Sandra Lawrence Ruling Important Victory / Shaputis Ruling a Setback


In a 4-3 ruling, the California Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision on August 22, 2008 stating that the Governor must consider more than the crime itself when making a parole suitability decision. It was the first time in recent history that the state high court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case and the ruling could impact 1,000 parole cases now on appeal. The decision upheld the release of Sandra Davis Lawrence, who spent nearly 24 years in prison. Writing for the majority, Justice Ronald George stated that there was ?overwhelming? evidence of Lawrence?s rehabilitation while in prison and her suitability for parole. George said state law requires the parole board and the governor ?to normally grant parole to life prisoners who have committed murder.? Once a prisoner has completed his or her base sentence, Justice George wrote, the circumstances of the crime alone ?rarely will provide a valid basis for denying parole when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation and no other evidence of current dangerousness.? The ruling means that Sandra Lawrence, released on parole in 2005, will remain free and that hopefully many others will win their release on the basis of this precedent-setting case.
However, the California Supreme Court handed down a damaging
ruling in the Shaputis case on the same day. The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court?s reversal of the Governor?s denial of parole for Shaputis. It concluded that there was ?some evidence in the record to support the Governor?s conclusion that Shaputis remains a threat to public safety because he failed to take responsibility for the murder of his wife, and failed to gain insight into his previous violent behavior.? Since the Shaputis ruling was made, lawyers have noticed that the BPH is more frequently using ?lack of insight? as the justification for parole denials. Once a prisoner is determined to ?lack insight??an extremely vague term? it can be very difficult to dispute the label or prove that a change has occurred. Misuse of this designation will need to be challenged in the future.