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Crime victims assail bill they say could free some of California’s worst killers

Crime victims assail bill they say could free some of California’s worst killers

Vanetta Perdue’s mother had tried desperately to leave her abusive husband, but he wouldn’t have it. In 1982, he broke into their home near Monterey, doused Perdue’s mother with gasoline and set her on fire, leaving their children to die with her in the flames.

Now Perdue fears that her father — who’s serving life in prison without parole for nearly killing her and her siblings along with their mother — might be freed under a San Jose lawmaker’s criminal justice reform bill set for a hearing Friday in Sacramento.

“Convicted murderers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole do not deserve to be given a second chance,” Perdue, of North Carolina, said Tuesday at a news conference of crime-victim advocates, law enforcement officials and lawmakers opposing the bill. “Life without parole is supposed to be just that, life without parole. Period.”

Sen. Dave Cortese, a San Jose Democrat whose bill, SB 94, heads to a state Assembly committee hearing Friday, said Tuesday that critics are misrepresenting his legislation, which doesn’t do away with life-without-parole sentences but gives some inmates serving them a chance to seek parole, and that a killer such as Perdue’s father, Samuel Windham, is unlikely ever to get a hearing, let alone freed.

“These are emotionally charged issues all around,” Cortese said. “The traumatized victims’ families typically don’t want any review of anything whatsoever. Those feelings are real and totally understandable.”

But Cortese said current law allows even notorious inmates — such as the Charles Manson killers and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassin — a chance at parole, while others who were minor participants in a deadly crime get no chance at release.

“We have cases where three shooters plead out for 25-to-life, and the girlfriend in the getaway car goes to trial and loses, getting life without parole. Twenty five years later, they are parole eligible, she never will be,” Cortese said. “There should be consistent standards of review. Why would a lesser participant in the very same crime, a passive accomplice, be denied any and all review?”

Cortese’s bill is among a wave of criminal justice reform measures that California’s ruling Democrats have pursued in recent years, particularly in the wake of public outrage over the 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a White Minnesota police officer since convicted of murder.

But those measures have come under heightened scrutiny amid reports of rising crime and regular newscasts featuring smash-and-grab retail thefts and scenes of open drug use on city streets. Even some Democrats say the state has gone too far with criminal justice reform, such as Assemblywoman Jasmeet Bains, a Bakersfield Democrat who joined Perdue and victims advocates in assailing SB 94.

“The criminal justice system has not always treated people who look like me fairly,” said Bains, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India. “The legislature has passed a number of laws in recent years in an attempt to right injustices of the past. We got some of these efforts right. But we also got many of them very wrong.”

Among the wrongs, Bains said, were voter-approved propositions 47 and 57, which lowered penalties for some crimes deemed non-violent and increased parole eligibility. Those measures, Bains said, “tipped the scales of justice against victims and are directly responsible for the reckless and lawless behaviors that have become commonplace to see on the news each evening.”

And SB 94, she said, “doubles down on our mistakes by making some of the most dangerous and violent murderers eligible to leave their prison cells and return to some of the same communities they once terrorized.”

SB 94 would apply to inmates serving life without possibility of parole for crimes committed before June 5, 1990, and who have already been behind bars for 25 years or more. The inmates would be able to ask a judge to change their sentence to 25 years to life with consideration of parole. Those convicted of first-degree murder of an on-duty law enforcement officer or certain sexual offenses in conjunction with homicide wouldn’t be eligible.

The bill is sponsored by the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which calls it “a modest reform that allows judges to give a fresh look at sentences that are at least 25 years old.”

The Ella Baker Center says the bill “aims to reach a population locked into extreme sentences from decades ago that are inconsistent with our present-day sentencing practices, taking mitigating factors into account like intimate partner violence, intellectual disabilities, and childhood trauma.”

The organization says the bill calls for “a clear three-step path of rigorous evaluation,” with judicial discretion in resentencing followed by parole hearings and the governor’s review.

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“At every step of the way, we focus on public safety,” the Ella Baker Center says, adding that SB 94 “restores hope” and “will provide incarcerated people with an incentive to participate in rehabilitative programming.”

Cortese’s bill must pass the Assembly Appropriations committee and then full Assembly before going to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who could sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

But critics say the bill could still free some sex offenders serving life terms for murder. A killer who raped his victim but wasn’t convicted of that crime could be eligible, and many killers have a history of past sex offenses, said Crime Victims United President Nina Salarno Besselman.

Among Bay Area killers who could become eligible under the law are Henry Lee Williams and Orrin William Payne, of Santa Clara County, who in 1986 broke into a home where a husband, his pregnant wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 16 months, lived. When Williams saw the wife calling for help, he yelled at her to put the phone down and then fired two shots, killing her.

Besselman said the bill “is a social experiment that we do not need in our communities.”