By Lisa Rea
I first met Dennis Jones by letter around 1993 through an introduction by Peter B. Collins, a veteran San Francisco radio talk show host and broadcaster. I met Peter as a guest on his radio talk show speaking about restorative justice. We became friends because of our mutual commitment to criminal justice reform. I was then working in Sacramento as State Director for Justice Fellowship, an affiliate of Prison Fellowship Ministries, advocating for systemic justice reform based on restorative justice principles. Peter mentioned that there was someone I might want to meet. His name was Dennis Jones and he had founded an organization called the Freedom Foundation which worked to free those wrongfully convicted. Peter said, “There’s just one thing you should know. He’s in San Quentin.” Dennis was a lifer—an inmate serving a life sentence.
Over the months I developed a working relationship with Dennis and a friendship which led to my visiting him often in prison. At one point we talked of my doing consulting work for the foundation which never occurred. However, what I did not know was how much I would learn from knowing Dennis and visiting him in prison. That knowledge had a measurable effect on my work in the field of restorative justice, a field I first entered in 1992 and still work in today. I learned first- hand through Dennis how parole decisions were made in California.
In 1976 in Orange County, California Dennis was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. He received a 7-years-to-life sentence, an indeterminate sentence, in a drug deal that went terribly wrong resulting in the death of two victims. There were twelve crime partners. Dennis drove a car. He did not pull the trigger and was not directly responsible for the deaths of the victims. The conservative Orange County trial judge, Judge Robert Kneeland, handed down that sentence stressing Dennis should serve the minimum of 7 years. Kneeland was explicit that this did not apply to the other crime partners particularly Thomas Hester, one triggerman, and Ronald D’Orio, the mastermind. However, D’Orio, was released in 1990 and Bill Tibbitts, another triggerman, was released in 1982. Yet Dennis remained in prison. By the time of Dennis was released it was 1999 he would serve 23 years.
Dennis made it clear that he never wanted the Freedom Foundation to use its resources on his own case. He did not consider himself to be innocent. Instead, he took full responsibility for his part in the crime and expressed remorse for it. But given the years spent in prison with repeated parole denials it became obvious to Dennis, and his friends, he might never get out. That is when a very intensive campaign effort was launched to free him. The team was comprised of individuals on both the right and the left politically. I was a part of that team. Dennis had the best lawyers on board, including San Francisco veteran trial attorney Patrick Hallinan and investigator Ken Wine. But beyond the lawyers we had the best political connections possible.
What was astounding was that this 3-year intensive effort was needed to free one lifer from prison even an inmate with an impeccable prison record. Dennis had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree inside San Quentin, the first in 135 years, had raised money for multiple charitable organizations, and had founded the Freedom Foundation. In addition, Dennis received critical support for the foundation’s work from Jim Rowland, former director of the Department of Corrections under Republican Governor George Deukmejian. Rowland was so supportive of Dennis’ efforts that he allowed him to have both an office and a telephone inside San Quentin. I had met Jim Rowland when I first became director of Justice Fellowship. Jim was an early mentor to me as I learned about California’s criminal justice and correctional system. Jim was a strong advocate for restorative justice with a keen understanding of the value of restorative justice to crime victims. I had no idea that later our paths would cross again because of Dennis.
In time I was asked to review Dennis’ case. I was unaccustomed to reviewing a criminal case of this complexity. My expertise was in the public policy arena serving as a former staff person in the California Legislature to three members and as a lobbyist for many organizations. But Dennis’ case compelled me to take a longer look. The case file was huge. I learned about the number of times Dennis was rejected by the Board of Prison Terms (BPT) as suitable for parole. Why Dennis was not deemed suitable for parole was not clear. But the reality was that very few California lifers in the 1990s were getting released on parole. Many of the denials for parole I reviewed seemed arbitrary. Under Republican Governor Pete Wilson only a few dozen paroles were granted annually during his time in office. After studying Dennis’ case it seemed if he could not get paroled no one could.
By 1998 our campaign to free Dennis was in high gear. Dennis received an affirmative parole decision from the BPT. However, that decision, as always, had to be approved by the governor. Often parole decisions were approved by the board but then denied the governor. At that hour, Governor Pete Wilson was leaving office while Democrat Gray Davis, former chief of staff to Governor Jerry Brown, would take his place. Dennis’ parole decision was in the hands of Governor Wilson. In the 1990s in California, and nationally, tough on crime rhetoric drove criminal justice public policies. In 1994 not only was there a tough on crime federal crime bill, supported by many members of Congress, but in California we had three strikes. In addition to a three strikes ballot initiative, Proposition 184, there were multiple three strikes bills authored by eager state legislators from both parties.
In 1994, Proposition 184 passed creating a sentencing model which increased prison sentences for repeat offenders if a third offense was committed—either a violent or a serious felony. That third strike would mean an automatic life sentence with a minimum of 25 years. Included in the strikes were serious or violent offenses committed by juveniles who were 16 years or older. The three strikes law gave judges little or no discretion to make decisions on a case- by- case basis. In 1994, Justice Fellowship chose to oppose three strikes in any form. Our legislative position opposing three strikes was supported 100% by Prison Fellowship founder and president, Charles W. Colson, formerly Chief Counsel to President Richard Nixon who himself served time for Watergate crimes.
