Bishop rips governor over parole reversal

Murderer has been ordained as an Episcopal deacon

Convicted murderer James Tramel’s ordination as an Episcopal deacon wasn’t enough to persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to approve his release on parole last week, prompting a fiery Easter sermon from Episcopal Bishop William Swing.

“Governors of California are good at executions,” Swing told the 11 a.m. service at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. “Governors of California are 90- pound moral weaklings when it comes to restoration of human beings.”

Although the state Board of Prison Terms approved Tramel’s parole in October, the governor reversed the recommendation Friday, arguing that Tramel’s release from state prison in Solano County “would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society at this time.”

The decision angered Swing, who had planned to have Tramel join him at the Grace Cathedral altar for the Easter vigil service last Saturday. Tramel was scheduled to be ordained as a priest at Grace Cathedral in June.

“When you work with someone in prison, you’re alert to being conned,” the bishop said in an interview Monday. “When you find someone is the real thing, you get excited.”

Swing said he has known Tramel for eight years and, in July, made him the first prison inmate ever to be ordained as an Episcopal deacon.

In his Easter sermon, the bishop suggested that Schwarzenegger was playing politics with the decision, pandering to the public’s worries about crime. Fear, he said, is something “politicians ingest like steroids.”

“Crucifixion is easier for us to bear than Resurrection,” Swing said in his sermon. “Mr. Governor, yesterday was your day. You have the prisons, you have the values, you have the power. But Mr. Governor, you do not have Easter . .. James has Easter.”

Tramel was 17 years old and a student at a Santa Barbara prep school in August 1985 when he and a classmate, David Kurtzman, went out to retaliate after a group of Tramel’s friends from the school was hassled by some local gang members.

According to trial transcripts, Kurtzman attacked a sleeping homeless man, 29-year-old Michael Stephenson, in downtown Alameda Park, stabbing him to death as Tramel watched and did nothing. Tramel was found to be the ringleader in what was dubbed a thrill killing and sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder.

At his Oct. 27 parole hearing, Tramel admitted his guilt and agreed that he had been “justly punished for my role in the murder of an innocent man … I profoundly violated the fundamental Christian command to love my neighbor.”

During his years in prison, Tramel earned a business degree and a master’s degree in theology from Berkeley’s Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal seminary. He worked in a number of prison programs, including church ministry, and “has been seen as a genuinely good man,” said Nancy Van Couvering, the psychologist who evaluated Tramel for the parole board.

Tramel’s parole plan called for him to live at the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley and work fulltime at Holy Innocents Church in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. He also would do other work for the diocese and the seminary.

After opposing Tramel’s parole for years, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office changed its recommendation in October and called for his release.

“We don’t make a recommendation of suitability (for parole) in some willy- nilly fashion,” Assistant District Attorney Patrick McKinley, a 34-year veteran of the office, told the parole board. “We have over 100 lifers in the system. We’ve done it five times. This is one of those five.”

Not everyone at the October hearing wanted Tramel paroled. The victim’s friends and relatives questioned Tramel’s religious conversion and argued that he hasn’t paid for Stephenson’s brutal slaying.

“The blood on his hands is as permanent as the blood on his friend for the murder of Michael Stephenson (because Tramel) planned the murder and helped prepare the murder weapon,” Bernice Bosheff, Stephenson’s aunt, told the parole board. “Now James Tramel has become, quote, ‘prison smart.’ He knows what to say, when to say it and who to say it to.”

But the panel unanimously agreed to grant Tramel parole.

“As hard as I tried, it was very difficult to find issues of unsuitability at this time,” said Booker Welch, the presiding commissioner.

It’s the governor, not the parole board, who has the final say when it comes to setting murderers free, however. Schwarzenegger has been more willing than former Gov. Gray Davis to allow parole in murder cases, nonetheless he has reversed 150 of the 232 parole recommendations brought before him.

A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment on the decision to keep Tramel in prison, saying Schwarzenegger’s letter reversing the parole said everything that was needed.

In the letter dated Friday, the governor said Tramel’s prison record over the past 19 years, which included being involved in fights in 1990 and again in 1999 and two other minor rule violations, outweighed his years of acceptable conduct.

The crime itself also is enough to keep him in prison, Schwarzenegger argued.

“Mr. Tramel was an active, willing and major participant in the planning and carrying out of a murder, making the second-degree murder for which he was convicted a particularly heinous one,” the governor said in the letter. “And the gravity of this murder alone is a sufficient basis to conclude at this time that Mr. Tramel’s release from prison would pose an unreasonable public safety risk.”

Swing called Schwarzenegger’s finding that Tramel would be a risk to the community “unconscionable. I dare the governor to back this up with real data.”

If the governor took a close look at Tramel and the recommendation for parole, the bishop said, “I’m sure he would change his mind.”

But with Tramel headed back to prison for at least another year before a new parole hearing, Swing plans to mobilize Episcopalians and other religious groups to put pressure on the governor to set the deacon free.

“I want to bring out everyone who ordains people who have a belief that people can be forgiven and move on to a better life,” Swing said.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Mar. 29, 2005
John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)