Capitol Alert

Court puts limits on Jerry Brown’s powers, denies clemency to 6 California killers

The California Supreme Court rejected one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempted commutations Monday, the seventh time the court has rejected a clemency request from the outgoing governor in recent weeks.

The rejections mark the first time the court has blocked a governor’s clemency requests in at least half a century, according to the state’s Judicial Council. The court reviews clemency actions for inmates who have been convicted of more than one felony.

On Monday, just hours before the expected release of Brown’s annual Christmas Eve clemency actions, the court announced that it rejected Brown’s attempt to commute the sentence of Kenny Lee, who robbed and murdered a cab driver in 1992.

Lee was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Lee, now in his 40s, has been in prison for more than 19 years, where he has improved his behavior and pursued an education, according to court documents.

The rejections are very unusual, said appellate lawyer David Ettinger of the Horvitz & Levy law firm. They’re particularly noteworthy in light of a March order where the justices established a “very deferential” standard of review, Ettinger said.

The court has the power to reject clemency requests in cases of an “abuse of power,” according to the order. The court hasn’t released a public explanation of why it decided to block Brown’s clemency attempts.

“Given the Supreme Court’s March order, it’s reasonable to infer from the denials that the Supreme Court detected an impending abuse of power,” Ettinger said.

Late Friday, the court rejected clemency requests for three men convicted in fatal shootings: Huan Nguyen, who killed one person in 1994; Joe Hernandez, who killed two people in 1993; and Howard Ford, who killed one person in 1980.

Last month, the court rejected Brown’s sentence commutations for Richard Barnfield, who stabbed and beat another inmate in 1999 while serving time for robbery and gun crimes; and John Johnson, who killed another driver in a 1989 car accident while fleeing a robbery.

Earlier this month, the court blocked Brown’s clemency directive for Borey Ai, a 37-year-old Cambodian refugee who killed a woman when he was 14.

Ai was one of several people at risk of deportation to whom Brown granted clemency.

Brown has granted pardons and commutations for more people than any of his eight most recent predecessors. They are part of his larger efforts to reduce the state’s prison population, which has ballooned since he signed a tough sentencing law in his first stint in office that set minimum sentences for inmates.

Documents filed by Brown’s attorneys describe the inmates as reformed and aging men.

Ford, for instance, is 74. He shot a man to death after a dice game in 1980, according to court documents.

“He hopes to spend his remaining years with his wife and grandchildren,” an attorney from Brown’s Legal Affairs office wrote.

Nguyen, 44, grew up around Orange County gangs. He wrote to Brown’s staff that he had matured.

“Throughout my youth and adult life, I’ve brought shame to my family and my community. I was a young man that had an immature way of thinking. But after twenty years of incarceration, I am no longer the same young man I once was,” he wrote.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup declined to comment on the rejections Monday.

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