Monday Morning Thoughts: Tulare DA Pushes Back against Governor Commutation

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Tulare DA Tim Ward is the Secretary-Treasurer of the conservative California District Attorneys Association.  A little over a week ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced he was granting 5 pardons and 21 commutations.

One of those is convicted murderer Richard Flowers.  In 1994, Flowers robbed, beat, and murdered a 78-year-old Tulare woman, Mary Eloise Garcia.

In a press release, the DA noted, “What little Ms. Garcia had, Flowers took and used it to purchase cocaine. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”

The Tulare County DA’s office opposed his clemency requests in 2018 and 2019.

“Like Governor Newsom’s death penalty moratorium, we were informed of Mr. Flowers’ clemency through the news media. This is a deplorable action without any justification,” said District Attorney Tim Ward in the release.

He added, “As I have said before, actions such as this are a travesty to victims, their families, and the men and women of this office who strive for justice every day. Once again, this action shows there is a lack of truth in sentencing in California, as a jury recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Our legal system has shown more compassion to Mr. Flowers than he ever did for his victim.”

The granting of clemency now makes Mr. Flowers eligible for parole and release.

While the crime committed was a bad one, there are several factors here that the governor likely considered when deciding Mr. Flowers was worthy of commutation, over the objections of the DA’s office.

First, the crime occurred 26 years ago and Mr. Flowers was convicted in November 1996—nearly 24 years ago.  That means he has been incarcerated for 25 years.

Second, he is now 64 years of age, which greatly reduces his chances of recidivating.

Third, the governor’s press release notes: “Mr. Flowers’s commutation application was reviewed by the Board of Parole Hearings, which voted at an en banc meeting to recommend a clemency grant.”

Furthermore, “The California Supreme Court also made a recommendation for a clemency grant, a process required by the California Constitution for cases in which the applicant has been convicted of more than one felony.”

Fifth, he will have to go back to a parole board to determine whether he is actually released.

That means they likely performed a risk assessment and both the parole board and the California Supreme Court both believed he represented a good risk.

Up until now, he had no hope for release—ever.

The governor in his commutation notes: “While serving a sentence that allowed no hope of release from prison, Mr. Flowers has committed to his rehabilitation. He has maintained a good disciplinary record and has resided on the Progressive Programming Facility, an honor yard.”

Mr. Flowers participated “in self-help programming and maintained consistent employment throughout his incarceration, routinely receiving exceptional work ratings from his supervisors.”

The governor notes that a correctional counselor commended Mr. Flowers for his positive attitude: “[Mr. Flowers’s] behavior is indicative of a positive orientation and should be considered when evaluating his eligibility for participation in future programming opportunities.”

And a correctional officer praised Mr. Flowers for his “positive attitude and work ethic.”

Mr. Flowers was sentenced in 1996 to die in prison—at a time when we did not know what we know now about recidivism rates and declining criminology.  There was a good portion of time when the correctional system did not take into account the notion of rehabilitation or redemption, the belief that people can and do change.

Increasingly, I oppose the sentence of life without parole—as being sentenced to die in prison with little hope for redemption.  I do so for many reasons.  For one thing I believe that, without hope, humanity is stifled.  It is actually remarkable what Mr. Flowers was able to accomplish in prison without any hope of being released.

Second, I believe that we have sentenced a huge number of people to prison well past the point at which they are dangerous to society.  That means that, while the average cost of incarceration is $80,000 per year, we are paying more to incarcerate prisoners than we are to educate K-12 students, and more than we are even paying to educate higher education students at elite institutions.  And the cost will go up as the prisoners require more health care resources during a point in time when they are unlikely to be a threat to society.

Third, I believe that it is a mistake to make decisions today when you can make decisions 10, 20, 30 or more years in the future.  Let future governors and parole boards decide if a person is dangerous enough to warrant denial of parole rather than a jury and judge in 1996.

That jury and judge in 1996 could see the present, but not the future.

Mr. Ward is wrong here when he argues that “a jury recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”  That’s true—the jury did not have the vantage point that we do now, 25 years of advances in understanding criminology combined with a 25-year solid record by Mr. Flowers.

Finally, he argued, “Our legal system has shown more compassion to Mr. Flowers than he ever did for his victim.”

That is a good thing.  Mr. Flowers made a horrible mistake 25 years ago and paid for it dearly and should never forget the horrible deed that he did.  But that doesn’t mean he is without redemption.

As Bryan Stephenson writes: “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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