Wednesday 26 January 2011

Federal judges can't overturn decisions by state parole boards

The Supreme Court unanimous ruling could affect hundreds of cases in federal courts in California

By Bob Egelko 
The San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO  — A federal appeals court exceeded its power when it reversed a decision by the California parole board and ordered the release of a man convicted of a 1991 attempted murder in Berkeley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Federal judges have no power to overturn state parole decisions, the court said in a unanimous ruling that could affect hundreds of cases in federal courts in California.
State courts in California can order freedom for a convicted murderer or other life-term prisoner who is denied release by the parole board or governor if the judges find no evidence the prisoner is still dangerous.
Inmates who lose those decisions can appeal to federal courts. State officials argued in this case that federal judges had exceeded their authority by considering the evidence.
The Supreme Court agreed with the state. Federal courts, the justices said, may only return a case to the parole board for reconsideration if they find the state failed to follow its own rules that allow prisoners to present evidence and require the state to explain why it denied parole.
They have no constitutional authority to look into the evidence and decide whether it supports the denial of parole, the justices said. They rejected rulings by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco asserting that authority.
Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Neill, the state's lawyer, said the ruling severely limits federal court review of hundreds of pending prisoner appeals.
The ruling means that California, and its courts, "determine who should or should not be released back into society," Neill said.
The ruling reversed two June 2010 decisions in which the appeals court ordered prisoners paroled.
One case involved Damon Cooke, a financial consultant who was living in Los Angeles in 1991 when his friend Padraic Ryan paid him a visit from Berkeley. According to the appeals court, Cooke later discovered that a necklace and $10,000 in cash were missing.
He traveled to Berkeley and confronted Ryan, who denied stealing anything. Cooke then shot Ryan, who was wounded in the head but survived. Cooke was convicted of attempted first-degree murder and sentenced to 11 years to life in prison.
The appeals court said that Cooke had done well in prison, mentored other inmates, defused conflicts between prisoners and staff, and won endorsements from a half-dozen guards for his parole.
The parole board denied release in 2002, citing the "cruel and callous" nature of Cooke's crime and saying he lacked a marketable skill in society. The appeals court, in an opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, noted that Cooke had several job offers and said there was no evidence that he would be dangerous if released.
He remains in prison.
The second case involved Elijah Clay, convicted of a 1976 murder in Los Angeles County and sentenced to seven years to life. The parole board found him suitable for release in 2003 but then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the decision, saying Clay had committed a serious crime and had not taken part in enough self-help programs to understand his criminal behavior.
The appeals court said Clay has taken part in numerous prison programs and that prison psychologists had found him suitable for parole.
The Supreme Court case is Swarthout vs. Cooke, 10-333.

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