The stories behind Gov. Jerry Brown’s nine recent sentence commutations reveal tangled lives marked by murder, abuse, addiction and determined efforts by criminals — usually over decades — to turn their lives around.
Here are their stories.
Carrillo and a friend got very drunk in February of 1981 and used a two-by-four studded with nails to kill a taxi driver. A Riverside County court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. During his 36 years in prison, Carrillo participated in numerous self-help programs, including anger management, addiction counseling, alternatives to violence and Narcotics Anonymous. In addition, he serves as an assistant to Catholic and Protestant chaplains on matters relating to Native American spiritual practices. “Mr. Carrillo came to prison for committing a terrible crime more than three decades ago. Since that time, he has demonstrated a sincere commitment to living without drugs or alcohol, mentoring others, and being a Native American spiritual leader,” Brown said in his commutation message.
On the night of the Rodney King verdict in 1992, Craig asked two men for money to help King’s cause. When the two dollars he was offered did not satisfy Craig, he chased and beat both men with a piece of wood. One survived, and the other died. A Los Angeles County court sentenced Craig, 18 at the time of his crime, to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. In prison, Craig earned his GED and degrees from a bible college. He preaches at church services and has participated in numerous self-help programs, including Victim Offender Education, Alternatives to Violence and Rehabilitation and Reentry. He has also been a mentor to at-risk youth and contributed to a literary journal. A prison guard sergeant says Craig “will be a productive citizen in society if he is released.”
A drug deal gone bad and a beating landed McVay in state prison, where he has been for nearly 19 years. He has been a rescue dog trainer, chairman of the Men’s Advisory Council, and is certified as a biblical counselor. When a chaplain had a medical emergency, McVay notified prison staff. The warden at Lancaster told the governor that McVay, who had no previous criminal convictions, “… has taken every opportunity to rehabilitate himself.” A correctional sergeant said McVay “is hardworking, honest and devoted to his own rehabilitation.” In his commutation statement, Brown talked of McVay’s “remarkable transformation in prison.”
John Paul Rodriguez
During a bar fight, Rodriguez shot Enrique Evangelista several times, hitting him in the back once. Evangelista survived and Rodriguez, 17 at the time of the crime, was sentenced in Los Angeles to a total of 19 years. In prison, he has volunteered as a literacy tutor and has earned a GED and three AA degrees. He also participated in a youth offender mentorship program, helping “countless incarcerated youth,” a college coordinator said. Rodriguez has secured housing and a scholarship in anticipation of release. “In light of his age at the time of the crime, his exceptional conduct in prison, and his genuine commitment to serving his community when he is released, I conclude that it is appropriate to reduce his sentence,” Brown said, who cut the sentence to a total of nine years.
Florence Laurel Anderson
In April of 2001, Anderson and her pimp went to a motel room with plans to rob Bruce James, who they thought had large sums of cash. They wound up with $49, some clothes, credit cards and jewelry. James wound up dead, stabbed by Michael Lane, Anderson’s pimp. Anderson was convicted in Humboldt County of first degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life, with an additional two years for second degree murder. A subsequent investigation revealed that she had suffered severe physical abuse from Lane and was terrified of him. Over her 15 years in prison, Anderson became certified as an alcohol and drug counselor by the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California, worked on numerous self-help groups and as a hospice volunteer for terminally ill inmates. The former Humboldt County district attorney opposed clemency for Anderson, saying there is nothing “exceptional” about her case, but the current DA supports it, saying, “… it makes sense for the Governor to cut her some slack.”
Christopher Edwin Asay
There were no armored cars available, so armored car company employee Gerald Gauthier in 1987 was using his own station wagon to transport money. Asay approached Gauthier on a freeway on-ramp, shot him repeatedly in the chest and made off with $16,000. Asay was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. During his nearly 30 years behind bars, Asay, now 55, graduated with a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from California Coast University and a master’s degree in business administration. He participated in numerous self-help groups and has been a reader for the blind since 2011. “I know that I cannot change the past, but I can and have done everything within my power to repent and improve myself,” Asay said in his appeal for clemency.
In June of 2009, a drunken Zarate was walking home from a party when he got into an argument with a group of people. He went home, retrieved a gun and returned to the scene of the argument. He fired once, hitting two people. They survived and Zarate, 17 at the time of the shooting, was sentenced to a total of 16 years behind bars. In prison, he earned a high school diploma and graduated magna cum laude with four A.A. degrees, became a Braille transcriber certified by the Library of Congress and a master inmate peer educator. “Mr. Zarate committed a serious crime, but has done exactly what we ask of inmates – fully commit to rehabilitation and prepare for success upon release,” Brown said.
Hamid Basil Bashir
During a store robbery in November of 1998, one of Bashir’s friends and co-robbers shot store manager Paul Lee to death. Bashir, in a separate struggle, shot a security guard in the hand. He was sentenced to 25 years to life by a Los Angeles County court. Along with earning a GED and a paralegal certificate, Bashir is enrolled in a college-level seminary program and counsels at-risk youth. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has offered Bashir a job, a scholarship and housing and wrote that he would guarantee Bashir’s future “good behavior.” Brown cited Bashir’s “excellent conduct in prison” and his “deep remorse for his participation in this crime.”
Mary Elizabeth Stroder
Nearly 7,000 people have signed a petition advocating that Stroder be given “a chance of freedom.” After stealing her father’s car and driving from Missouri to California, Stroder and her boyfriend ran out of money and decided to rob someone. They forced Diana Contreras into their car, used her ATM card to withdraw money and drove her to a remote location where Stroder’s boyfriend, Charles Roundtree, shot her to death. Roundtree testified that Stroder had nothing to do with the killing, but a Kern County court in 1995 sentenced her to life without the possibility of parole. A 2009 psychological evaluation described Stroder’s “lifetime experience of neglect, devaluation and abuse.” One of her mother’s boyfriends beat her so severely that she feigned death to survive. He also chased her around the house with an AK-47 with a retractable bayonet. In prison, Stroder became involved in numerous self-help programs and according to a legal advocate from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, she is now “one of the most self-award, respectful, accountable and thoughtful individuals whom I have met …”
The governor’s commutations are not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The commutations only change the nature of the sentences to make the nine eligible to plead their cases before the California Bureau of Parole Hearings, which will make the decision on whether each of them will be freed.
The parole board has 14 full-time commissioners, appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation. There are also deputy commissioners who are civil servants and sometime elevated to become full-fledged commissioners, along with administrative and legal staff. Commissioners are appointed to staggered three-year terms. The commission convenes a public business meeting once a month.
The board states its mission this way:
“The mission of the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) is to protect and preserve public safety through the exercise of its statutory authorities and policies, while ensuring due process to all criminal offenders who come under the board’s jurisdiction.”
Nine criminal offenders are now preparing their cases.