Patterico's Pontifications


Arnie Paroles Murderer

Filed under: Crime — Patterico @ 7:14 am

Gov. Schwarzenegger is paroling a murderer:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided to parole James Tramel, a convicted murderer who was ordained an Episcopal priest in prison, a spokeswoman for the governor said Thursday.

In declining to review Tramel’s case, the governor is letting stand an October 2005 decision by the state parole board to free the 38-year-old inmate, said Julie Soderlund, a Schwarzenegger aide.

There is absolutely nothing sympathetic about the man’s crime:

In 1985, Tramel was one of two 17-year-old private school students in Santa Barbara arrested in the unprovoked stabbing death of a 29-year-old transient as he lay in his sleeping bag in a city park.

Yet the D.A.’s office that prosecuted him supports his release:

Tramel has drawn the support of hundreds of Episcopal Church members throughout the state, who see his ordination as a powerful example of personal redemption. Church officials believe he is the only U.S. inmate ever to become an Episcopal priest, an accomplishment requiring years of study, psychological evaluations, and approval by committees at various levels of the church’s hierarchy.

. . . .

Tramel’s release was supported by the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office, which had prosecuted him, and by top-ranking members of the Episcopal clergy.

I think it presents an interesting case: a despicable and unprovoked crime that victimized one of society’s least privileged people, committed by someone who may have genuinely turned his life around.

I’m not insensitive to the possibility of redemption. But based on what I read in this story, I’d let him stay in prison. He’s only 38, and he killed a man. I don’t know if he should ever be released, but now seems too early.

UPDATE: A commenter notes that Tramel did not wield the knife; his companion did. I noticed that today’s story quotes Tramel making that claim. But I initially didn’t give that claim much weight because it’s a self-serving statement. However, a closer look reveals that Tramel’s claim appears to be an accepted fact, and I agree that it’s relevant. The full circumstances of the murder are set forth in a separate Times article, here:

One August night, members of a Latino gang had gotten into a confrontation with some of their classmates. The next night, Tramel and Kurtzman led a group that went out looking for the gang. According to his own account, Tramel egged on his friends, instructing them in martial arts moves. When Kurtzman wanted to bring along the 6-inch folding military knife he would sharpen during idle moments in the dorm, Tramel readily agreed.

After hours on the prowl, the band of avenging angels came down to just Tramel and Kurtzman, clad all in black.

They found no gang members, but returning to school for their 1 a.m. curfew, they cut through Alameda Park, where music wafted from a radio beside a man bunking down in the gazebo.

For a brief time, the pair chatted with him. The homeless man was Michael Stephenson, 29. He was not Latino. Tucked inside his sleeping bag, he was anything but hostile. As Tramel leaned against a railing with his back to Stephenson, they talked about the cold weather.

“Several seconds later, I heard Michael say, ‘No, my friend,’ and then I heard what sounded like coughing,” Tramel wrote in an account for his 2005 parole hearing.

“When I turned around, Michael was on his hands and knees, and Kurtzman was leaning over him. Then Michael suddenly collapsed onto his side, I saw the knife in Kurtzman’s hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael’s throat. My body froze in horror, and I gasped, ‘Dave, stop!’ Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling.”

Under this version, it’s hard to see how Tramel was even convicted of murder to begin with. But if it’s true, I agree with the commenter that there is a much, much stronger case for paroling him. As I said, my initial opinion was based on today’s story only. Now that I know more of the facts, I think Arnold’s decision seems reasonable.

23 Responses to “Arnie Paroles Murderer”

  1. yup. maybe 58 is more reasonable

    quasimodo (edc74e)

  2. Actually, he didn’t personally “kill a man”. His accomplice slit the guys throat. He may bear moral and legal responsbility for the death, but he didn’t kill him.

    [Excellent point. See my UPDATE. — Patterico]

    TomHynes (672604)

  3. It’s a parole and not a pardon. It may be worth the risk.
    On the other hand, if the experiment fails, it will expose the reliability of the Episcopal Church to ridicule.
    All in all, an interesting story line to follow over the next few years.

    great unknown (9f37aa)

  4. Why should we humans decide that someone has been redeemed? Shouldn’t that be a job for God?

    I’m not being facetious. Our job is to punish criminals and, for purposes of parole, to determine whether they have been imprisoned long enough and whether they would pose a risk to the community. Judging redemption is beyond our ability and beyond our proper role.

