US parole official worked to keep ex-Black Panther in prison
Court orders new hearing for man jailed for slaying
ATLANTA - A former member of the Black Panther Party convicted of killing a California park ranger is getting another shot at freedom after a federal appeals court found that a parole official improperly worked to keep him behind bars by secretly handing over information to Justice Department officials.
The decision last week by the Atlanta-based US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that then-US parole commissioner Deborah Spagnoli “impermissibly tainted’’ the board’s decision to delay Veronza Bowers’s release when she wrote a memo to government attorneys about the case. Her actions, the three-judge panel said, violated the commission’s mandate as an independent arbiter.
Spagnoli, who resigned from the commission in 2007, said Thursday that she was unaware of the ruling and refused to discuss the case.
The panel’s decision stopped short of releasing Bowers, who was convicted of the 1973 killing of Kenneth Patrick at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. But the court ordered a new hearing to determine if Bowers could be released, noting that corrections officials have called him a “model prisoner.’’
Bowers was sentenced to life in prison in April 1974 and at the time was eligible for parole after 30 years. The US Parole Commission held a hearing on his case in December 2004, when an examiner found that Bowers was not likely to commit future crimes and had “been an outstanding inmate’’ for the previous 15 years. The panel decided to grant him mandatory parole in February 2005.
But days before he was to be released, a commission staff member organized a new hearing that included Patrick’s widow, Tomie Patrick Lee. The panel met again in May and deadlocked in a 2-to-2 vote on whether to release Bowers, which by law should have allowed him to leave prison.
That is when Spagnoli sent the memo to the office of then-US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who made the unprecedented decision to intervene, the ruling said.
The memo, which was not discovered until 2007, outlined arguments for an appeal that could be used by government attorneys if Bowers was granted parole, the opinion said.
Gonzales asked the commission in June 2005 to review its decision, and days later the panel voted to temporarily delay Bowers’s release.
Commissioners went a step further in October 2005, voting 4-to-0 to keep Bowers in prison indefinitely, citing a failed escape attempt he launched with another inmate in 1979 and fears that he could commit another crime.
After the decision, the court said, Spagnoli sent a one-word e-mail to a Justice Department attorney: “Victory.’’
Justice Department officials did not comment on the case.
The commission’s then-chairman, Edward Reilly, discovered the memo in 2007 and disclosed the details to Bowers in a letter.
Bowers filed a 2008 lawsuit seeking his release in federal court in Atlanta, where he is now being held. A judge rejected the complaint, but the 11th Circuit reversed the ruling and gave the Parole Commission 60 days to hold a hearing.