Critical to the campaign for Dennis’ parole in 1998 was the continuing support of the conservative Orange County sentencing judge Robert Kneeland who again reiterated his earlier position at the time of sentencing. Kneeland said, “You can say that I think it is ridiculous that he’s still in prison after 22 years.” In addition, the prosecuting attorney at Dennis’ trial, Robert Chatterton, went on the record declaring that Dennis Jones was never the mastermind of the operation, and that his three co-defendants were much more culpable. Chatterton stressed the direct involvement of the two triggermen and urged the BPT to release Jones from prison. These were gold moments in our effort.
Those who agreed to help win Dennis’ release were people with many connections. Some were people with political connections, and some had influence in other walks of life including musicians. Those who worked for Dennis’ freedom saw that something was wrong with our justice system. The number of contacts made on Dennis’ behalf cannot be counted. It was a massive effort. Each person involved had firm convictions about right and wrong with unquestionable integrity. Those who played a significant part in the campaign included Jim Rowland, Dennis McQuaid, State Senator Richard Polanco, and his committee consultant Gwynnae Byrd, Peter B. Collins, and Nancy Ballard. Even musicians Dennis knew agreed to lend support to his campaign including B.B. King, Carlos Santana, and Barry Melton. Attorneys and investigators were hired to represent Dennis and re-investigate the crime. But most of us were unpaid. We were committed to this cause 100%. We were committed to Dennis.
When Dennis was released on January 7, 1999, I was there. That was a miracle in itself. I was not planning to be there. No one knew when Dennis would be released or if he would be released at all. We were still waiting to hear. On January 7th, I decided to visit Dennis. We were in limbo waiting on the governor to act or not to act. Before I got into my car to drive the long drive to San Quentin, I decided to make a call to the BPT to check on the status of Dennis’ case. That call was to the executive officer of the board. I had access to this contact because of a high- level lunch meeting in Sacramento with Jim Rowland and Jim Nielsen, the chair of the BPT, and a former California state senator. The officer said that he did not know the status of Dennis’ case but would check. I thought nothing of it. All we knew was that Gray Davis would soon be the next governor of California. As a former legislative staff member working for three Democrats my contacts seemed to be increasingly important due to the change of governors and the fact that Davis was a Democrat. My inquiry on January 7th on Dennis’ behalf appeared to have more weight than I knew at the time.
When I arrived at the prison I was processed in as a visitor as usual. I sat and waited for Dennis to be brought out into the busy prison visiting room. A correctional officer suddenly made an announcement on the prison intercom asking that the visitor who was there to see Dennis Jones come to the rear. I looked around and wondered is that me or is there someone else here to see Dennis? I went to the rear of the visiting room and inquired. The officer told me, “You can’t see Dennis Jones today.” I am sure my face dropped because this had happened before. Then the officer continued, “You can’t see him today because he’s packing!” I jumped up and danced in that crowded visiting room saying out loud, “Hallelujah!” I hurriedly left the prison returning to the visitor’s parking lot and called Peter B. to tell him the incredible news.
That day we sat outside the prison gate in Peter’s car anxiously waiting for Dennis to come out and not knowing when that would be. It seemed like a long time. Suddenly a white van appeared near the closed prison gate and the gate opened. Dennis put a hat on his head and with a big smile stepped down a few steps out of the van. We were jubilant! That afternoon a lunch was hastily arranged at a nearby expensive restaurant where friends drove to greet Dennis and to celebrate his release. Dennis had salmon and a toast as a free man. Almost nothing has brought me as much joy as that day and seeing Dennis released after 23 years.
Dennis died on November 2, 2021, at the age of 78. He had been out 20 years crime free, happily married and living in Las Vegas, Nevada, with his family. He always wanted to see more innocent men and women freed through the Freedom Foundation and remained committed to that mission. He was a friend to me and to so many others for life. He was a man of integrity, and a man of his word. He cared deeply about the justice system and supported those of us who were working for justice reform. Dennis came to faith in prison and I was blessed to be a part of Dennis’ faith walk while he was inside prison and then once freed. I always told Dennis that his freedom was an act of God. Yet God worked through so many of us to win his freedom.
Dennis’ story, and his life, reminds me that if a 3-year intensive effort with people in high places is what it takes to win a parole date for a lifer like Dennis Jones then something is seriously wrong with our justice system. Most who seek parole will never have the benefit of waging the kind of high- profile campaign we conducted on his behalf. What I learned from Dennis is that so much of criminal justice system is broken. Those of us who are deeply committed to systemic justice reform must look at the system in its totality. We must transform how we do justice. We cannot ignore the need for parole reform as we seek better ways of responding to crime and those injured by it. There is a better way.
Lisa Rea is President & Founder of Restorative Justice International