    Attila (Pillage Idiot) (dfa1f1)

  5. Whether one likes it or not, most murderers in California have an opportunity for parole as part of their sentence. These are the rules we’ve agreed to play by. Parole boards in California are as tough as they are anywhere in the US but there are criteria which if the inmate meets, will allow them to be released.

    Gov. Davis didn’t play by the rules and now we’re stuck with Rosencrantz allowing all inmates lawsuits over parole denials.

    If you want murders to stay in for life then petition the legislature to change the sentence to life without possibility of parole for all murders.

    If Trammel doesn’t fall under the rubric of those who should be paroled in California, then no one does.

    “The prosecutors who put him away are convinced that Tramel should go free. A prosecutor in Santa Barbara County for 35 years, Assistant Dist. Atty. Patrick McKinley has seen his share of phony jailhouse conversions but feels confident about Tramel’s. “I admit the possibility, theoretically, that it’s all a sham, but I would bet everything except my life that it isn’t,” McKinley said. “I don’t think you can fake that for close to 20 years.””

    Consigliere (3f8ad8)

  6. In the Update’s excerpt of Tramel’s 2005 parole hearing, Tramel says that David Kurtzman wielded the knife. Not only that, but Kurtzman made the decision to murder Michael Stephenson on a whim, and on his own. Almost an “I don’t like Mondays” break by Kurtzman, with Tramel just happening to be present (except for encouraging him to bring the knife along earlier that evening).

    I wonder whether this is in accord with the trial transcript, and whether Kurtzman agrees with Tramel’s account–and how close Kurtzman’s earliest date with the parole board might be.

    There’s some mix of an overly-harsh verdict, redemption, and self-serving testimony. It’s hard to tell what the proportions are.

    AMac (b6037f)

  7. The Great Unknown wrote:

    On the other hand, if the experiment fails, it will expose the reliability of the Episcopal Church to ridicule.

    Uhhh, you haven’t been paying much attention to the problems of the Episcopal Church recently, have you?

    Dana (3e4784)

  8. “Under this version, it’s hard to see how Tramel was even convicted of murder to begin with.”

    It seems that California has also adopted the “criminal enterprise” theory of accountability for the conduct of an accomplice. Maybe it’s not hopeless after all. I do agree that even without the prison rehabilitation this case does not call for more than a twenty to thirty year sentence.

    nk (2ab789)

  9. nk-

    California is, generally, very very very very punitive in its criminal law. It also, quite awesomely, uses the Frye standard for expert witnesses rather than Daubert. Likewise, the state Supreme Court is significantly more conservative than the federal one.

    As far as criminal jurisprudence goes, California is pretty awesome.

    Angry Clam (fa7fff)

  10. Thank you, Clam. Sorry if I seemed to be dissing your state. What is California’s position on permissible inferences? For example, if someone is caught inside a place he is not supposed to be which contains things that can be stolen is there a permissible inference that he is guilty of burglary (my state’s rule) or, absent direct evidence that he intended to commit a theft, is he guilty only of trespass (the Bazelon rule)? I ask this seriously, just because I want to know, and not to “is my state is more law and order than yours”.

    nk (d7a872)

  11. >As far as criminal jurisprudence goes, California is pretty awesome.

    Except for its appeals courts, especially whatever district San Jose is in. The San Jose Mercury News did a big story on how insanely difficult it was to win an appeal, and how insanely long it took, even in the presence of pretty clear prosecutorial misconduct or nutty trial judge decisions (like not permitting a DNA test).

    Bob (d57802)

  12. Bob- I consider those things awesome.

    Angry Clam (fa7fff)

  13. Angry Clam – could you elaborate as to why you think those are good things?

    aphrael (e0cdc9)

  14. I sent the original article to my sister in law – who may end up being Tramel’s boss. She (Jane Gould) is one of the finalists for the next Episcopal Bishop of California.

    TomHynes (36cb4e)

  15. P’rico or the A-Clam: Please discuss the applicability or non-applicability of the felony murder rule to this case. Tanks!

    Deacon Bleau (f161a5)

  16. I agree with Judge Friendly that, on review, there needs to be a showing of actual innocence.

    Granted, Judge Friendly was discussing federal habeas review of state convictions, but I think the principle is sound- not only must the convict show error, but must affirmatively be able to demonstrate actual innocence (not the current “prejudice” to his/her case) to win reversal.

