Capitol Alert

Court rejects Jerry Brown’s clemency orders for 3 more California killers

The California Supreme Court this week rejected three more of Gov. Jerry Brown’s recommendations to commute sentences of longtime prison inmates who he believed had reformed behind bars, including a Sacramento man who beat a man to death in 1997.

The court in recent weeks now has denied 10 of Brown’s clemency actions, the first time it has exercised that power in half a century.

The latest denials followed Brown’s annual Christmas Eve clemency actions that included 143 pardons and 131 commutations. Nine of the 10 inmates whose commutations were rejected had been convicted of participating in homicides.

Brown’s clemency actions are part of his effort to rethink prison sentencing in his second run as California governor. He has sought to provide more opportunities for parole, aiming to give inmates incentives to improve themselves while in custody. He has also handed down more pardons and commutations than any other California governor.

Jameel Coles, 40, of Sacramento took every opportunity he could to gain education and to mentor other inmates since he was sentenced to life in prison 20 years ago for his role in slaying a Merced County man who had agreed to give him a ride, according to Brown’s Legal Affairs Office.

Cole participated in self-health groups, enrolled in college courses, and expressed regret for his actions.

“Hurt people, hurt people,” he wrote when he applied for clemency. He told the Governor’s Office that “shame and guilt lead to a cycle of hyper-masculine choices,’ which was “compounded due to the fact that this hyper masculinity was shaped by a false image of manhood, which glorified a criminal lifestyle and misogyny.”

He worked as a chaplain clerk for more than six years, excelled in slam poetry competitions and secured two associate of arts degrees, one in social and behavioral science, Legal Affairs Secretary Peter Krause wrote.

The Supreme Court did not explain its decision to deny Coles’ commutation. The Board of Parole Hearings referred Coles’ clemency application to the governor with a favorable recommendation.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye signed the rejection. Justice Goodwin Liu voted in favor of the recommendation, according to the court.

Nathaniel Thompson crossed paths with Coles on Dec. 4, 1997. Coles, his friend Dave Parker and three teenage girls were stranded in Merced County. Thompson agreed to give them a ride, according to archived stories by The Modesto Bee.

Thompson’s body was found the next day — beaten, suffocated and burned using kerosene from a lantern, law enforcement officials said.

Krause, Brown’s attorney, used blunt language to describe the crime in the recommendation to commute Coles’ sentence.

“In 1997, at age 19, Mr. Coles and his crime partner stole a van, beat the van’s owner to death, then set the victim’s body on fire.”

During the 2000 trial, Coles said he kicked Thompson. He denied that he delivered fatal head blows and allegations that he hid evidence.

Coles at his trial said he could not leave the scene when his friend began assaulting Thompson. “Going back home, if people found out I did that, I’d be in a lot of trouble.”

Parker, also of Sacramento, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The two girls who pleaded guilty to murder were sentenced to the California Youth Authority while the third was released after time served.

Then-Merced County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Cooke read an emotional prepared statement at the trial on behalf of Thompson’s stepdaughter, Brenda French:

“My stepfather pleaded for his life ... but no compassion or mercy was given to a man who had shown kindness to strangers.”

The court reviews clemency recommendations related to inmates who committed multiple felonies. This week it approved three of Brown’s orders.

The other two rejected commutations were for Thomas Marston, 58, who has served more than 34 years of a life sentence following his conviction on two counts of first-degree murder in Mendocino County; and Elaine Wong, 68, who has served 38 years of a life sentence following a 1980 Los Angeles County robbery in which she shot two people, struck another and set a fire.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.
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