By Linh Nguyen
The Fourth District Court of Appeal in California reconfirmed the requirements for “compassionate releases” after being brought aware of the statute’s violation in the case of the People vs. Torres.
In 1995, Tony Flores Torres was sentenced to 29 years for first-degree murder. In April 2019, 76-year-old Torres requested a compassionate release. In response to his request, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s California Medical Facility determined that Torres had less than six months to live and that he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and he was eligible for a compassionate release under the statute. Upon delivering the recommendation, the court did not deny that Torres only had six months to live and that he would not be a threat to the public if he were to be released. Still, the court denied this motion because the defendant did not show remorse.
The conditions for a compassionate release are underlined in section 1170, subsection (e) of the Penal Code: “(A) The prisoner is terminally ill with an incurable condition caused by an illness or disease that would produce death within six months, as determined by a physician employed by the department” and “(B) The conditions under which the prisoner would be released or receive treatment do not pose a threat to public safety.”
If the trial court finds that the conditions for a compassionate release are met, then the trial court “shall have the discretion to resentence or recall.”
The appellate court believes that the trial court in which Torres was heard interpreted this statute in the Penal Code to mean that even if a defendant satisfies the statute’s requirements, the court may deny the defendant’s request for a compassionate release on other grounds. In Torres’s case, the appellate court believed that the trial court “abused its discretion by denying him a compassionate release on the ground that he did not deserve to be released due to his violent past and lack of remorse.”
In reviewing Torres’s motion, the trial court said the defendant was “not a nice person”, “a brutal person” and “as far as expressing serious remorse… he came late to this party.”
The prosecution does not disagree that the defendant satisfied section 1170, subdivision (e). However, they argued that Torres’s release “would not sufficiently punish [the defendant] or protect [his victim’s family’s] constitutional right to have appellant sufficiently punished for his murder.”
Therefore, the appellate court decided that the issue at dispute is whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a compassionate release even though they found he satisfied the statute.
There is an exception to section 1170, subdivision (e). Section 1170, subdivision (e) excludes incarcerated persons serving a death sentence or life without possibility of parole and those convicted of first-degree murder of a peace officer from receiving a compassionate release.
The appellate court found that by excluding those incarcerees from being entitled to a compassionate release, it implies that all other incarcerees are entitled to one, given they satisfy the statute.
“Whether an inmate is remorseful or whether the court believes the inmate deserves to remain incarcerated for reasons unrelated to public safety are not among those criteria,” the appellate court’s opinion wrote.
The appellate court concluded that the trial court denied the defendant’s request for “improper reasons” and that it abused its discretion, calling the trial court’s error “prejudicial.” The appellate court reverses the trial court’s decision.
Section 1170, subdivision (e)’s purpose is to save the state money. Those who advocated for the law estimated that it would save the state millions of dollars in funds that would be used for end-of-life healthcare for inmates.
The sole dissenter on the panel, Justice Frank J. Menetrez, believed that the appellate court’s interpretation and application of the law is not reasonable. The first reason is that the law only provides criteria for eligibility for compassionate release, and the trial court is still entitled to the discretion to deny compassionate release based on other “unidentified criteria.”
Menetrez’s second reason is that the law does not distinguish between recalling a sentence and resentencing, meaning that the court is limited to choosing between resentence and recall rather than granting and denying relief.
“I do not believe that it is a reasonable interpretation,” Menetrez said, “because it makes no sense to treat the distinction between recall and resentencing as having no importance but at the same time to expressly confer discretion to choose between them and nothing else.”
Menetrez’s last reason is that he believes the trial court correctly interpreted the statute and did not abuse its discretion.
A resentencing is scheduled for June 1, 2020, at the Riverside County Superior Court.
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