Keep violent offenders in prison
My first day in 0ffice, Jan. 3, 2003, I created the "Lifer Parole Unit." This new department was created to keep the most serious felons from being paroled. It became a priority for me because of a murder case that took place in my community of Redlands in 1975.
The life of young Paula Hernandez was taken by a murderer while on her way home from school. That case shocked the community then and 25 years later, when the murderer was up for parole. In 2002, the family asked me to attend a parole hearing. Our office had no formal parole unit, and one can only imagine the family's emotions coming face to face with the person that murdered their beautiful daughter 25 years later.
I prepared for that hearing and drove to Corcoran State Prison to represent the family of Paula at the parole hearing. I will never forget the defendant's lack of remorse and flat-out lies concerning his request for parole. His parole was denied for the maximum at that time, five years. It was at that moment I decided we would be there for victims and victims' families at parole hearings.
Most recently, "Marcy's Law," a victims' rights initiative, was passed. One of the positive changes was the extension of parole denials for our most dangerous felons. This positive change was reflected recently in a parole hearing on Nov. 9.
In that hearing, Terry Jones, an Aryan brotherhood gang member, was up for parole after being convicted of attempted murder of a peace officer. On July 8, 1988, Deputy Sheriff Eric Manker stopped this gang member in the city of Highland. The defendant proceeded to shoot Deputy Manker with a sawed-off shotgun, striking Deputy Manker in the abdomen. The deputy was seriously wounded, but was able to fire six rounds from his revolver, striking the defendant three times. The defendant was later arrested and Deputy Manker recovered from his injuries and worked another 20 years before retiring in 2007.
At the parole hearing, Deputy District Attorney Frank Motikeit from the Lifer Parole Unit attended on behalf of the county. During the parole hearing, Jones became disruptive and had to be removed from the hearing room. The Parole Board found Jones unsuitable for parole and imposed the new maximum extension of 15 years!
Since the inception of the Lifer Parole Unit, we have attended hundreds of parole hearings to ensure that the most serious offenders serve the maximum time in state prison, including life forthwith for those sentenced to life terms.
With the advent of prison reform and early release of prisoners, I commit to the citizens of this county that I will do everything I can as district attorney to protect our citizens from these convicted felons and will fight vigorously for victims' rights both pre- and post-conviction.
Michael A. Ramos is San Bernardino County's district attorney.
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Ramos had graduated from Redlands High School the year before the rape and murder of 15-year-old Paula Hernandez while walking home from Redlands High School on March 22, 1977.
More than 25 years later, he decided to establish the unit in Paula’s honor, almost naming it for her, with the purpose of assisting victims and families of victims whose offenders are sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
“Her spirit remains as an inspiration to help families of murder victims,” Ramos said.
Prosecutors assigned to the Lifer Parole Unit attend so-called suitability hearings for parole held for inmates sentenced to life for crimes committed in San Bernardino County.
The Victims’ Bill of Rights Law of 2008, or Marsy’s Law, was approved by California voters in November 2008 to ensure victims and families of victims are informed of all parole procedures and the parole process.
Victims have the right to provide information to be considered by the parole board and to be notified of the parole or release of an offender.
Prior to Marsy’s Law, the maximum parole denial was five years. Now, inmates can be denied for seven, 10 and 15 years.
Over the years, Paula’s family has been notified of the scheduled parole hearings for John Zenc, now 57, who was convicted of the girl’s murder. A prosecutor has also attended the hearings.
“They’re there to answer our questions, to help us if we need anything. They’re there for us,” said Ruth Lopez, Paula’s sister.
In the 1990s, Ramos met with Paula’s family and attended a parole hearing.
At the time, Ramos said, Zenc was not remorseful and showed no effort toward rehabilitation.
“I was very concerned this individual would not only get out, but I wanted to make sure he was punished — he took the life of Paula at a very young age, and also that he doesn’t harm any other citizens upon being release from prison,” Ramos said.
With a parole hearing for Zenc approaching, Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Dawson is preparing her case on why he should remain behind bars.
Dawson has been assigned to Paula’s case and attends Zenc’s hearings on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office.
Portions of transcripts from past hearings have been removed along with two psychiatric evaluations by court order, making things more challenging for Dawson.
“We are all entitled to our own interpretation of the facts,” she said. “We all have the desire to make ourselves look good — that is a given. You don’t get to rewrite the facts and you don’t get to change them because that is not good for you anymore. That’s what I’m there to stop.
“I’m there to say, ‘You know what? If you have true remorse, if you have true insight, you have learned to accept what you did. You acknowledge what you did. You say, ‘This is why I did it and this is why it won’t happen again.’”
Zenc was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after seven years.
The death penalty was not reinstated until 1978.
His first parole hearing came six years after he was incarcerated.
The earliest he could have been eligible for release was 1984.
Now Paula’s family is concerned the state’s prison realignment program may impact Zenc’s chances for parole.
Gov. Jerry Brown has affirmed 82 percent of parole board decisions since taking office three years ago. This adds up to the release of nearly 1,400 inmates serving life sentences, according to The Associated Press.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger authorized the release of 557 lifers — about 27 percent of the board’s decision — and former Gov. Gray Davis before him approved the release of two inmates, according to The Associated Press.
“Brown’s got to release all these prisoners,” said Eugene Reynoza, Paula’s stepfather. “He’s releasing lifers, and that’s not right. You take a life and spend 30 years in jail, then they release you?”
Zenc is also looking at the release of inmates who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole as a reason why he says he should be released.
“I am no longer a danger to anybody,” Zenc said. “I don’t have a mean bone in my body. I think I can be an asset to the community of Redlands and to the whole state of California.”
Last week, Ramos said he planned to discuss the case and the impacts of prison realignment with the governor.
“No matter what the parole board does now,” Ramos said, “it’s important not only to this DA, but the community members of Redlands and making sure that he serves what his sentence was. That was a life sentence.”
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