California releases some incarcerated individuals doing time for murder. Advocates push to free more
Terebea Williams was 22 when she shot her boyfriend, drove 750 miles with him bleeding in the trunk of his own car, and then dragged him into a Northern California motel, tied him to a chair and left him to die.
Convicted of murder, carjacking, and kidnapping, Williams went on to earn a college degree during her 19 years in prison, where she also mentored younger inmates and was lauded by administrators for her “exceptional conduct” while incarcerated.
The contrasting portraits of Williams as a stone-cold killer and rehabilitated model prisoner highlight the difficulties in a plan to release thousands of California inmates to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed at least 52 of those incarcerated and sickened more than 8,700 others.
This spring, the state expedited the release of 3,500 inmates because of the coronavirus, and in July it freed 2,345 others early. Thousands more are eligible for release, including at least 6,500 deemed to be at high risk because of medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom and corrections officials have focused on freeing nonviolent offenders, they also are letting out people who, like Williams, have committed violent crimes but have serious medical conditions.
Williams, 44, walked out of a women’s prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on July 29, lopping decades off her 84-years-to-life sentence for killing Kevin “John” Ruska Jr., who died of infection from a gunshot wound to the gut.
Some prisoners’ rights advocates say Williams exemplifies the type of inmate who should be released one who has already served a lengthy sentence, poses a low risk of reoffending, and is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Some are also pushing to expand the criteria for early releases to include similar types of inmates now serving life without parole for murder.
But in Williams’ case and others, officials have drawn the ire of prosecutors, victims’ rights advocates, and family members amid questions about which and how many inmates are being released — and whether it is being done with enough transparency to protect the public.
“The governor of California, Terebea’s public defender and the politicians of California have used COVID to allow this cold, calculated, lying, unremorseful murderer out of jail 65 years early, without giving the victim, Johnny, a voice,” said Ruska’s cousin, Karri Phillips.
Whether violent felons should be paroled has long been debated, but the matter has become more urgent because of the coronavirus and the troubled and chaotic way some nonviolent offenders have been set free. The process for determining who gets out and why is unclear and some victims’ families say they have been blindsided by decisions.
Some inmates and their lawyers also say they have been kept in the dark about the selection process.
Brian Pomerantz, a defense attorney who represents a San Quentin inmate at high risk medically and within months of parole eligibility, petitioned a federal court on July 10 for an early release. But a month later, Pomerantz said, he still had heard nothing from the court or corrections officials on the fate of Anthony Waldrip, who has served 20 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Waldrip, now 54, did not own the gun and was moving it from a play area where an 8-year-old boy was showing it to his sister when police spotted him with the weapon, Pomerantz said, calling it a victimless crime.
“To the best of my knowledge, no one has even considered him for early release,” he said. “If the state is not releasing the least dangerous, the soonest eligible, the most medically vulnerable, or those without victims, what criteria are being utilized?”
The state’s release numbers are fluid and subject to parole regulations and the decisions of officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some inmates are being freed on parole through regular channels, while others must meet such criteria as being within six or 12 months of the end of their sentences, depending on the prison.