been paroled before,” said Macallair. “Davis made it clear that he just wasn’t going to parole people.”

Now, hundreds of parole-eligible convicts are beginning again to ponder the possibility of rejoining society.

“I know maybe 20 guys in Folsom who are in a similar situation,” Nesbit said. “There are a lot of deserving guys sitting over there whose families have been wondering, ‘Why can’t they get out?'”

Davis went out of his way to prove that he could be as tough on crime as any Republican. Aside from routinely rejecting paroles, he rebuffed efforts to reform harsh mandatory-sentencing laws like the three-strike law, he limited inmate-visitation rights and the media’s access to prisoners, and he was an ally to the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). That posture alienated many of his fellow Democrats. Ironically, some of those Democrats are now seeing hope in the new Republican governor.

“Three words: night and day,” said state Senator John Vasconcellos, the San Jose Democrat who was an outspoken critic of Davis’ criminal-justice policies.

“I had a meeting with [Schwarzenegger] last week, and he told me he wanted the Department of Corrections to be a department of corrections again.”

Last year, Vasconcellos introduced legislation requiring expansion of educational opportunities for California inmates, including vocational training, parenting education and a chance to get a high-school diploma. The law is aimed at reducing California’s recidivism rate, which, at 71 percent, is among the highest in the nation.

Vasconcellos was so certain that Davis would veto the proposed law, that he introduced it as a state constitutional amendment, which would allow the state Legislature to go directly to the voters for approval of the reforms and avoid the governor’s desk altogether.

Now, Vasconcellos thinks it might be easier to send a bill to Schwarzenegger.

“Davis was terrified of appearing soft on crime. The new governor seems to have a more common-sense approach. It’s very refreshing,” said the senator.

In fact, it’s far too early to tell what the new governor’s criminal-justice policies will be. Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said of the recent paroles that “the governor intends to let the Board of Prison Terms do their job,” but Sollitto refused to elaborate on further changes. He did say there might be cuts to the Department of Corrections, whose budget was fiercely defended by Davis.

“The truth is it’s hard to imagine it being any worse than it was under Gray Davis,” said Macallair, who is calling on the governor to expand support services for parolees and to stop the rapid expansion of the prison system. Macallair was among those who criticized Davis for his close association with the CCPOA, the prison-guard union that enjoyed tremendous influence over prison policy during the Wilson and Davis years.

“When he was campaigning, Schwarzenegger railed against all of the pandering to special interests that was going on. I’m waiting to see if he stands up to the prison guards,” Macallair said.

One thing about the suburbs, Nesbit has noticed, is that people don’t really use money anymore. “The technology is really amazing to me,” he said. “You hardly need cash. You just slide your plastic card through the computer they have there.”

As Nesbit gets used to his freedom, the parole system is adjusting to him being free. Although a prison psychiatrist determined that Nesbit poses no threat to society, he is required to report to his parole officer twice a week. He is strictly prohibited from consuming alcohol and is to be tested regularly, although he said he never had a drinking problem. He is not allowed to set foot outside the boundaries of Sacramento County. And although his profile suggests the 63-year-old is unlikely to commit another crime, he said, “There aren’t too many lifers getting out on parole. I think they aren’t quite sure how to handle me.”

For example, one of the conditions of Nesbit’s parole is that he can’t call his ex-wife, Becky, because she was considered a victim in the crime. But Nesbit and his ex re-established their friendship years ago. They corresponded regularly while he was in prison, and Becky supported his many bids for parole.

When she found out Nesbit had been released, Becky tracked him down and called. "I’m sorry I haven’t called," Nesbit explained to her on the phone. "I’m not allowed to." As they talked, he expressed the same sense of awe at how much his town has changed since he left: "Yeah, I hardly recognize anything. It’s like I’m coming into a new planet."