SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A former death row inmate freed from prison who is now charged with murdering his 90-year-old mother blurted out that he was guilty during his most recent court appearance.
Dennis Stanworth languished on Death Row for a series of brutal rapes culminating in the 1966 killing of two teen girls he picked up hitchhiking, but walked out of prison on parole 23 years ago, although two separate juries decided he should be executed.
On Friday, the Solano County District Attorney charged him with one count of first-degree murder for the death of his 90-year-old mother. Investigators found her body at Stanworth’s Vallejo home on Wednesday but believe she was killed in early November.
Stanworth didn’t enter plea at his court appearance Friday, but blurted out that he was guilty and that this was his “third time,” Deputy district attorney Karen Jensen said. She said his attorney admonished him to keep quiet and the judge ordered him back to court Jan. 18 without commenting on the outburst.
The Associated Press asked the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation how someone with Stanworth’s criminal history, including three rapes of young women prior to raping and killing the two teen hitchhikers, could have been paroled with a finding that he had no history of violent conduct.
CDCR spokesman Luis Patino said Friday that because the case is so old it may take weeks to obtain Stanworth’s complete parole file.
Parole boards had more leeway in those days to grant parole than they do now, legal experts say.
“The exercise of parole discretion is the key here,” Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg said. “Surely there are some cases where a guy who’s served 18 years could merit release if he’s behaved well.”
Records show that Stanworth’s improbable path from Death Row prisoner to a freed registered sex offender occurred through a series of legal rulings, as California courts were grappling with the constitutionality of capital punishment.
Decades ago, he pleaded with California’s highest court to get on with his execution.
“I have dishonored my family’s name,” he wrote the California Supreme Court in asking for his appeals to be dropped. “Please be merciful and give me an endless sleep as soon as you can…”
In 1969, his case broke important legal ground when the California Supreme Court rejected his plea to drop his appeal. That decision still bars condemned inmates from waiving their automatic appeals of their death sentences.
Citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the state court also overturned his death sentence because 12 potential jurors were automatically excluded for stating their opposition to capital punishment. During a retrial, a second jury sentenced him to death.
Stanworth’s biggest break came in 1972 when the state Supreme Court struck down California’s death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, Stanworth, Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and 104 other Death Row inmates had their death sentences converted to life in prison.
At that time, however, the harshest penalty for first-degree murder was life with the chance of parole, rather than life without parole. So Stanworth was allowed to apply for parole, which he did unsuccessfully four times between 1974 and 1978.
Then in 1979, he hit pay dirt. The state’s parole board gave Stanworth a date for release, saying he could leave prison sometime in 1990 after serving 23 years, four months and nine days. The board said he was entitled to release for five main reasons, according to yet another Supreme Court ruling in 1982 considering his parole:
— Excellent personal progress in prison, including earning an associate degree in data processing.
— No major disciplinary problems.
— Positive psychologist reports
— Realistic parole plans, aided by a $12,000 educational trust fund set up for him and $3,000 in a personal savings account.
— And, finally, he was granted release because of “a lack of prior serious criminal history or history of violent conduct.”
He was paroled in February 1990 and later moved to Vallejo, where he was arrested Wednesday for the murder of his mother.
Because of the previous murder convictions, Stanworth is again eligible for the death penalty. Jensen said her office would decide later whether that would be pursued.
Kent Scheidegger, chief lawyer for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative legal interest nonprofit, said the Stanworth case underscores the danger in offering the chance of parole to violent and serious criminals.
“The reality is that some of them are still dangerous and they are going to commit crimes again,” Scheidegger said. “It’s inevitable.”
At least one other of the other 106 inmates who had their death sentences converted to life with the possibility of parole were freed from prison and later committed a violent crime.
Robert Lee Massie was paroled in 1978, 13 years after being sentenced to death for robbing and killing a woman in her front yard. Massie was executed by lethal injection on March 27, 2001, for the 1979 robbery and shooting death of a liquor store owner.
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