California appeals court overturns governor, orders parole for baby killer

Published: Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 7:48 am

A state appellate court, brushing aside Gov. Jerry Brown's decision to keep Yolo County baby killer Chris Michael Fowler in prison, has ordered him released on parole.

Fowler murdered Aaron Joseph Miller, the 22-month-old son of his girlfriend, by knocking the child off a bed, shaking him and dropping him on the floor twice to silence his crying. The toddler's 3-year-old sister was traumatized when she witnessed the violent attack.

At that time, in 1983, the 22-year-old Fowler was living in Woodland with the children and his girlfriend, who was at work when he bashed the baby senseless.

Fowler has sought parole for years without success, while Yolo law enforcement officials and the victim's family have been aligned against him. Their cause, however, has now been dealt a crippling blow by a three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

At his 13th hearing, on Nov. 8, 2010, the Board of Parole Hearings found Fowler suitable for parole and set a tentative date for release. But the following April, the board's decision was reversed by Brown.

In blocking the parole, the governor wrote: "The utter inhumanity of Mr. Fowler's crime, coupled with his inability or unwillingness to understand, own, or achieve some credible level of insight, tells me that there is a substantial risk of danger to the public were he to be released from prison."

Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg agreed with Brown and denied Fowler's petition challenging the governor's decision.

The appellate justices saw it differently, ruling Tuesday that "the record supports the board's finding that there is no evidence (Fowler) lacks insight and understanding of his murder of Aaron."

Fowler's "positive behavior in prison, his lengthy participation in seemingly every available rehabilitative program and volunteer program while incarcerated, and his statements to psychologists and the board do not establish any likelihood (he) would pose a risk to public safety. … In addition, none of the psychologists who evaluated (him) believed he posed such a risk," the three justices declared.

The 19-page opinion was authored by Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye, with the concurrences of Associate Justices George Nicholson and M. Kathleen Butz.

The panel vacated Brown's decision and reinstated the board's release order.

Unless the governor seeks and is granted a hearing before the California Supreme Court, Fowler will be freed.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said late Wednesday, "The court's decision is being reviewed."

Yolo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven called the appellate decision "very disappointing. We have been in touch with Baby Aaron's family over the years and they have attended every parole hearing. I know that this will be very painful for them."

The baby's aunt, Marcie Honkanen, said Wednesday, "For them to release a crazy man into the streets is absurd. He's never, ever shown remorse. He can't. He's amoral."

On Oct. 31, 1983, Fowler had been on a drug and alcohol binge, and he was angry when the baby's sister awakened him from a nap because her brother wouldn't stop crying. He later told a detective he did not want to take care of the children in the first place and wanted to "just sleep."

When the baby turned blue and unresponsive, Fowler and the children's grandmother rushed him to Woodland Memorial Hospital but, because of the severity of his condition, he was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. He arrived comatose and remained that way until Nov. 3, when he was pronounced dead from head injuries.

After 11 days of trial in 1984, Fowler pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison by Yolo Superior Court Judge James Roach, who called the crime "appalling." Now 51, Fowler is housed at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, in Monterey County.

The appeals panel said that, no matter how heinous the crime, it is not a basis for parole denial "unless there is an evidence-based rational nexus between the offense and present behavior."

It said, "Nothing in the record indicates (Fowler) fails to appreciate his own responsibility for Aaron's death … it is questionable whether anyone can ever fully comprehend the myriad circumstances, feelings, and forces that motivate conduct."

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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