In re Lawrence Analysis and Outcome

Sandra Lawrence killed her lover's wife because her lover had decided not to leave his wife and children to be with Lawrence. Lawrence shot her lover's wife multiple times with a firearm and repeatedly stabbed her. After the crime, Lawrence fled. She surrendered to the police 11 years later, and was convicted of first degree murder. (In re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1181, at pp. 1192-1193.) During 23 years of imprisonment, Lawrence had a few administrative violations, but she was free of serious discipline. (Lawrence, at p. 1194.) Her psychological reports early on were troubling, but these reports improved over the years to the point that she was found to have no psychiatric or psychological disorder. (Lawrence, at pp. 1194-1195.) After about a decade in prison, a psychological report found that she no longer posed a significant danger to public safety. Numerous psychological reports over the next decade made the same finding. (Lawrence, at p. 1195) During that same decade, the Board three times found Lawrence suitable for parole, but in each instance the Governor reversed. (Lawrence, at pp. 1195-1197.) In 2005, the Board granted parole for the fourth time, and the Governor reversed again. His reason for reversing the Board's 2005 parole grant was that the commitment offense had been "'carried out in an especially cruel manner and committed for an incredibly petty reason.'" (Lawrence, at pp. 1197-1201.) Lawrence filed a habeas petition in the Court of Appeal challenging the Governor's reversal of the Board's 2005 grant of parole, and the Court of Appeal held that the Governor's decision was not supported by some evidence that she "'presently represents an unreasonable risk to public safety if released on parole.'" (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1201.) The Court of Appeal vacated the Governor's reversal and reinstated the Board's grant of parole. (Lawrence, at p. 1201.) The California Supreme Court granted review and affirmed the Court of Appeal's decision. (Lawrence, at p. 1201.) The California Supreme Court's opinion in Lawrence explicitly recognized that "the core determination of 'public safety' under the statute and corresponding regulations involves an assessment of an inmate's current dangerousness." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1205.) Given this understanding, the court reconsidered its previous holding in Dannenberg. "We presumed in Dannenberg that the evidence of egregiousness supported the ultimate determination that the inmate posed a threat to public safety, as opposed to merely providing support for the Board's or the Governor's conclusion that the crime was particularly aggravated." (Lawrence, at pp. 1207-1208.) The court concluded that this presumption was invalid, though the In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616 standard of review remained valid. "This Rosenkrantz standard of review is unquestionably deferential, but certainly is not toothless, and 'due consideration' of the specified factors requires more than rote recitation of the relevant factors with no reasoning establishing a rational nexus between those factors and the necessary basis for the ultimate decision--the determination of current dangerousness." (Lawrence, at p. 1210.) "The statutory and regulatory mandate to normally grant parole to life prisoners who have committed murder means that, particularly after these prisoners have served their suggested base terms, the underlying circumstances of the commitment offense alone rarely will provide a valid basis for denying parole when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation and no other evidence of current dangerousness." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1211.) The court acknowledged that it had not applied this standard in Rosenkrantz or Dannenberg because "we affirmed the Board's or the Governor's decision without specifically considering whether there existed a rational nexus between those egregious circumstances and the ultimate conclusion that the inmate remained a threat to public safety." (Lawrence, at p. 1213.) "An inquiry into whether the offense is more aggravated than the minimum elements necessary to sustain a conviction was not intended by this court to be the exclusive measure of due process, and has proved in practice to be unworkable, leading to arbitrary results. Most importantly, the circumstance that the offense is aggravated does not, in every case, provide evidence that the inmate is a current threat to public safety. Indeed, it is not the circumstance that the crime is particularly egregious that makes a prisoner unsuitable for parole--it is the implication concerning future dangerousness that derives from the prisoner having committed that crime. Because the parole decision represents a prospective view--essentially a prediction concerning the future--and reflects an uncertain conclusion, rarely (if ever) will the existence of a single isolated fact in the record, evaluated in a vacuum, suffice to support or refute that decision." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at pp. 1213-1214.) "Accordingly, we conclude that although the Board and the Governor may rely upon the aggravated circumstances of the commitment offense as a basis for a decision denying parole, the aggravated nature of the crime does not in and of itself provide some evidence of current dangerousness to the public unless the record also establishes that something in the prisoner's pre- or post-incarceration history, or his or her current demeanor and mental state, indicates that the implications regarding the prisoner's dangerousness that derive from his or her commission of the commitment offense remain probative to the statutory determination of a continuing threat to public safety." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1214.) "Absent affirmative evidence of a change in the prisoner's demeanor and mental state, the circumstances of the commitment offense may continue to be probative of the prisoner's dangerousness for some time in the future. At some point, however, when there is affirmative evidence, based upon the prisoner's subsequent behavior and current mental state, that the prisoner, if released, would not currently be dangerous, his or her past offense may no longer realistically constitute a reliable or accurate indicator of the prisoner's current dangerousness." (Lawrence, at p. 1219.) "The relevant inquiry is whether the circumstances of the commitment offense, when considered in light of other facts in the record, are such that they continue to be predictive of current dangerousness many years after commission of the offense. This inquiry is, by necessity and by statutory mandate, an individualized one, and cannot be undertaken simply by examining the circumstances of the crime in isolation, without consideration of the passage of time or the attendant changes in the inmate's psychological or mental attitude." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1221.) "In sum, the Board or the Governor may base a denial-of-parole decision upon the circumstances of the offense, or upon other immutable facts such as an inmate's criminal history, but some evidence will support such reliance only if those facts support the ultimate conclusion that an inmate continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety. (Regs., 2281, subd. (a).) Accordingly, the relevant inquiry for a reviewing court is not merely whether an inmate's crime was especially callous, or shockingly vicious or lethal, but whether the identified facts are probative to the central issue of current dangerousness when considered in light of the full record before the Board or the Governor." (Lawrence, at p. 1221.) The California Supreme Court proceeded to apply this standard of review to the Governor's decision to deny Lawrence parole. "In light of petitioner's extraordinary rehabilitative efforts specifically tailored to address the circumstances that led to her criminality, her insight into her past criminal behavior, her expressions of remorse, her realistic parole plans, the support of her family, and numerous institutional reports justifying parole, as well as the favorable discretionary decisions of the Board at successive hearings--decisions reversed by the Governor based solely upon the immutable circumstances of the offense--we conclude that the unchanging factor of the gravity of petitioner's commitment offense had no predictive value regarding her current threat to public safety, and thus provides no support for the Governor's conclusion that petitioner is unsuitable for parole at the present time." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1226.) "Our deferential standard of review requires us to credit the Governor's findings if they are supported by a modicum of evidence. (In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616, at p. 658.) This does not mean, however, that evidence suggesting a commitment offense was 'especially heinous' or 'particularly egregious' will eternally provide adequate support for a decision that an inmate is unsuitable for parole. As set forth above, the Legislature specifically contemplated both that the Board 'shall normally' grant a parole date, and that the passage of time and the related changes in a prisoner's mental attitude and demeanor are probative to the determination of current dangerousness. When, as here, all of the information in a postconviction record supports the determination that the inmate is rehabilitated and no longer poses a danger to public safety, and the Governor has neither disputed the petitioner's rehabilitative gains nor, importantly, related the commitment offense to current circumstances or suggested that any further rehabilitation might change the ultimate decision that petitioner remains a danger, mere recitation of the circumstances of the commitment offense, absent articulation of a rational nexus between those facts and current dangerousness, fails to provide the required 'modicum of evidence' of unsuitability." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at pp. 1226-1227.) "Accordingly, under the circumstances of the present case--in which the record is replete with evidence establishing petitioner's rehabilitation, insight, remorse, and psychological health, and devoid of any evidence supporting a finding that she continues to pose a threat to public safety--petitioner's due process and statutory rights were violated by the Governor's reliance upon the immutable and unchangeable circumstances of her commitment offense in reversing the Board's decision to grant parole. . . . Accordingly, the Governor's decision is not supported by 'some evidence' of current dangerousness and is properly set aside by this court." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1227.) The court noted the limited nature of its holding. "In some cases, such as those in which the inmate has failed to make efforts toward rehabilitation, has continued to engage in criminal conduct postincarceration, or has shown a lack of insight or remorse, the aggravated circumstances of the commitment offense may well continue to provide 'some evidence' of current dangerousness even decades after commission of the offense." (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1228.)