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

San Jose lawmaker’s bill is one in a wave of criminal justice reform measures ruling Democrats have pushed recently

Vanetta Perdue’s mother had desperately tried to leave her abusive husband, but he refused. In 1982, he broke into their home near Monterey, doused Perdue’s mother in gasoline, and set her on fire, leaving their children to perish in the flames alongside her.

Perdue now fears that her father, who is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for nearly killing her, her siblings, and their mother, will be released under a criminal justice reform bill introduced by a San Jose lawmaker and scheduled for a hearing in Sacramento on Friday.

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

Sen. Dave Cortese, a San Jose Democrat whose bill, SB 94, is scheduled for a state Assembly committee hearing Friday, said Tuesday that critics are misrepresenting his legislation, which does not abolish life sentences without the possibility of parole but does allow some inmates serving them to seek parole, and that a killer like Perdue’s father, Samuel Windham, is unlikely to ever get a hearing, let alone be freed.

“These are emotionally charged issues all around,” said Cortese. “Typically, the families of traumatized victims do not want any review of anything.” Those emotions are genuine and completely understandable.”

However, Cortese claims that current law gives even notorious inmates a chance at parole, such as the Charles Manson killers and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassin, while others who were minor participants in a deadly crime do not.

“In some cases, three shooters plead guilty to 25-to-life sentences, and the girlfriend in the getaway car goes to trial and loses, receiving life without parole.” “They are parole eligible after twenty-five years, but she will never be,” Cortese said. “There should be consistent review standards.” Why should a minor participant in the same crime, a passive accomplice, be denied all review?”

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

However, in light of rising crime and regular newscasts featuring smash-and-grab retail thefts and scenes of open drug use on city streets, these measures have come under increased scrutiny. Even some Democrats, such as Assemblywoman Jasmeet Bains of Bakersfield, who joined Perdue and victim advocates in opposing SB 94, believe the state has gone too far with criminal justice reform.

“The criminal justice system has not always treated people who look like me fairly,” said Bains, whose parents immigrated from India to the United States.”In recent years, the legislature has passed a number of laws in an attempt to right past wrongs.” Some of our efforts were successful. But we also got a lot of them wrong.”

Among the wrongs, according to Bains, were voter-approved propositions 47 and 57, which reduced penalties for some nonviolent crimes and increased parole eligibility. According to Bains, these measures “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.”

She also stated that SB 94 “doubles down on our mistakes by allowing some of the most dangerous and violent murderers to leave their prison cells and return to some of the same communities they once terrorized.”

SB 94 would apply to inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before June 5, 1990, who have already been incarcerated for 25 years or more. Inmates would be able to petition a judge to have their sentences reduced to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole. Those convicted of first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer on the job or certain sexual offenses in conjunction with homicide are ineligible.

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

According to the Ella Baker Center, the bill “aims to reach a population locked in extreme sentences from decades ago that are inconsistent with our current sentencing practices, while taking mitigating factors such as intimate partner violence, intellectual disabilities, and childhood trauma into account.”

According to the organization, the bill calls for “a clear three-step path of rigorous evaluation,” beginning with judicial discretion in resentencing and ending with parole hearings and the governor’s review.

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

Cortese’s bill must be approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee and then the full Assembly before being sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who can sign, veto, or allow it to become law without his signature.

However, critics argue that the bill could still free some sex offenders serving life sentences for murder. According to Crime Victims United President Nina Salarno Besselman, a killer who raped his victim but was not convicted of that crime could be eligible, and many killers have a history of previous sex offenses.

Among those who could be eligible under the law are Henry Lee Williams and Orrin William Payne of Santa Clara County, who broke into a home in 1986 and murdered a husband, his pregnant wife, and two daughters, ages 3 and 16 months. When Williams saw the wife calling for help, he yelled at her to turn off the phone and then shot her twice, killing her.

The bill, according to Besselman, “is a social experiment that we do not need in our communities.”

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