State high court revises parole appeal guidelines

“Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2011
California courts have been too quick to second-guess decisions by the parole board and the governor that deny release to convicted murderers and other life prisoners, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.
The court was responding to a series of lower-court decisions that followed its last major ruling on parole review standards, in August 2008. In that ruling, the state’s high court said both the Board of Parole Hearings and the governor, who has veto power over the board’s decisions, could deny release of a parole-eligible prisoner only if the evidence showed the prisoner was still dangerous, and could not rely solely on the facts of the earlier crime.
Judges and appellate courts have relied on that ruling to overturn dozens of parole denials, finding no evidence that a prisoner was currently dangerous and questioning conclusions by the board and the governor that the inmate lacked “insight” into his or her past criminal conduct.
But in Thursday’s decision, in a case from San Diego County, the justices said courts must accept the board’s findings on lack of insight, or any other basis suggesting the prisoner is still dangerous, if there is any evidence in the record to support it.
“The executive decision of the board or the governor is upheld unless it is arbitrary or procedurally flawed,” said Justice Carol Corrigan in an opinion signed by four of her colleagues. “The court is not empowered to reweigh the evidence. … The scope of judicial review is limited.”
The ruling clarifies standards for hundreds of suits filed each year by life prisoners challenging parole denials. In one such case, a state appeals court ordered a new parole hearing Dec. 21 for a San Francisco man who fatally stabbed a pregnant woman in 1984, saying the parole board had not presented any evidence that he was still dangerous.
The ruling will make courts “very reluctant to overturn the governor or the board, even more reluctant than they are now,” said Michael Beckman, lawyer for a prisoner in Thursday’s case. Beckman contended it would allow the board, which approves parole in only a small fraction of the cases, “to continue breaking the law” that says parole should normally be granted.
Beckman’s client, Richard Shaputis, was 50 when he fatally shot his wife, Erma, at their El Cajon home in January 1987. He claimed it was an accident, but the court said he had beaten her many times in the past and had abused his former wife and molested one of his daughters. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life.
Shaputis, now 75, has a spotless record in prison, has taken part in rehabilitation programs, is in ill health and was judged by private psychologists to pose a low risk of violence. The parole board denied his parole in 2009.
A state appeals court overruled the board. Thursday’s ruling blocked Shaputis’ parole.
The ruling can be viewed at”