    On a more general policy matter, I think it should be hard to win reversal of a conviction- remember, a unanimous jury came to this conclusion, watching the proceedings. Believe me, I work at an appeals court- it is damn hard to make calls about evidence even one step removed. I’d rather leave the decisions at the trial level barring something extremely egregious.

    Deacon – I don’t see what felony they were committing that underlay the conviction. Generally, the death needs to be the result of the felonious actions, not simply “hey, I’m gonna kill this dude,” for felony murder to apply. That’s why the comment about criminal enterprises was so important.

    Angry Clam (fa7fff)

  17. Angry Clam – how worried are you that someone who shouldn’t have been will have been convicted due to misconduct at the trial court level?

    In my mind – and, granted, I’m a layperson on this – the existence of misconduct at the trial court level shouldn’t abrogate the general presumption of innocence. EG, the onus should be on the state to show that the conviction would have happened even without the misconduct.

    aphrael (e0cdc9)

  18. I surmised that in this case the criminal enterprise was the gang fight. It is an extension of the accomplice during the fact rule. In general terms: “When a group of individuals embark upon a criminal enterprise, each individual is equally liable for the conduct of each and every other individual during the course of the enterprise”. There is no need to prove “soliciting, enabling, encouraging” the conduct. I suppose the other kids were deemed to have abandoned the enterprise.

    The old felony murder rule has been pretty much supplanted in jurisdictions which have adopted the accountability rule. It was pretty quaint: If a policeman shot your accomplice during the bank robbery, you were guilty of murder. The re-examination of the death penalty (Gregg v. Georgia)probably caused a lot of states to take another look at statutes which allowed a murder conviction without a scienter requirement — knowledge or intent. Now, in death penalty states, you will see the term “felony murder” applied to knowing or intentional homicides committed during the course of another felony — robbery, kidnaping, rape — which trigger the death penalty.

    nk (54c569)

  19. Not particularly – keep in mind that most “misconduct” isn’t really that bad, except on an abstract level. For example, a prosecutor quoting Shakespeare in his closing would be being a bit clever (and probably over the heads of his jury), but one who quotes the Bible (even for something not directly God related) just committed reversible misconduct.

    Absent some showing that the person was actually and factually wrongfully convicted, I’m in favor of letting jury verdicts stand.

    Angry Clam (fa7fff)

  20. >the onus should be on the state to show that
    >the conviction would have happened even without
    >the misconduct.

    That’s exactly what the appeals court in San Jose’s district usually says: the misconduct was harmless. Now I’m not talking about “quoting the Bible”. I’m talking about things like failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, intimidation of witnesses under color of law, and blatant favoritism by the trial judge towards the prosecution. It takes godlike arrogance to assert that these things are harmless. Aside from the harm these things do to the justice system itself, saying with a straight face that no reasonable jury would change its mind in the absence of such taint is absurd. I’m not necessarily advocating reversal here; a new trial would be just fine.

    Bob (d57802)

  21. “failure to disclose exculpatory evidence” – this is HIGHLY doubtful, as there is this thing known as Brady v. Maryland that was handed down by the United States Supreme Court. State Courts of Appeal don’t usually last long in the face of such things.

    “intimidation of witnesses under color of law” meaning what, exactly? If it’s “testify for us and we’ll cut you a deal, otherwise you’re going up on Murder One too” kind of stuff, that’s totally fine.

    “blatant favoritism” – oh noes, the trial judge ruled against our objection! He must be biased, our case cannot just suck!

    Angry Clam (fa7fff)

  22. Angry Clam, if the error is inadvertent or the law is obscure or unclear then a ruling of harmless error is reasonable if the error did not appear to have a major impact on the trial. But if the error appears to be deliberate or is a clear and obvious violation of established law then I would lean towards reversal even if the error did not appear to affect the outcome of the trial. Otherwise the rules will become a joke. So if the prosecutor knows (or should know) he isn’t supposed to quote the Bible and he does it anyway I would reverse. How else are you going to get prosecutors to obey the rules?

    James B. Shearer (fc887e)

  23. I know both Jim and David. I met them many years a go in Santa Barbara. I still have contact with David but havent talked to Jim in years. If you are going to parole Jim, you may as parole David while your at it. To be honest, I believe the murder would had never happened if it wern’t for Jim. Like Jimmy said, David was the gun and Jim was the ammo and the trigger.

    sk8er (d8157c)

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