- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Adam Riojas waited 13 years for freedom before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned the key.

Convicted in 1991 of murder, the former real estate agent maintained his innocence and turned down offers of a plea bargain. Then, in 2002, relatives told the state parole board that they had heard Riojas’ estranged father, a drug smuggler, confess to the killing shortly before his death.

The board, with no objection from the prosecutors who had put Riojas in prison, decided that he deserved parole.

Their recommendation was sent to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who, having publicly vowed to keep murderers in prison for life, rejected it.

But a year later, after an unexpected change in state leadership, Riojas is free — one of the 34 murderers and kidnappers paroled by Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, in his first seven months as governor.

During Mr. Davis’ 4 years in office, eight persons sentenced to life terms were granted parole.

Riojas and his attorney, Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project, said fears of a Willie Horton-type imbroglio — the case of a murderer who committed rape while on furlough and helped doom Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ 1988 bid for the White House — led Mr. Davis to reject parole for convicted murderers with little regard to the merits of their cases.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, in contrast, “is a big man and he’s strong,” Riojas said. “He doesn’t have to portray a real tough-guy image because people already see him as tough.”

Mr. Brooks said the details of Riojas’ case were identical in each of his two parole bids, “and it was just a completely different result. Politically, I think Davis was unwilling to give the appearance that he was soft on crime.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s legal secretary, Peter Siggins, credited the change to a difference in philosophy: “He is a governor who believes people can reform and be reformed.”

Until the final year before Mr. Davis was ousted in a tumultuous recall election, three murderers were given parole, all women who killed men they said had abused them for years.

Mr. Davis’ former spokesman, Steve Maviglio, said every parole recommendation sent to the governor was given individual consideration, and “politics didn’t play into his review.” Mr. Maviglio said Mr. Davis simply “tended to come down on the side of the victims and the prosecutors more often than someone who’s been in prison.”

In fact, much more often: Mr. Davis rejected release for 286 prisoners sentenced to life terms who had been recommended for parole by the state Board of Prison Terms. Of the 95 recommendations sent to Mr. Schwarzenegger as of June 2, he has reversed 58 and sent three back for further review.

Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit organization that protects the rights of prisoners, said Mr. Schwarzenegger is giving more hope to inmates but still is not going far enough.

Very few of the life-term inmates who seek parole each year — about 150 out of more than 4,000 — win recommendations from the nine-member board, which includes several former law-enforcement professionals.

Harriet Salarno, whose 18-year-old daughter was murdered by an estranged boyfriend in 1979, is worried by Mr. Schwarzenegger’s record. Mrs. Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California, said the state owes more to the victims and the public than to violent criminals, “very few” of whom can be reformed.

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