Parole violator

Murder, according to our legal system, is a matter of degree.

For instance, it can generally be assumed that a person convicted of first-degree murder committed the crime with more premeditation than a person convicted of second-degree murder. Our system of justice has rightfully decided that those who willfully intend to kill and plan their crimes in advance should be punished more than those who get carried away in the heat of the moment or are accomplices. In recognizing this distinction, we’ve also learned to apply the old adage that separates our enlightened age from medieval times: “Let the punishment fit the crime.”

Unfortunately, that’s a concept Governor Gray Davis can’t comprehend. He’s denied parole to virtually every eligible convicted murderer whose application has crossed his desk. “If you take someone’s life, forget it,” Davis told reporters before he took office. Apparently his tough-on-crime stance equates to digging one’s heels in combined with a severe case of brain-lock.

We should be ruled by a thoughtful governor with an understanding of law and a sense of mercy, instead of a cardboard cutout with a master’s degree in political expediency.

Even without the governor’s intervention, made possible by an ill-advised ballot initiative approved by voters in 1988, it’s not easy for a convicted murderer to be granted parole in California. The Board of Prison Terms approves only 1 percent of those who are eligible. In the past three years, that has amounted to 67 convicted murderers whom the board approved for release. Davis vetoed the parole of every prisoner except one, who happened to be a woman.

Meanwhile, the judicial branch of government, which is supposed to help protect us from such executive excesses, has been questioning Davis’ immoderation. Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Keith Schwartz ordered that convicted second-degree murderer Mark Smith be released within 30 days. Smith has spent 17 years in prison for a drug-related killing in which he was the accomplice, not the trigger-man. In June 2000, the Board of Prison Terms approved Smith’s release because it felt the model prisoner no longer posed a threat to society and had genuine remorse. Davis vetoed Smith’s parole, claiming that Smith did pose a threat to society based on evidence not considered by the board. Judge Schwartz said that was against the law.

Did we mention that Smith suffers from AIDS and has been classified as totally disabled by the board?

Predictably, the Davis administration moved to block Smith’s release while the governor’s veto of the action is being appealed. To do otherwise would have been out of character for a governor who never seems to miss a chance to abuse his own authority—and by extension, his own constituents, the more enlightened people of California.